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November 9, 2011


Prof. David Edwards

Relax and enjoy it!! Don't worry about cognitive dissonance; even God suffers from it!!


I don't think the conflict is all that deep. Humour is transgressive of social norms, but only in a fairly superficial sense: needling the sacred cows of your community is a way of reminding others (or sometimes just yourself) that you remain an individual, that you are not rigidly bound to the community's code of conduct. It has a ritual function, which has of course (I don't need to tell this to you of all people) in some places at some times been quite formal: see, e.g., Eliade on the sacred and the profane. But of course, in this sense it actually acts as both a safety valve and a re-codification of the community's norms, and so ultimately serves to strengthen them. When I call someone a "retard", the air of profanity associated with the word serves to remind me and my fellows that making fun of the developmentally disabled is cruel and wrong, and that I am being self-consciously wicked in using this word. Similarly when I affect a rural Southern accent and talk about Jesus in order to mock the religious beliefs of the residents of an economically depressed part of the US.

Humour (and other forms of irony) also serve as status signals: they are a way for us to test group boundaries and probe our own status within and between diffrent groups. The hipster who makes jokes subverting the political commitments of his group is doing his best to have his cake and eat it too: to gain the benefits of lefty community cred while signaling his own aloofness and superiority to the rigid orthodoxy of the earnest lefties.

I also don't think the left-right split has any real relevance here. Both left and right have their own versions of humourless utopia where the lion lies down with the lamb. Both have pet subjects which are not to be laughed at, but which some members of each group find very funny in spite of themselves.

In other words, I don't think you're asking the correct questions about what your sense of humour means, Justin. We all have things we laugh at which we know we shouldn't, regardless of political orientation, and some of them are universal: e.g., everybody has to stifle a laugh when they see someone take a spectacular fall on a patch of ice, even though the we all feel immediate and real concern over the person's injuries. The lefty humour you've pointed to isn't funny to anyone (or at least not to any of your intellectual peers) (not that there are any): it functions exactly as you say, simply as an in-group affirmation. But the same is true of a lot of conservative humour. My point is that humour in the service of any ideology, left, right or other, can only ever be funny by coincidence.


There is a certain kind of person that no one wants to be: the kind that is caught laughing at other people's suffering. Especially if accompanied by pointing. But don't we all, secretly, perhaps indirectly, laugh at suffering? Here's a great video:
It shows Sarah Silverman crossing an invisible line between hilarious and cruel. The first half is funny precisely because she's being silly about typically serious things - aging and death. I think Picador's comment is also relevant here; Silverman is sticking her neck out, saying "Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm not afraid to talk about death." The second half is much worse, and I don't even know if I find it funny. In any case it serves the unique purpose that comedy often does, which is to draw out some darker impulses that many of us would rather repress. Catharsis.

So, to respond, I would say:
1) politically correct, 'progressive' humour tends to use a different gelastic mechanism (maybe one that doesn't work on you). It's cruel in a different way - it works by excluding people who don't 'get it', often pointing directly at the stupidity of others. But of course, no one wants to be "that kind of person", so the cruelty of these jokes is dissembled with an ironic tone. I really find it just as snide, elite and contemptuous no matter which end of the political spectrum it comes from. It's also cowardly.

2) There are really good reasons to want to stop telling jokes that feature racist caricatures, rape etc. But I suspect that if we ever stopped being able to laugh at the awfulness of racism (note ironic meta-level up), then we'd have a different and more difficult problem. In the end, laughter is the ultimate 'fuck you'. It says, "I can't even deal with this on a rational level, It's just too ridiculous".

VL Brandt

At Corey Robin's blog, I'd start with the link below, where he responds to a miss-by-a-mile review from The New York Times (this and subsequent posts deal with the thesis of his book):


The review (linked) brings into relief the emotional/psychological landscape of the academic left, which bears as much scrutiny as that of the right.

In his Oct. 12 post Robin excerpts from a chapter in his book on Antonin Scalia, which touches on his love of violence: http://coreyrobin.com/2011/10/12/i-got-a-crush-on-you/

VL Brandt

Weirdly, my comment (which preceded the post-script now above) keeps disappearing. I will post again, splitting into two parts:

* * *

Without your providing definitions or examples of "progressive" and "arch-conservative" humor, it’s hard to respond with confidence. You mention the internet and placards at rallies, but that seems to be a rather low bar to set. True, there are some clever insults on the right, but then, the Right doesn’t worry about veracity, and, more importantly, they have the advantage in that they are responding to (and co-opting) memes that originated on the Left. Plus, the Left is rather whiny these days, a result of having been effectively been beaten back for decades. I think you’re picking up, in part, on a morale problem (it’s easier to be wickedly funny coming from a position of power).

