Brooks Jackson and Justin Bank of FactCheck take Russ Feingold to task for his ad suggesting Karl Rove wants to make George Bush king, and for the more specific suggestion that Rove wants to eavesdrop on anybody "who has the nerve to disagree with [him] -- court order or not."
(See "Is this a joke?" at http://www.factcheck.org/
FactCheck calls the suggestion unfounded. Dictionary.com defines "unfounded" as "groundless", but also as "not yet established". I like the expectant implications of "not yet", but with a span of meaning that broad, "unfounded" is a deceptively vague word. It can mean anything from tinfoil hat hallucinations to very shrewd guesses, or even accusations for which you have proof but you're waiting for the opportune time to present the proof. Maybe Russ Feingold has already found a bug in his office, and he's trying to goad Bush into a refutable lie. Anyway, FactCheck doesn't seem to be hiding behind multiple meanings of "unfounded". They also say
A Feingold spokesman says the ad is a parody. Funny or not, it makes an accusation for which there's no evidence.
I think this ignores a role that political parody has always played, a role I consider legitimate. Presenting an accusation as parody implies that it isn't proven while suggesting it's likely or at least plausible. It's similar to Joe Wilson saying, "This has Karl Rove's fingerprints all over it," which might have served better than what he actually said. Without claiming to have proof in hand, it's a suggestion to the public that it might be so, and a challenge to Rove to deny it. Political parody can prove that an allegation is believable enough that it has a place in the political debate. It sometimes throws light on the shocking expansion of what has become plausible.
In fact, when political parody most convincingly shows that a jarring idea does indeed belong in the political debate, it often falls flat as humor. The example I'm thinking of, an absolute classic of biting political satire, is the article, "The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book" by Paul Krassner. Very briefly, the original article included a story about Lyndon Johnson that was remarkable scurrilous, by the standards of 1967 or 2006, but which should have been transparently false. Krassner illustrates the point of publishing it in a follow up article, writing:
Indeed, one of LBJ's favorite jokes is about a popular Texas sheriff running for re-election. His opponents have been trying unsuccessfully to think of a good campaign issue to use against him. Finally one man suggests spreading "a rumor that he fucks pigs." Another protests, "You know he doesn't do that." "I know," says the first man, "but let's make the sonofabitch deny it." [From The Realist, issue #75, dated June 1967.]
Krassners article was the best political parody I've ever seen, by far; and it proved the point to me by my initial reaction, which wasn't, "Oh, Krassner is making filthy fun of Lyndon Johnson," but, "No, that can't be, because Johnson wasn't even on the same plane back to Washington." My reaction was that it needed to be denied, which proved overwhelmingly that I must have considered the story plausible. I'm not sure I completely caught on until I read the follow-up article in issue 75. It's been said a sign of great satire is that it gets taken seriously.
I can't find a link to any archive of the article, and anyway it's not for the faint of heart or stomach. With that caveat, I urge everyone to find it (in the magazine The Realist, issue #74, dated May, 1967) and also read the follow up story in issue 75.
I think we're a whole lot more likely to find proof that the Bush administration eavesdropped on political opponents than we are to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I'm going to try to make a bet on it with FactCheck. Since when did parody have to stick to facts?
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