You might remember, two years ago, when well-known comedians announced that they would no longer perform on college campuses because of the problematic political-correctness of easily offended students. You’ll likely remember, last year, when the cast of the comedy show “Hamilton” lectured one of America’s most decent politicians about civility. You may also be aware that, less than two weeks ago, comedian Jimmy Kimmel began using his late-night television platform to rant about healthcare. Kimmel was at it again last night regarding gun control.
In response to these and similar developments, political humorists Alfonzo Rachel and Michael J. Knowles recently asked themselves and their podcast audience, “Why can’t the Left take a joke?” Wrestling with and unpacking this partisan question spurred me to write about this topic. Pundits have endlessly discussed the intrusion of celebrities into political life, and about the celebrity status America gives its high-profile politicians. But few have discussed the intrusion of politics into comedy specifically, and the movement of comedians into political life. This issue, I think, deserves special attention.
In a previous essay on this website, I contrasted the character of Puritan Plymouth and Anglican Jamestown, using those cities as archetypes for American liberalism and conservatism, respectively. I described how many of America’s great reform movements have had a grave, Puritan character. Participants understood themselves to be involved in a cosmic battle with evil. And, like the Puritans, these reformers imagined a world without sin (or at least certain particular sins) and set out to bring their utopia into existence. The Anglicans at Jamestown were different. They had a more relaxed character, both morally and dispositionally. They tended to be conservative and were more concerned with their private capitalist enterprises than with working together to pursue high ideals. They laughed more.
I bring up these contrasting archetypes because I believe they are relevant to the relationship between comedy and politics. But before I dive into American history again, let’s take a step further back and examine similar political dynamics within that archetypal polis: ancient Athens.
Socrates the Liberal Utopian
The first political utopian of which we have historical record was a man by the name of Socrates. Socrates had an impressive imagination. All the way back in the 5th century B.C., Socrates described what he thought would be an ideal city. This utopia had a strikingly progressive government and embodied a kind of equality that would be considered radical even by today’s standards. Needless to say, his ideas were unpalatable to the political establishment of his time. But that didn’t stop Socrates from pestering every Athenian who would listen to him with his theories and arguments about the way the city should be ruled.
Socrates gained a few devoted followers who took his arguments seriously. The most famous, of course, was Plato, who took it upon himself to write down what his teacher was saying. But most Athenians were annoyed at Socrates, giving him the disparaging nickname “gadfly.” When the Athenian government decided they didn’t like the effects his arguments were having on their youth, they brought Socrates to trial and executed him. But long before the political establishment took aim at him, Socrates faced another foe who was, in some ways, more formidable than those deadly serious Athenian politicians.
Aristophanes the Conservative Comedian
Aristophanes was a comedian in the original sense of the word. To modern ears, “comedian” sounds like someone who merely entertains with frivolous jokes. But comedians in the old sense were artists who created stories that resonated with and shaped the souls in their audience. Aristophanes deeply understood the character of the Athenian audience for whom he was writing. He knew what bothered them about Socrates’ progressive views, and why they considered him to be such a troublemaker. Socratic Logic was casting doubt upon the very foundations of Athenian society and upon the religious assumptions that undergirded what it meant to be Athenian.
In his play The Clouds, Aristophanes lampooned Socrates. At the beginning of the play, Socrates’ followers are described hunched over awkwardly with their hind-quarters in the air, studying the minutiae of minutiae: the size of gnat legs. When Socrates arrives on the scene, he is described as a star-gazer who considers himself too high-minded to walk on the ground with other mortals. Aristophanes puts into his mouth ludicrous caricatures of philosophic theories, e.g., that the universe is a giant oven, and people are the coals. Then, in typical comedic fashion, Aristophanes brings the lofty Socrates low by having a lizard defecate into his gaping mouth.
But Aristophanes’ real conservative critique of Socrates is revealed at the end of the comedy. The main character of the play, Strepsiades, finally gets the chance to use Socratic Logic to cheat his way out of debt.
PASIAS: I swear you swore by all the gods to pay me.
STREPSIADES: Well, now I swear I won’t. My son has learnt since then the unanswerable Logic!
PASIAS: And will you therefore shirk my just demand?
STREPSIADES: Of course I will, else why should he have learnt it?
Mere moments later, Strepsiades’ son returns from the Socratic “thinkery”. But, instead of using Socratic Logic to help his father’s immorality, he instead demonstrates that he has lost all morality, and begins beating his own father nearly senseless.
STREPSIADES: Ah! My cheek! My head! O luckless me! Wretch! … Strike you your own father?
PHEIDIPPIDES: Oh yes – what’s more, I’ll prove with Logic that I struck you justly!
