Popaganda: Laughing at Tyrants

Donald Trump hates it when you laugh at him. This episode features two conversations about using humor to share ideas and feelings with hostile people. First, we hear from Jex Blackmore of Detroit's Satanic Temple, which hosts spectacular protests rooted to point out the hypocrisy of mixing church and state. Then, Aparna Nancherla joins us to talk about using comedy to make sense of what feels like Trump-induced end times. 
 
Listen in! 
 
FULL SHOW

AFTER-SCHOOL SATAN CLUB

INTERVIEW WITH APARNA NANCHERLA


SPONSOR

This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by the book Dead Feminists.  Although some have claimed that feminism lost in 2016, the historic heroines of Dead Feminists are proof that sometimes the long arc of history is marked by brief losses before there can be meteoric progress. With a foreword by Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, this illuminating look at 27 women who’ve changed the world is based on the beloved Dead Feminists letterpress poster series and features broadside art alongside feminist history to help illustrate a better future by tying together past challenges with today’s issues.

Published by Sasquatch Books in Seattle, Dead Feminists is available wherever books are sold.


SHOUT-OUTS 

• The music on this episode is by Cold Beat, an awesome San Francisco quartet fronted by Hannah Lew. 

• Thanks to Forest Grove High School student Yareli Torres Rincon for sharing her story on this episode.
 
• Want more concrete ways to resist Donald Trump? Here's a list of ten ideas for anti-Trump activism. 

• Read more about the Satanic Temple's feminist activism in the Chaos issue of Bitch

• Check out Aparna Nancherla's new album Just Putting it Out There
 

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Download an MP3 of this podcast on Soundcloud or just browse our podcast archives here on Bitch Media
 
This podcast was transcribed by Cheryl Green of StoryMinders. We're proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard of hearing

 

FULL SHOW:

This episode of Popaganda is sponsored by the book Dead Feminists.  Although some have claimed that feminism lost in 2016, the historic heroines of Dead Feminists are proof that sometimes the long arc of history is marked by brief losses before there can be meteoric progress. With a foreword by Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, this illuminating look at 27 women who’ve changed the world is based on the beloved Dead Feminists letterpress poster series and features broadside art alongside feminist history to help illustrate a better future by tying together past challenges with today’s issues.

Published by Sasquatch Books in Seattle, Dead Feminists is available wherever books are sold.

SARAH MIRK: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I'm Sarah Mirk.

[theme music]

[recorded newscast]

NEWSCASTER 1: And the breaking news in the race for President, the Associated Press within the last few minutes calling Florida for Donald Trump. Good evening, everyone....

SARAH: On election night, Yareli Torres was texting with a friend and watching the results come in.

[recorded newscast]

NEWSCASTER 2: We're getting some breaking news coming in right now about Florida. And here are the very latest numbers....

SARAH: When the states started falling for trump, she burst into tears. 

YARELI: I was like, I'm done for. I should just go to bed and die because for me, that moment was like there was really nothing after that.

SARAH: She didn’t go to bed and die. She had to wake up and go to school the next day. Yareli Torres is 16. So she's a sophomore in high school. I called her up because I wanted to know what it’s like being in high school right now, after the election. Yareli is bisexual, and she’s Latina. And the Trump administration is stacked with people who are virulently racist and homophobic. I was wondering, how is this filtering down to high schools? What does it feel like in her classes? 

YARELI: Yeah, at our school particularly, it's a very tense and intense feel, especially with we have a very diverse body of students. But at the same time, there's some students who are very for Trump that are causing a lot of trouble.

SARAH: In the days right after the election, Yareli, who’s the vice-president of her campus speech team, said she felt like she couldn’t speak up at school about anything political. 

YARELI: Right after Trump was elected, there was a lot of fights. It was a very hostile environment. So you mention anything about being against Trump, and there was somebody immediately either verbally attacking you or literally assaulting you. So it was a very black and white kinda situation. It was like either you're for it, and you're gonna say something about it, or you're not for it, and you're not gonna say anything about it because the people that are saying that's good are gonna hurt you. I wanna say it ties you down.

SARAH: Yareli attends Forest Grove High School in Oregon. Last year, students at Forest Grove staged a huge walkout after a student hung up a banner on campus that read, “Build a wall.” The student who hung up the banner apologized. But now, the presidential candidate who campaigned on the racist platform of building a wall was voted into office. I asked Yareli how the hostility she mentioned manifests on campus now. 

YARELI: For example, I was standing in the line the other day to get my lunch, and someone that is white was like, "Move over, bean. I'm trying to get out." So it was really offensive. But being the person that I am, I don't get aggressive, but I do get hurt. I have feelings.