In truth, however, the Left eschews juvenile taunts. (If someone is going to make a joke about the pulchritude of a president’s daughter, it’s going to be a conservative, not a liberal. This may be why Republicans choose candidates that are good-looking in a certain bland sort of way.) There is something to Hobbes’ comment about cruelty in humor, but I would broaden it: much humor is driven by anger. And the Right is very, very angry. I live in NYC, and can tell in a nanosecond whether a cabbie is listening to conservative or progressive talk radio, simply by the tone of voice. On the right, it’s braying, sneering, dripping with contempt. On the left, it’s modulated and urbane. (Only recently has this begun to change, with people like Olbermann and Ed Schultz influencing the willingness of the Left to sound angry, or to express emotion at all –-which the Right then invariably whines about.) Although the ubiquity of talk shows makes the rudeness seem like a recent phenomenon, I think the seething rage has always been there on the right. Even the unctuous William F. Buckley was wont to slip a quiet “I’ll punch you in the face” into interviews with people he disagreed with. (I was not surprised when he said this to Gore Vidal in a heated moment; I was very surprised to hear him say it, with a slight curl to his lip, in an otherwise apparently irenic discussion with a young Noam Chomsky.) Think about this for a moment: a patrician WASP repeatedly blurts out a puerile threat of physical violence on television when he is up against a worthy opponent. Palin’s cross-hairs, Glenn Beck acting out his fantasy of poisoning Nancy Pelosi, Rush Limbaugh “joking” about kids being poisoned by drinking contaminated water .... the vulgate is angry indeed.

VL Brandt

Part II:

Speaking of Beck and Limbaugh, however: surely you do not find _them amusing. And despite your claims to not find progressives very funny, do you include Colbert, Stewart, and Borowitz among the humorless?

Maybe it will be more productive to focus on the one definitions you offer of what strikes you as funny: first you say it is “scoffing, contemptuous, misanthropic”.... then a few lines later you claim “the best humor, the purest [?] humor, says fuck the group; fuck the lot of you, in fact.” Perhaps this sort of humor appeals to you in the political realm, but do you really mean this serves as a general criterion for humor? What humor appeals to you in literature, for example? Do Aristophanes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Shaw, Wilde, Frayn, etc. leave you cold because they do not despise their characters?

Your posting of the Franks video muddies the waters, for of course _he is not being humorous at all. The _objects we find suitable for derision is a whole other topic: for if derision is the game, then of course it involves contempt—you’re pre-determining what you find humorous. But if you want to talk about humor as a broad category of human response, then you can’t limit it to one sub-type.

In sum, I think you are right that there is a difference in the psychological tenor of left and right, though I think you haven’t defined it clearly in the realm of humor. I also think you are slightly less misanthropic than you would like to believe. But only slightly.

Most importantly, however, I think what you are picking up on is less about the intersection of the political with the aesthetic than it is about the psychological. You describe (and arch conservatives instantiate) a psychological stance that is best accounted for by attachment theory. I highly recommend “Becoming Attached” by Robert Karen, PhD, a history of Bowlby and Ainsworth’s decades-long study of attachment. It’s well-written, balanced, and astute; I think you will find their work on dismissive/avoidant attachment particularly interesting, for a number of reasons. I’d also recommend Corey Robin’s “The Reactionary Mind,” which traces the conservative love of violence and sense of victimization back to Burke. (His blog is excellent, too.)


I've certainly thought about this, but I think one needs to distinguish the secularized Christian *moral* strain in progressive politics from a leftist politics based in class consciousness. The former mode of progressivism is, in my view, naively, oriented towards reconciliation, and therefore succumbs to all of the humorlessness you describe--while the latter has no problem in savaging its enemies. And it does so with great verve. Its proper genre would be satire, which has roots at least as far back as the Old Comedy of Greek antiquity. Think of the absolutely hilarious and subversive (anti-war, anti-establishment) work of Aristophanes. Early modern and modern correlates would be Enlightenment satirists like Voltaire and then--of course--Charlie Chaplin and the like.


beck is way funnier than stewart or colbert. but im an anarchist, so who knows.


A lot of people responded a bit too seriously. Is that funny? Would you ever make fun of them? or of me?
Seriously, this tells me that your progressivism is not deep enough. It will not happen tomorrow (and if Newt Gingrich is elected president, it may not happen for another 4 years), but one day, you will slip politically as well.
In fact, i just read your Friedman takedown from 2009 and it was hilarious, but there was a subtext of anti-progressivism...if it was already there in 2009, it is bound to grow as you grow older.
You sir, are a future conservative.
By saying this, I may have delayed the inevitable by a few months. If this is truly the terminal crisis of capitalism, then who knows. But if this is just Allah jerking Tariq Ali around one last time, then you are moving right. As the cart follows the horse, your politics will follow your sense of humor.

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