Reevaluate comedy bit’s flawed depiction of African rulers
Donald Trump could very well be America’s next president. Or “America’s First African President.” At least, that is what Trevor Noah, the host who has taken the seat of our beloved Jon Stewart, has to say. In an Oct. 1 bit, the 31 year old South African host revealed how he became truly at home when Donald Trump entered the political arena his summer. While those in the mainstream media pellet Trump with criticism, citing an inability to stand among his peers on the stage, Noah takes a different approach, mocking “that stage is unfit for Trump. There’s no marble, there’s no gold. Where are the women in bikinis? And how would he even get there? There’s no escalator.”
Mocking the image of the typical African political leader does not require one to be an intellectual giant, and Trump does not make it so challenging either. In his sketch, Noah points out the stark similarities in the words expelled from the mouths of these African leaders and Trump himself. Beginning with one of Trump’s egregious statements regarding immigration, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” Noah is quick to jump to conclusions, comparing Trump’s statements to those of South African President Jacob Zuma who, in reference to immigrants, expressed, “It is also true that not all foreign nationals are involved in criminal activities. There are some who are, but not all of them.” This becomes a common theme in the sketch’s banter, pitting Trump’s statements head-to-head with those of the African leader.
While I am the first to poke fun at your average, friendly despot, the way this goes about it misses the mark in a big way. Yes, in this case both leaders are assuming that bringing in foreign nationals to their countries will incite increased criminal activities. However, both leaders are likely attempting to appeal to the electorate, and in a matter of time pitting two people side-by-side like this will only lead to greater tunnel vision. Noah even admits this to himself on air, as he begins noticing the similarities everywhere.
With this reasoning, any time Trump praises himself, he is also set alongside the likes of former Ugandan President Idi Amin and current Zimbabwaen President Robert Mugabe. When Trump says, “People love me. Everybody loves me,” he is suddenly the perfect image for the “African” presidency. One can suppose these statements sound a bit similar to the words of Amin when he latter says, “The people like me very much. I am very popular. I am very powerful,” or when Mugabe states, “My people have great praise for me.” However, these arguments fall on deaf ears due to their simplicity, generalizing African leaders to a fault.
Leaders like Zuma, Amin and Mugabe, aren’t all fun and games. Chiding jokes can never fully explain the brutality of these leaders. Generalizing their actions to a few funny sound bytes is at the very least harmful to the people they represent. Unlike Trump, these leaders were not just all talk; they helped contribute to everything from small scale inequalities to widespread atrocities. Words are meaningless in the light of action.
On June 15, during an African Union Summit, Jacob Zuma allowed the only sitting head of state wanted for the crime of genocide by the International Criminal Court, Omar al-Bashir, to exit his country after the Pretoria court issued an order barring Bashir from exiting the country on June 14. Zuma’s statements regarding immigration really mean nothing compared to allowing an international fugitive to exit his country, possibly violating his own constitution in the process. As if it couldn’t get worse for international justice and legitimacy of the Court, Zuma’s party recently has decided to remove the state from the Court.
In Amin’s first year of presidency, he slaughtered 10,000 people with the help of the Ugandan Military Police, according to Human Rights Watch. A report by the New York City’s Bar Association on Human Rights estimated the number of victims to be between 100,000 and 500,000 during Amin’s reign of terror. The leader also exiled 70,000 of the country’s Ugandans of Asian origin in 1972. In his sketch, Noah makes only a small reference to the leader’s brutality.
During the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe, supporters of Morgan Tsvangirai’s party were victims of widespread violence at the hands of Mugabe. Rights groups like Human Rights Watch even cite the existence of “torture camps” for the opposition. Eventually, Mugabe was coerced into a power sharing deal with Tsvangirai.
These leaders shouldn’t be mocked merely for the misguided statements they make, and while I will never be a fan of Trump, I would hate to see him paired with the likes of these guys. This is not to suggest that comedy should manifest itsel in a unitary way, but rather political comedy should be used in a pointed manner. It should encourage us to have discussions and well, to laugh.
In a Nov. 2012 “Key & Peele” sketch titled “Killing an African Warlord,” when a base is being taken over by the opposition force, a commander hopes to do everything in his power to not be taken by opposition forces and is subsequently tortured. While the sketch is largely characterized by slapstick comedy, it has one redeeming quality. At the beginning, the commander makes one final request, “I want you, my most trusted soldier over the age of eight, to take my life,” commenting on the use of child soldiers in combat. UNICEF estimates that some 300,000 children are involved in 30 conflicts worldwide today. This provides a productive commentary on an issue while at the same time mocking the behavior of these warlords.
For an instant, it may seem charming to describe the platforms of Trump and the African ruler’s he’s been thrown into the bag with as “xenophobia with just a dash of diplomacy,” but soon the novelty fades away. When we begin discussing comedy, we need to understand where to draw the line on what is funny and what is not.