SARAH: Yareli makes it clear what we’re up against. I wanted to talk to her to know the high stakes of politics, the human lives affected by Trump coming to power. It’s important right now to keep in mind the teenagers like her. She’s the future. She wasn’t able to vote in this election, but Donald Trump’s politics affect her life in a big way. 

YARELI: I really wanna go to school, and I actually wanna make something better of myself than just having a job and then end up dying. I wanna live for something and actually change something. I want to be someone that people are like, "OK, she changed this and that." But it's sort of disappointing that it's like it's looked down upon to be Hispanic. So it puts me in a tough spot where I wanna make change, but because of my skin color and my race, I can't really make people listen.

[music]

SARAH: How do you get people to listen to you? Especially people who are the opposite side of the political divide. I wish that I could tell Yareli that it gets easier to talk to people you don’t agree with once you’re out of high school, but...I don’t know if that’s true. It's not in my experience.

On today’s episode, as Donald Trump is inaugurated as our president--a sentence that’s hard to even say out loud--we have two stories about people trying to share their ideas with a sometimes-hostile audience. Both use humor as a way to get people to listen. But only one involves appealing to Satan. 

Stay tuned. 

[rock music]

On a hot day in August last year, a small group of people dressed in priests' costumes gathered outside a Planned Parenthood in Detroit. 

[recorded video]

GROUP [led by Priest]: Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Amen. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. 

[group completes prayers while women gasp, pant, and cough; cars drive past]

SARAH: As an increasingly confused group of right-wing protesters looked on, two women kneeled on the ground while the costumed priests poured gallons of milk over their heads. Behind them, people held an American flag emblazoned with a devil and a sign reading, “America is not a theocracy. End forced motherhood.” The horrified people picketing the Planned Parenthood turned to prayer as the women, drenched in milk, began retching on the sidewalk.

[car honks as it passes]

What the hell was going on here? 

JEX: There was a continued attempt to promote the idea that women should be forced to carry a pregnancy to term even if it is against their own will.

SARAH: That is Jex Blackmore, head of the Detroit chapter of the Satanic Temple. Yes, the people staging the counter-protest outside the Planned Parenthood were, indeed, Satanists. Satanists with a point to prove.

This was right in the middle of the whole series of protests against Planned Parenthood for the completely fabricated crime of “selling baby parts.” Remember that dark time? Anyway, since that idea was completely made up and not based on fact, the Satanic Temple members wanted their counter-protest against forced motherhood to be equally based in ludicrous spectacle, not reality.

JEX: So we didn't wanna go to these protests and hold signs that used any types of fact-based reality because it didn't seem to matter anyways. We didn't want to go there and try to have a debate because that seems to be very fruitless. But what we wanted to do was go there and meet them at the level of absurdity that they also display.

SARAH: When the costumed priests started pouring gallons of milk over the heads of women kneeling in the middle of the protest, the anti-Planned Parenthood protesters were pretty freaked out.

JEX: But generally, people didn't know what to think and were disturbed by what they saw.

SARAH: All according to plan. [music] This is what the Satanic Temple exists to do:  To point out hypocrisy in a country that’s supposed to separate church and state, to be a thorn in the side of right-wing activists, and to generally poke fun at Bible thumpers.

Two men, who go by the pseudonyms Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, founded the Satanic Temple in 2012. It’s not affiliated with the Satanic religious movement founded by Anton LaVey. It’s more of a satirical political action group. The idea for the modern Satanic Temple stemmed from George W. Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative campaign, which gives grants to religious group to administer social services. According to an interview in The New York Times, Malcolm Jarry thought it would be interesting to start faith-based organizations that met all the Bush administration criteria for receiving money but were completely repugnant to the Bushes themselves. The Satanic Temple’s first action was in 2012, when Florida Governor Rick Scott was pushing for group prayer to be allowed at school events. The two created a mock rally supporting Rick Scott’s plan, saying that they were so excited that their Satanic children could pray to Satan in schools. The pair stood at the Florida state Capitol behind Rick Scott as he gave a speech, holding a banner proclaiming, “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!”

Jex Blackmore identifies with the image of Satan as a prankster and with the history of religious leaders declaring people to be “Satanists” if they challenged society. 

JEX: Well, the satanic figure historically, in literary texts at least, has always been a figure that challenges arbitrary authority, who represents a quest for knowledge or enlightenment. And people who have been defined as satanic in history have been independent or radical women, women with financial independence, scientists, philosophers, people who fit outside the norm.

SARAH: One of the Satanic Temple’s most well-known actions was creating a sculpture of the occult figure Baphomet, whose body takes the form of a human-goat crossbreed with wings, to be installed at the Oklahoma State Capitol. Oklahoma state representatives had installed a statue of the Ten Commandments outside the Capitol building, and the Satanic Temple wanted a rival sculpture. 

