We may recall Iran’s Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s pronouncement in a 1979 radio sermon: “Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun or joy in whatever is serious.”
The Ayatollah’s remarks constitute one of the points where Theo-Islamic conservatism and secular Leftist ideology meet around the totalitarian circle (there is more on the unfunny subject in this book). Inventive humor, as opposed to vulgar sarcasm and puerile putdowns – the current stock-in-trade of the Left – is contra-indicated. In particular, to joke about a dictator is to invite either a prison sentence or execution. In the progressivist mindset that now permeates the West, popular humour is also critically at risk, even in the private sphere, and may issue in public shaming and the loss of livelihood. A politically incorrect joke can mark the end of a career. That is also a sure-fire way to kill comedy routines since political incorrectness is one of the indispensable elements of the joke – the “outering” of that which everybody knows but nobody says.
The consequence is that we have become dour and fearful as the culture grows ever grimmer. When people can no longer trade dubious, shady, ambiguous or off-colour jokes, whether in speech or writing, we know something terrible has happened, that freedom of utterance, spoofing banter and plain exuberance have been expunged from daily living, that life has become more of a trial than a gift. Such is one of the defining features of any totalitarian system, whether fascist, communist or theocratic, and it is certainly a decisive hallmark of the political Left.
Granted, in the U.S. there currently isn’t much to laugh about under a Biden/Democrat Administration. Washington is under armed control. The Keystone XL Pipeline is moribund. The southern border is swarming with illegals, many of whom test Covid-positive. International relations are deteriorating, with North Korea rejecting bilateral talks and Russia recalling its ambassador. Economic storm clouds loom, with Ford announcing its intention to move a US$900 million project from Ohio to Mexico, and on the whole a massive number of stable and remunerative jobs being likely to disappear under the dead hand of a globalist, radical-environmentalist regime. Similar things are afoot in Canada, often derived from events in the U.S., such as the Liberal government’s weak opposition to the axing of Keystone XL as part of its climate-worshiping cult that intends, among other things, to wipe out Canada’s most productive sector and as a bonus casually destroy constitutional federalism.
These are sobering facts and there is nothing amusing about them. But these events are embedded in a repressive milieu associated with all Leftist dispensations in which freedom of action, thought and speech are severely constrained. The Left creates a joyless, puritanical and overly self-righteous atmosphere in which the individual is “cancelled” for resisting the imposition of a collectivist regime upon the practise of everyday life.
Humour is a necessary casualty of such managerial tyrannies since it represents a deflationary threat to autocratic or statist rule – not only because of its satiric thrust but because it is an expression of personal spontaneity and improvisation. In the words of Bill Warner, founder of the Center for the Study of Political Islam, “To have a sense of humor about the world and yourself shows an inner strength and a balanced personality. It takes [a] mature person to laugh at their mistakes and foibles.” Today merely to joke about the conventionally impermissible takes a courageous person, perhaps even a foolhardy one, certainly one who is wealthy and/or old enough no longer to be concerned about the retaliatory destruction of their career.
An interesting approach toward understanding the profane theology of the Left may be modelled from the work of the great Russian cultural and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin who, in Rabelais and His World, elaborated the notion of “carnival” as an analytic category. Laughter, says Bakhtin, “Demolishes fear and piety before an object…thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it.” It allows for what he calls “cultural parody.”
Laughter, of course, is a complex phenomenon. It may also contain a sadistic component. But Bakhtin is clearly referring to laughter as it is commonly understood, as an evocation of high spirits, enjoyment of the unexpected (punch lines) and incompatible juxtapositions, and the disclosure of hidden or unflattering truths. Laughter, jokes, humour, wisecracks, puns, spoonerisms and parody thus become an enemy of every kind of tyranny and every totalitarian worldview, whether temporal or theological.
Humour punches holes in all the metaphorical Mercator projections of the world – laid out in dogmatic theologies and ideological systems, seemingly straight but full of endemic distortions. Laughter, as Bakhtin writes, “Purifies from dogmatism, from the intolerant and the petrified; it liberates from fanaticism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naïveté and illusion, from the single meaning, the single level…” It restores what he calls an “ambivalent wholeness” to the psyche of man and reconfirms the festal and material self against the pressure of “repressive transcendence.”
