I miss hearing from those clowns in Italy: not the ones at the papal conclave, the ones in the election a few weeks ago. They were serious clowns.

Especially Beppe Grillo, the comic who heads the party that got the most votes. He wants a referendum to take Italy out of the euro because it’s like a shovel with which you keep digging the hole you’re in deeper. It may have sounded good in theory but in practice it’s been used by bondholders in the north to torture populations in the south. Lots of people think that but he says it.

Grillo says Italy’s next president should be actor/playwright Dario Fo, who has a Nobel Prize for literature. He works in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition. He wrote We Can’t Pay, We Won’t Pay 40 years ago. It’s the basis for the European We Won’t Pay campaign that identifies debt manipulation by financial elites as the root of the economic hell people are living through — versus bogus claims that it’s all due to wasteful government overspending on social programs.

They’re both clearly left wing in the broad sense, left populist you could say. But they’re also astute critics of customary left-wing politics within the conventional framework. Grillo says he’s neither left nor right, which doesn’t mean he’s in the middle of the spectrum, it means the spectrum itself kills.

As for Fo, he came to Toronto in 1984 when the Reagan government barred him from a U.S. conference in the name of national security and the red menace. So he spoke via closed circuit TV, a technological marvel at the time. Then a mixed bag of local leftists took him for dim sum in Chinatown. Afterward he said: “What will we do now, is the new Indiana Jones movie on?” A left chorus roared: “O no Dario, you can’t, it’s racist, it’s sexist, it’s gratuitously violent.” Fo leaned back and said (he spoke French but not English): “Il faut voir ça!” So that afternoon three of us sat, almost alone, in the cavernous old University theatre on Bloor, Dario delighting in the film. He clearly saw it as part of the popular entertainment tradition he loved. “It isn’t about those other things,” he mused.

U.S. comic Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is also astute on this. He admits his comedy is “informed” by a liberal or left ideological bent but that doesn’t define or direct him. He’d probably say the same about his Jewishness. U.S. leftists, like right-wingers, often see politics there as a battle between their two world views; it’s about which will convert the majority to their side. Stewart held his 2010 Washington Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, to contest that approach, even if you happen to be “informed” by left views yourself.

It makes sense to me, as someone who’s more or less of the left. It’s where I come from and how I think. I find it helps me understand the world. But all that is of little or no use — or a net negative — when it comes to acting politically, either in elections or extra-electoral campaigns over the environment or public transit — and, for that matter, in writing on politics. You really have to start fresh each time and not revert to some general checklist. Maybe there were more “ideological” eras in the past but those are gone. I don’t think we live at the end of ideology, as people sometimes say, but a little modesty about it is in order. Otherwise you risk being obnoxious. As a teenager I know says, people on the right are often mean; people on the left are just annoying.

A neat Canadian case is Greg Malone, formerly of Codco. His comedy was clearly “informed” by his being gay, as when he dressed up as Barbara Frum or the Queen. But in the mid-1990s, he became leader of a movement to stop privatization of hydro in Newfoundland — which succeeded. He’s since been active in other contexts, yet he rarely gets identified as the famous comic he was. What’s the lesson? Maybe that politics is about what you do, not what you are, nor even, contra ideologies both left and right, what you think.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Chicca Silva/Flickr


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.