These days, they’ve started up a new project:  After School Satan Clubs, to be organized at schools where evangelical groups have won the right to host their schools' Bible study groups called Good News Clubs. When the Satanists hosted their first-ever open house at an elementary school in November, it was a media spectacle, complete with prayer and bagpipes.

[recorded video]

NEWSCASTER: Today's protest was happening because that after-school Satan club was holding an open house for parents, explaining why they are even at the school to begin with.

[bagpipes, singing]

Both through song and through prayer.

SATANIC TEMPLE PRIEST: Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.

NEWSCASTER: Protestors voice their opposition to the newest after-school club at Sacramento Elementary.

PROTESTOR: Keep Satan out of our schools, if we can, you know. It'd be nice.

PRIEST: ...thy Kingdom come....

JEX: And we really wanted to make sure that students have an opportunity to understand that there is a diversity in beliefs about morality and that they have the option to choose what they believe, rather than having to kind of be forced to comply with a singular organization's viewpoint of morality or religion.

SARAH: With their knack for spectacle and sensationalism, the Satanic Temple seems like possibly a perfect group to take on activism in this tragic, post-fact world. 

JEX: Using sensational actions that are somewhat controversial does provide an opportunity to have a platform for conversation or for you to get your point across where that platform may not have been there before.

SARAH: But it also seems rather cynical. What about, "Standing on facts," I asked Jex? What about, “When they go low, we go high?”

JEX: Well, I think that we can do both. I don't think it's really one or the other. I'm certainly not proposing that you do actions that have an emotional appeal that aren't fact-based. The fact that women suffer a great deal from some of the anti-choice legislation isn't a lie. The fact that people who identify as trans are deeply emotionally upset or are inconvenienced and distressed by social perceptions of them or where they can use the restroom is not a lie. There's a lot of things that we can communicate and talk about that aren't just, "Here's some statistics." But how can we use that fact, and how can we re-visualize what that looks like so that people actually understand what that means on an emotional level? And I think that we can't discount the power of that kind of activism.

SARAH: Simply hitting people over the head with facts often doesn’t work. Instead, the Satanic Temple is trying to get people to think about contradictions and hypocrisies by telling stories in the most over-the-top way possible. It seems like, in the future, the need for in-your-face activism isn’t going anywhere. So keep your eyes peeled for an after-school Satan club coming to your neighborhood.  

[music]

In our polarized society, it feels like nobody listens to each other. We live in little silos, reinforced by social media algorithms that feed us news--and fake news--that confirm our preexisting ideas. You live in your bubble; I live in mine. But Aparna Nancherla wields a powerful tool that can break people out of their bubbles:  Comedy. 

APARNA: I think right now I'm sort of existing in a space where I'm like, how can we move past the just two different camps who refuse to understand each other at all, and it's like both feel completely justified in their way being right and the other side being completely misinformed and misguided? It just feels like we can't sustain this dichotomy for that much longer.

SARAH: Aparna is a comedian. She’s written for the TV shows Late Night with Seth Meyers and W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased. This summer, she released her first comedy album, which is called Just Putting It Out There. I dropped Aparna a line because I wanted to know how someone who has spent her life finding humor in terrible, grim realities is grappling with the election. Personally, I have been having trouble finding any response besides anxiety, terror, and despair.

APARNA: I don't know. Sometimes people think of making a joke about something as making light of it, but I think sometimes with comedians, making jokes about things are just like our way of breaking down and understanding things and finding the absurdity in them beyond the existing absurdity, which is challenging with this election. And I think that makes it more compelling a thing to try to unwrap.

SARAH: Since November 8th, every day brings new headlines that feel like they're straight out of a sci-fi movie. You know, the kind of sci-fi movie where Russian hackers help get a reality TV star elected to the American presidency. Aparna says it’s actually really tricky to try and approach Trump’s presidency as a comedian. 

APARNA: Yeah, Trump to me feels challenging as a comedian because one, he's been covered in so many ways forever. He's been in the public eye forever already and sort of as a hated figure in some terms. Just even him trying to get President Obama's birth certificate and all the things that he's done before he even officially was running for office. So I think he's just well-trodden territory. So in that sense, it's just finding something original or unique to say about him. But I do feel like the more, as we go forward with him as President-elect or whatever or him with his transition team, it does feel like more and more absurd things keep coming to light. And it does feel like, well, how many jokes can we make about this before it's just the end of the world [chuckles]? Like before something changes? As much as comedians can speak truth to power, we're not necessarily the ones who can initiate the change that needs to happen.

SARAH: Aparna was a pretty introverted as a kid growing up, but she started using humor as a way to process all the otherwise incomprehensible dark stuff of the world.

