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  1. Ideas
22 February 2024

Liberalism’s last laugh

The fate of democracy could well depend on what makes us smile.

By Lee Siegel

“Laughter,” someone once said, “is proof of the existence of God. Life is too funny to be uncaused.” Could that possibly be true? The SS mounted over the gates of Auschwitz the motto “Arbeit macht frei”: work makes you free. It seems unlikely that the sick laughter provoked by such an obscenity could demonstrate the existence of anything benign, let alone a benign deity, any more than could the word “Libertad” that the junta in Uruguay placed at the entrance of its prison and torture chamber.

Sentimental treacle about laughter’s sacred, life-affirming qualities aside, laughter is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. A famous definition of what causes laughter is “something mechanical encrusted upon the living”. Mimicry, for example, makes the natural mechanical and we laugh. Tyrants reduce being human to the mechanical process of an equation, which only they control, whose final sum is death. “Where is my beloved Comrade Z?” a smiling Stalin asked a horrified group of Polish communists who were visiting Moscow. They were horrified because they knew, and they knew Stalin knew they knew, that he had ordered Comrade Z’s execution several days before.

Irony is a kind of subtle calculus of subtraction – a statement dissolves as its meaning hovers unseen – and tyranny is a permanent subtraction of life from life. But perhaps sardonic irony is the preferred type of humour among tyrants and sadists because the meaning behind it is an open secret. The meaning hidden in the folds of sardonic irony is there for the grasping, but you cannot grasp it, or touch it. It is like watching someone you love in distress without being able to rescue them. Or like seeing the truth kept at arm’s length from you – forever. The coded ironic meaning of super-civilised mandarins briefly robs its target of a certain degree of social confidence. The blatant, ironic meaning of dictators operating beyond the pale of civilisation makes its target bereft of humanity and hope.

I’ve been thinking about laughter, and about the status of laughter in a democracy, since reading “Why I am a liberal”, an essay that appeared in the New York Times in November last year by the Harvard constitutional scholar Cass Sunstein. Leave aside Sunstein’s 34 reasons – 34 exactly – for being a liberal, which are more like 34 reasons to give up on liberalism altogether, what struck me was Reason Number 30: “Liberals like laughter. They are anti-anti-laughter.” That might have had them rolling on the floor in the departmental lounge, but it left me scratching my head.

From time immemorial, it seems, liberals have been accused of a moral earnestness that is to laughter what the smell of a septic tank is to a candlelight dinner – the earnest trend of “wokeness”, contrary to the apocalyptic gloating of the anti-woke right, is, like the recent revelation that US colleges exist in a four-year hiatus from reality (and thank heaven for that), a new phase of a very old condition. When the American political satirist Mort Sahl quipped that “liberals feel unworthy of their possessions; conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen”, he was setting the guilt of the former against the greed of the latter. That is, since there are great comedies about greed – Molière, Jonson, Sheridan – and not a single one about guilt, Sahl might well have been implying that conservatives exhibit a more complex picture of human nature than liberals do.

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Surely Sunstein is aware of liberalism’s dour reputation? Liberalism’s current comedic tribunes, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and the recently resurrected Jon Stewart, are far better at scolding and taunting than making actual jokes. In fact, Donald Trump’s most consequential contribution to popular culture is to offer a punchline, the mere utterance of which – “Trump” – requires no joke to precede it.

I wonder what the great liberal philosopher Judith Shklar would have made of comedy today. She wrote in 1982 that our “abiding cruelty is as evident in the horrors of civil war as it is in the pleasures of laughter” and observed that most people “enjoy a good laugh at the expense of victims”. In the current crop of late-night comedians’ jokeless taunting she might well have detected a strong echo of Trump’s own belittling laughter.

Shklar’s powerful notion of “putting cruelty first” is at the heart of cancel culture. Or as the American philosopher Richard Rorty parsed Shklar’s phrase: “Liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do.” Rorty himself attempted to appropriate irony for humane purposes by formulating the concept of “liberal irony”, in which people are aware of the moral tension between shifting personal and historical circumstances and a universal commitment to humanity. It’s a uselessly beautiful idea. But it’s definitely not funny.

It is unlikely that Sunstein is thinking about Shklar or Rorty in his gesture of defiance in the face of anti-laughter forces. But he is pushing back against the effect that an obsession with social justice has had on comedy, which is precisely to judge comedy by its capacity to be cruel. He is thinking about the outrage directed at the comedian Dave Chappelle’s offensive remarks about trans people, and at countless similar barbs made by other comedians in the spirit, or the performance, of mordant humour. Laughter is the sound of freedom and joy, Sunstein wants to say. And liberals, true liberals, who are not in thrall to woke excesses, do not repress freedom and joy.

Yet, as in the case of tyrants’ twisted humour, there are as many kinds of laughter as there are emotions. Laughter can erupt when making love or in the act of watching someone being tortured. Delight causes it – listen to the audience response in just about any live recording of Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin’s joyous Polonaise in A-flat major. So does the spectacle of humiliation – see Groucho Marx’s endless humiliations of Margaret Dumont’s dowagers, whose only sins are being harmlessly rich and self-centred, and… loving Groucho. See, too, Chappelle’s routine about what he would say to a California judge about to sentence him:

“Soon as the judge sentences me, I’ll be like, ‘Before you sentence me, I want the court to know I identify as a woman. Send me to a woman’s jail.’ As soon I get in there, you know what I’ma be doing. ‘Give me your fruit cocktail, bitch, before I knock your motherf*****g teeth out. I’m a girl, just like you, bitch. Come here and suck this girl dick I got. Don’t make me explain myself. I’m a girl.’”