The point Aristophanes is making is not lost on the Athenian masses: the ultimate result of Socratic inquiry is moral anarchy. By reducing the Socratic project to absurdity in this way, Aristophanes reinforced the morals and religion of Athens. And, in so doing, he provided comfort to the Athenian masses and their political establishment. Athenians no longer needed to be bothered by Socrates and his questions; through laughter, they could simply dismiss him. This was the conservative role Aristophanes’ humor played in Athens: it preserved the cultural status quo by reinforcing the religious and moral prejudices of the Athenian people.
American Politics and Comedy
Political humor has tended to play a conservative role in America, as well. Abolitionists were radically liberal, and very serious. They petitioned the government, denounced slavery from the pulpit, and even engaged in terrorism to advance their goals. Meanwhile, minstrels travelled around the country and entertained the masses in blackface. By appealing to the American people’s ingrained prejudices and reinforcing their bigoted stereotypes, blackface humor served to perpetuate a culture of white supremacy. Similarly, when liberal advocates of Christian Temperance lobbied, sang, and preached fire and brimstone on the streets to anyone who would listen, conservative political cartoonists depicted the teetotalers and prohibitionists in unflattering, but humorous ways.
A similar role for humor is evident today, on both sides of the political aisle. A humorlessly Liberal “intersectional” movement on college campuses preaches against thought-crimes and imagines a utopian world of acute racial awareness. Meanwhile, a growing reactionary Right-wing mocks their hypersensitivity. From the other direction, deadly serious pro-Life advocates promote a world of radical equality, where a fetus is as much a citizen of the United States as anyone else. For this they are unflatteringly caricatured by their political opponents. Often this is done in a mean-spirited way, but the most socially effective caricatures of pro-Life ideology are comedic.
Comedy and Political Polarization
Comedy can unify a city or a nation when it appeals to prejudices that are shared by the political community as a whole. During the Cold War, for example, Ronald Reagan mocked the Soviet Union with caricature, appealing to Americans’ deep-seated views about God and individual rights. In so doing, he increased national resolve and allayed the fears of Americans who were troubled by advances made by totalitarian communism. In the short-term, laughter unified Americans against radical socialist ideas, just as it had unified Athens against the radically socialist ideas of Socrates.
Longer-term analysis, however, tells a different story. Only a few decades after Aristophanes caricatured Socrates, Athens was conquered. Only a few decades after the Soviet Union fell, socialist thought returned to America’s political mainstream. It seems, then, that the unity provided by comedy comes at a cost. It replaces needed national dialogue and serious introspection on the part of the political community.
When comedy appeals to partisan prejudices or biases which we do not share with the community as a whole, the situation worsens. Ironically, the unifying nature of comedy then divides us from one another by uniting each political faction around its opposition to the other side. We dismiss our political opponents by laughing at caricatures of them, avoiding intellectual engagement with their ideas. It is much easier to label someone “anti-woman” than to confront their pro-Life arguments. It is much easier to call someone a “snowflake” than to tackle arguments about systemic racism. Thus, by reinforcing partisan prejudices, humor solidifies a perverse status quo where neither party listens to the other.
The Original Question
We’ve now reached the point where I can circle back to the initial question that sparked this essay: Why can’t the Left take a joke? In my opinion, there are two answers to this partisan question, depending on how it the question is interpreted.
If “the Left” refers to the radical proponents of “intersectionality”, then the answer is obvious. Radical reformers are always serious about their own radicalism, almost by definition. They can only be radical if they take seriously ideas that others find absurd. Expecting a proponent of “intersectionality” to laugh at his/her/zer own hypersensitivity is like asking a pro-Life advocate to laugh about abortion, or asking Socrates to laugh at the philosophical ideas he took with him to his grave. It is never going to happen.
If the question refers to mainstream Leftists, on the other hand, then the question misses the mark. Neither side finds their opponent’s humor funny. Most Democrats cannot laugh at Rush Limbaugh, nor Republicans at Bill Maher. The mental worlds we live in have become so fundamentally different that we can no longer even understand what it is that the other side finds so humorously absurd about our views.
Not everyone in Athens dismissed Socrates the way Aristophanes did. Others engaged his philosophic ideas on their merits. Aristotle disagreed with Socrates almost as much as Aristophanes did, but he took Socrates’ ideas seriously. His criticism did not appeal to prejudice and convention, but instead to logic and nature. An audience listening to Aristotle would not be in uproarious laughter, but rather contemplative silence.
It is important, going forward, that Americans embrace a little more of our inner Aristotle and a little less of our inner Aristophanes. That way, when the next reform becomes necessary (as Abolition certainly was), we’ll be ready to intellectually engage its arguments on their merits. I look forward to, in this space, addressing the difficult arguments of our modern-day radical reformers. I ask my readers to hold me accountable to remaining Aristotelian, as I endeavor to examine arguments in a philosophic way, regardless of how uncomfortable that may prove to be.