APARNA: Exactly. I think it is a coping mechanism but also just the way my brain works. I have to sort of turn things over or convert them into jokes to sort of handle them better.

SARAH: She was in college when 9/11 happened. After that tragedy, it felt like comedy really became essential, to address the fear at the heart of so many political and social dynamics.

APARNA: That in and of itself became a complete tonal shift in the country and in the world. So I think humor from there on out was sort of couched in this, "Oh, we're living in this new fear-based society." And so in a sense, all jokes were framed through that lens. I think that's what's tricky about political humor is finding a way to broach it that's not just pointing out why the other side is dumb or why their ideas are stupid. I think that is the fine line you have to walk sometimes if you're gonna do social justice commentary or political commentary, is you don't wanna complete alienate the other side because then it's like what's the point? We have to work with them in some sense no matter what. So just making them hate us more isn't gonna necessarily come to a good end.

SARAH: Aparna tries to use comedy as somewhat of a bridge. She tries to get people thinking, even people who don’t agree with her politics. So she tries to find common ground in joking about everyday stuff that everyone can laugh at, then dropping in political humor and pointed commentary.

APARNA: Once you already have an audience on your side over sort of more general experience or general life stuff, you can weave in more political stuff in a way that maybe feels less threatening to someone who might not agree with you. I reserve most of my political humor for Twitter and stuff. And I do feel like it has been strange this election where it's like any time you criticize Trump or the right, you get some pretty angry people responding to you and some pretty hateful things that are either xenophobic or misogynistic or just ethnophobic. And I think it's strange in a way, 'cause I was like, well, I knew these people existed before, but it just seems like they feel so much more empowered now. I think I maybe lost Twitter followers over like if I tweet political stuff versus just more general, everyday jokes. But I'm like, but this is as important a part of the way I feel as any of my humor is.

SARAH: More than any other politician, Donald Trump seems to take comedians’ jabs to heart. His Twitter feed is full of petulant outbursts at people who have made fun of his hair and his tiny hands. 

APARNA: I feel torn between making jokes about him and then giving him more attention. 'Cause I feel like he is one of those people who, as much as he hates people saying bad things about him, he sort of revels in just having the light on him period. So I feel like he almost thrives off of positive and negative energy. So sometimes I'm like, I don't want him to hear my jokes because I don't want him to know that I'm using brain space to talk about him.

His whole campaign kind of thrived over the fact that some people were against him, and it's like he got all these people around him to rise up against them. I don't know. It's turning into sort of this Jets versus Sharks battle.

[from West Side Story, singing]

A-RAB, ACTION, BIG DEAL: When you're a Jet, 

You're the swingin'est thing: 

Little boy, you're a man; 

Little man, you're a king! 

ALL: The Jets are in gear, 

Our cylinders are clickin'! 

The Sharks'll steer clear 

'Cause ev'ry Puerto Rican's a lousy chicken! 

Here come the Jets....

SARAH: This election would actually make a good Broadway musical, except that it's so soul-crushing.

APARNA: Not at all. There's no dancing. It's all just talking in rhetoric, and it's exhausting.

I would not go see it. It would be like what Hamilton would've been if it had gone the complete other direction and failed. If it was just old white men not dancing and just talking for three hours.

SARAH: Aparna sees it as her job to make comedy that will reach out to people rather than feeding into that Sharks versus Jets dynamic.

APARNA: 'Cause as a comedian, you're supposed to point out things that people don't already know. And I think if you're just talking to other people who see the world the exact same way as you do, are we really doing our jobs?

[music]

SARAH: Humor is one of our most powerful weapons. Whether we’re building community through laughing or pointing out hypocrisy in a way that makes people stop and think, laughing at tyrants can help take away their power. As we enter an increasingly dystopian world, pointing out what’s absurd and what’s unacceptable is a way to resist the idea that this is all normal. For teenagers and other young people growing up today, we’ve got to make clear that it’s not OK for tyrannical, racist, sexist people to be in power. The day that we stop being able to see what’s ridiculous about Trump is the day we’re really in trouble.

[music]

[theme music]

Popaganda is produced by the team here at Bitch Media. Bitch is an independent, non-profit feminist media organization. We're entirely funded by our Beehive members, subscribers, and like-minded sponsors. So if you liked today's episode of Popaganda, please become a member online at BitchMedia.org today. Let us know you liked the show in your order comments.

The music on this episode was by Cold Beat, an awesome San Francisco quartet fronted by Hannah Lew. Our jingle is by Mucks and Owen Wuerker. Additional music was provided by Blue.Sessions. Look up their creative and minimalist sounds by going to Google and typing in Sessions.Blue. And the show is produced by Alex Ward at the studios of XRAY FM, an independent radio station in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for listening.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media's online editor. She's interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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