A few days ago a White House petition became the first to clear the new, 100,000-signature bar, which was raised in January, that is supposed to trigger an official administration response. It concerns Alexander Dolmatov, a Russian activist who killed himself after Dutch authorities turned down his request for asylum. Whether it will prompt a reply, though, remains an open question.
When the Obama administration launched the We the People petition initiative—which lets anyone start a petition on the White House website—it set the response threshold at 5,000 signatures. In the digital era you can collect that many signatures for a petition to make navel lint the official textile fiber of the United States. So the White House bumped up the threshold to 25,000. Turns out that’s a pretty easy bar to clear, too. Just look at the Death Star petition.
That petition asked the administration to start building a “Star Wars”-like Death Star by 2016. In short order it collected enough signatures to compel an official reply. The White House responded that it (a) “does not support destroying planets,” and (b) opposes wasting money “on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship.” (Technically, the Death Star was destroyed by a Jedi apprentice who was aided by The Force, channeling Obi-Wan Kenobi, and firing proton torpedoes from an X-wing starfighter. But let’s not get all “Big Bang Theory” about it.)
There have been many other tongue-in-cheek petitions as well. They have asked, e.g., that the folk-rock group the Mountain Goats be named poet laureate(s) of the U.S.; that the Twinkie industry be nationalized in order to “prevent our nation from losing her sweet creamy center”; and that funding be provided for the “genetic engineering of domestic cat girls.”
True, most of the petitions are serious. Yet it’s encouraging to see so many Americans using We the People to have a bit of fun. Putting out a suggestion box for the public is a nice idea in some ways. After all, not everyone can afford to keep a K Street lobbyist on retainer. But there are some other facets to the project that look a bit less nice.
For one, the Obama administration has been highly selective about the petitions it answers. It has ignored some with far more than the requisite number of signatures, while answering others with far fewer. This suggests We the People is less a noble exercise in plebiscitarian democracy than one more tool the administration can use to get its message out. (Big shock, right?) Nor is the there much chance a petition will change White House policy on any issue of genuine import.
That is because, as a megaphone for public concerns, the site is superfluous. Name an issue today that does not have a half-dozen well-staffed groups devoted to its cause. For those who don’t care to join a group, social media offer another megaphone. Moreover: political parties, campaign advisers, and professional pollsters routinely log the slightest twitches in public opinion. The Obama machine itself has proved particularly adept at micro-targeting. So to the extent the administration takes public feeling into its deliberations, it already has.
Finally, the We the People site can look just a trifle condescending. After all, even today countless Americans who think something should be done about X, Y, or Z take it upon themselves to act. Running to Washington is not everybody’s default solution.
Nevertheless, the farcical petitions have generated some dismay. They are Not Serious, and therefore stupid and worthless and waste the precious time of important government people. Or so say some. This seems an awfully humorless outlook—and there is nothing more dangerous than a lack of humor.
Constant wisecracking can grow old. But say what you will about wiseacres, they don’t go around waging holy wars, wars of conquest, or committing genocide in the name of racial purity. As a general rule, history’s greatest atrocities are committed by people who take themselves and their causes extremely seriously.
Ridicule makes that harder. The level of public mockery of a government, therefore, is probably a pretty good proxy measure of where it sits on the authoritarian scale. If you live in a country where poking fun at the Maximum Leader or joking about The Prophet will get you executed, then you probably live in a country where most of the other liberties a decent society cherishes are lacking as well.
Recent example: Not long ago the editor of a newspaper in Chechnya put a question to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In doing so he made a sarcastic crack about how Chechnya had become “a region of peace and prosperity,” which drew chuckles from the other journalists present. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov promptly shut the paper down.
Such things used to happen all the time in the grim age of Soviet Communism, whose fall was supposed to usher in a brighter day. Instead, it often has simply installed a new generation of humorless tyrants. Little wonder if Alexander Dolmatov gave in to despair. As the great Willy Wonka once put it: “A little nonsense, now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.”