Laughter can empower hatred and prejudice, or it can expose hatred and prejudice to ridicule and outrage. It is doubtful that Volodymyr Zelensky, the former comedian, finds all the jokes he thought funny before he became president funny now.

What type of laughter does Sunstein consider the sort liberals are “for”? Is it laughter that makes one type of person or another feel uncomfortable or shamed? Is it laughter that obliterates hope and self-esteem? Maybe it is one of the three types of laughter Samuel Beckett describes in his novel, Watt (1953): “The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh… But the mirthless laugh is… the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please – at that which is unhappy.”

Then again, Sunstein might consider these varieties of laughter to be on the anti-laughter side of things. The bitter and hollow laughs don’t exactly summon images of liberating hilarity. And none of Beckett’s types defend laughter aimed from one social group at another, or humour that derives from an unshakable notion of “normalcy”. Indeed, the mirthless laugh, the laugh laughing at the laugh, is a simultaneous summoning and shaming of laughter. It is embodied in the punchline of the most powerful and terrible of Holocaust jokes: after the first man enquires about the fate of every other member of the second man’s family and is told that they were all murdered, the first man asks: “But what about your three beautiful children? Surely they survived.” Second man: “Well, you’re going to laugh, but they’re dead too.” Is that strangled laugh, which is an extermination of laughter, the type of life-affirming liberal expression Sunstein believes to be one of the pillars of Western democracy?

Perhaps there is an unfathomable pain at the bottom of every joke that makes humour in our time, where the gamut of individual private pain has become a public issue, so embattled. Consider that icon of liberal iconoclasm, the US comedian Lenny Bruce, no doubt squarely on Sunstein’s Team Laughter. One of Bruce’s most famous routines involved him rapidly repeating the n-word. He threw in a few ethnic and religious slurs for balance, but the brunt of it was the rapid-fire iteration of that ugly word. President Kennedy, Bruce said, should go on television and keep repeating that word “until”, Bruce explained, “n****r didn’t mean anything any more. Then you’d never be able to make some six-year-old n****r cry when he came home from school.”

It’s a complex, multi-layered routine, certainly. No one can doubt Bruce’s rage against racial prejudice and his solidarity with the black performers and musicians among whom he spent the best parts of his life. But imagine a Polish comedian standing after the Second World War on a stage in Poland, where more Jews were murdered than in any other country. Imagine for a moment that there had still been a sizeable Jewish community in Poland. And imagine how the Jews in the audience would have felt hearing the comedian repeat the word “kike” over and over again and calling on the gentile prime minister to do the same. All for the sake, so the comedian says, of protecting the feelings of a six-year-old Jewish child the next time someone called them that.

The simple fact is that Bruce was white, and it is barely worth observing that a white person, no matter how well-intentioned, produces a different effect on black people when he says the n-word than if a black person says it. The black adults in Bruce’s audience that night in the early 1960s, when blacks were still being castrated and lynched in the American south, and shunted off to the margins of society in the north, would most likely not have thought the repetition of the n-word funny or salutary. The word was, as it remains now, freshly rancid and soaked in blood. It was actively harmful. I hope it does not seem priggish or virtue-mongering to say that in a white mouth, no matter how decently formed, the n-word is not funny.

Woke pieties are so detached from reality that the opportunities for a self-serving response are limitless. On the one hand you have the parochialism of cancelling people for what they say, instead of letting the words stand or fall on their own qualities, a response that answers cruel speech with cruel actions. On the other hand, you have Sunstein’s solemn edicts declaring the Sacred Inviolability of Humour. (Professor Sunstein really needs to lighten up about laughter.) To be sure, the candid speech of comedy is at the essence of democratic freedom. It goes back to the ancient Greek concept of parrhesia, or frank speaking. Such a style of bluntness was what made a person a citizen of the state; foreigners and slaves did not have the right to speak freely.

But there was a hitch. In the first known mention of parrhesia, Democritus wrote: “Parrhesia is intrinsic to freedom; the risk lies in discerning the right moment.” And the right moment for comedy’s frank speaking changes from epoch to epoch, from a negative conception of humour as mocking and hateful that prevailed from Plato and Aristotle through the early Christian thinkers, to an idea of humour as a gratifying release of pent-up vitality – a sort of mental orgasm – to humour as a delightful upheaval of perceptions, in which the intellect knocks things over like a wild animal careening around a courtroom.

Everyone knows that the frank speaking that is the heart of comedy is intrinsic to freedom. But we are living through a new epoch in which the right moment for such candour involves aligning it with intensely fragile selves – selves whose fragility (there’s no point in mocking, denouncing or lamenting this fragility; it is here to stay), which is the result of revolutionary economic and social forces, is creating a different politics and a different culture. Never mind what sort of laughter liberals or conservatives like. That lucubration itself sounds like the beginning of a joke. The democratic laughter of our time will have to nakedly acknowledge social and private pain at the same time as it makes its way through and around it.

Until then it couldn’t hurt to heed, with a healthy dose of Rortyan irony, the wry caution of one of my favourite Jewish jokes from Odessa (when it was spelled with two “s”s). Two Jews are standing blindfolded against a wall facing a firing squad. One Jew turns to the other. “I’m going to ask for a cigarette,” he says. “No, no!” whispers the other Jew. “Don’t make trouble!”

[See also: The new authoritarian personality]

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