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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Humor and Politics

So (notice how everybody starts talking with "so" these days)...

In the last blog we followed Lippit treating humor from an incongruity that stimulates a psychic release (e.g. laughter) to an attitude of human existence.  Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche point to humor as signifying the highest human achievement (the religious for K, transcendence for N).

Homo sapiens is the only species we know that can both speak and laugh at least in the highly and increasingly complex way that we do. And evolutionary psychologists like Terrence Deacon trace that to our developed ability to use symbolic forms. That is, imagination, designing images which represent things; or objectification, cutting out of our sensual field objects which stand apart from us; or abstraction, making symbols that include other symbols or groups of them; or thought, putting forth ideas to understand things in a way that they can be criticized and transformed to better understand things.

The use of symbols in imagination, thinking, and just accommodating to our environment means a distancing, a setting apart, a taking of a higher viewpoint.

Let's consider some great humorists.  I think of: Aristophanes portraying the women of Greece who stop war by witholding sex from their increasingly horny husbands and lovers. Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales of the foibles of medieval royalty, church people, tradesmen. Cervantes and his unwitting Don Quixote with lance drawn giving the coup de grace to chivalry. Mark Twain's story of Huck deciding to go to hell rather than betray slave friend Jim. Charlie Chaplin on the assembly line. George Carlin on his Catholic upbringing; Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory stories of their black heritage. Woody Allen as the Jew in psychotherapy.

What is common to all is their making fun of themselves and the groups that define them. That implies a distancing--an ability to look down on themselves as silly mortals from the viewpoint of the gods. A sense of humor is a sense of contingency. Humor means not taking ourselves too seriously as if we know the truth, are righteous, are at the top of the heap. In fact nothing is funnier than seeing the righteous, top dog, aristocrat slip on the banana or get a pie in the face especially if we can see ourselves there as well. Think Marx Brothers or Monty Python.

I am reminded of my favorite line in Genet's Balcony. After the revolutionaries capture the power elite (the general, the bishop, the president, the industrialist), they bring them to the brothel and ask the Madame what they should do with them. She doesn't say kill them. She says: "Take off their clothes!" Once when some black folk were going to have a meeting with Chicago Mayor, Saul Alinsky told them to imagine him without any clothes on. At the meeting you would hear chuckles and know that some were taking Alinsky's advice.

A sense of humor is a political virtue and laughter is a political act. Humor puts us all in the same situation--no one better than anyone else and all of us are prone to silly mistakes. Comics laugh with, not at. The do not ridicule by reducing someone to less than a person.

Compare Jon Stewart to Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh and his kind ridicule their opponents. They are mean. They turn other persons into objects of hatred or evil aliens. They objectify and distance the other without any means of reconciliation because they do not include themselves in the joke. Ridicule polarizes by making the other totally other without the possibility of a relationship in which one laughs together at common foibles. Notice how often the Limbaugh kind argue ad hominem--not by countering an argument through evidence, but by labeling the person as stupid or evil or enemy.

This is true on the left as well. I have heard tirades by revolutionaries who label people with whom they disagree politically, economically, culturally as fascists or ignorants to be done away with. Stalin and Pol Pot were revolutionaries without a sense of humor. I remember the Weather Underground when they lost their sense of humor and got serious--and destructive.

Jon Stewart makes fun of all of them right, left, and center but without the meanness. He exposes silly opinions and beliefs, contradictions and hypocrisies, without demonizing the people who hold them. Most important he includes himself in his humor. We laugh with Jon Stewart because we are not taking him or ourselves seriously. We snarl with Rush Limbaugh because we take ourselves and him very seriously.

Look at Cervantes and his treatment of Don Quixote. Don Quixote is a caricature, fantasizing the silly waning ideal of medieval knighthood foiled by the practical, realistic Sancho Panza. But Quixote is a sympathetic and even tragic figure whom we with Cervantes come to love. True humor links comedy and tragedy because it is the consciousness of contingency in all human affairs. It would not be humorous if Don Quixote were just a fool to be ridiculed and dismissed. Nor would it be one of the greatest pieces of literature ever produced.

The righteous true believers without a sense of humor, who get their kicks by putting down their opponents, polarize and so diminish politics. Stewart, Colbert, Capitol Steps, Saturday Night Live get us to laugh at ourselves, help us to acknowledge the tension of life and create a space of free speech and interaction.

Classically the definition of our species has been "speaking animal" or "laughing animal" or "political animal." All those definitions go together. Our ability to use symbols makes it possible to distance ourselves and laugh. Without humor there is no solidarity with our contingent companions on the journey and therefore no politics.