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O'Rourke Discusses Virtues, Limits Of Humor At RFE/RL

O'Rourke at RFE/RL broadcast headquarters in Prague
O'Rourke at RFE/RL broadcast headquarters in Prague
Humorist and American political commentator P.J. O'Rourke understands the power a few laughs can have in breaking divisions between people and subverting entrenched authority.

"Humor humanize people. Humanizing people is an extremely valuable thing to do," the acclaimed author told a recent gathering of RFE/RL's Prague staff. "Humor can rob tyrants of their dignity, and dignity in the form of self-importance is one of their most important tools."

"I know for a fact that in Iran, there are people telling jokes that make the Revolutionary Guard and all their pals look very foolish. That's a very small part of undercutting autocracy and oppression. It just happens to be the only part that I know how to do," he told an audience of RFE/RL editors and journalists.
The information that you communicate is the essence, the soul, of the attitude of liberty -- the feeling of being free.

His message was of special relevance for journalists at RFE/RL's Iranian broadcast service, Radio Farda, which recently introduced a biting satirical show (Pas Farda, or "The Day after Tomorrow") that mocks the Islamic Republic's ruling elites and pushes the limits of political talk in Iran. The host of the show, Farshid Manafi, previously produced a similar program on Iranian radio that was shut down by government authorities four years ago. Today, he broadcasts his humorous take on the foibles of officials in Tehran with relative impunity.

While satire is capable of delivering this sort of social commentary, O'Rourke was quick to stress that humor more generally is a vital means of creating empathy among people. Discussing his own experience as a foreign correspondent in Beirut, he said that he often used jokes to soften and humanize his subject matter. "One of the things I was doing, whether I meant to do it or not," O'Rourke said, "was showing that these people are humans just like us. And that we should not regard them as aliens...The moment that you turn them into human beings, even if you're just kidding them, you've made a mental step that's very important to any cosmopolitanism."

For all his skill with satire, O'Rourke emphasized that playing for laughs can be a limited tool, especially in underdeveloped parts of the world. "When you're dealing with fundamental ignorance of the world, you have to start small. You have to start convincing people that the world is comprehensible, that they can trust their own senses," O'Rourke said. "Humor isn't the first thing I'd pull out of the toolbox. The first thing is to let people know that they can trust their senses, that they can trust their reason, that they can think things through on their own."

O'Rourke also brought some words of praise for Radio Free Europe. "What you do is more simple and complex than promoting democracy. You are communicating. You are giving information to the world; to some of the least free places in the world. The information that you communicate is the essence, the soul, of the attitude of liberty -- the feeling of being free. Now, people must feel free of political and economical pressure, of course; but first, they must feel free of ignorance."

Be sure to watch and read O'Rourke's interview with RFE's Luke Allnutt.

-- Charles Dameron