Of course, the counter-cultural Left – the Zeitgeist of the 60s – was no stranger to irony and burlesque, but it was not yet the pervasive Leftist juggernaut that had captured government, media, Big Tech and the economy. No longer the counter-culture but the culture, it has put humour, to use Jacques Derrida’s famous phrase, sous rature, under erasure.
Similarly, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut points out in The Defeat of the Mind that the postmodern Left, with its multicultural pathology and sanctimonious invocation of identity politics, has become “a celebration of servitude…using threats of high treason to silence expressions of doubt, irony and reason.” Laughter is inflammatory and contagious, and thus must be extinguished.
Dalhousie professor Jure Gantar concurs. In The Pleasure of Fools he alludes to “ethical laughter,” which he describes as agonistic and unsettling, explaining why it is reproved by the more abstemious school of moralists and criminalized by dictatorial regimes of whatever kind. Comedy, he says, is subversive, launching volleys of laughter in a battle for political and intellectual freedom, and is therefore co-opted and smothered by the stolid authority of moral sobriety or political rigidity. The free individual cannot flourish in a “humourless limbo” that forbids “marginal and decentred discourses” founded in a “multiplicity of perspectives” and that stamps out the cauterizing process of irony, humour and laughter.
One thinks of the old Soviet-era samizdat joke about the shopper who asks the clerk, “You don’t have any meat?” To which the clerk replies, “No, we don’t have any fish. The shop that doesn’t have any meat is across the street.” Laughter is the vestibule to the Gulag. In our cancel culture, a politically incorrect joke can lead to the poorhouse—or as Michael Rectenwald writes, to the Google Archipelago.
Theories proliferate as to the cause and effect of laughter, and its study has become a discipline with a name of its own: Gelotology (from Greek γέλως, gelos=laughter). Some researchers posit that laughter has its roots in a specific area of the brain, a “laugh detector” that actuates a neural, endorphin-rich laugh circuit that accounts for the release of tension. In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler distinguishes three domains of creativity: Discovery, Art and Humour. All are problematic for absolutist regimes and all are dedicated to exposing hidden similarities between things, of which humour is the most aggressive. Speculation continues to abound.
Ironically, laughter can be dangerous not only to tyrants but also to its purveyors. In the Preface to Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock tells the story about two of his books, Literary Lapses and Nonsense Novels, works of
“…so humorous a character that for many years it was found impossible to print them. The compositors fell back from their task suffocated with laughter and gasping for air. Nothing but the intervention of the linotype machine – or rather, of the kind of men who operate it – made it possible to print these books. Even now people have to be very careful in circulating them, and the books should never be put into the hands of persons not in robust health.”
But obviously, the primary danger posed by laughter arising from its multiple sources is to despots and oligarchs (and their “linotypical” followers) whose reigns are built on censorship, book burning, wiretapping, surveillance, ostracism and more ruthless forms of coercion.
Enter Covid-19. The pandemic has become a godsend to the socialists for it allows dictatorial-leaning governments to impose even further restrictions on free, impulsive behaviour and to prevent both normal activity and the articulation of resistant sentiment. Parties and celebrations are forbidden (as is singing in Church in many places). As author of Liberty or Lockdown Jeffrey Tucker writes in an article entitled Massachusetts Bans Dancing Like It’s 1684, dancing at weddings is strictly regulated by the state, “So much so that it is effectively abolished….Going back to Colonial times, something very similar took place, not in the name of controlling a virus but rather controlling sin, witchcraft, heresy, and any belief or practice that contradicted Puritan teaching.”
Today, Tucker continues, “People seen experiencing joy during lockdowns are shouted at by the members of the new flagellants. The idea is that if you are failing to be miserable and sad, you are contributing to the spread of disease and thus prolonging the period of misery for those who are compliant.” Referring to the Reverend Increase Mather (1639-1723), who outlawed shoe buckles, disorderly walking and “Gynecandrical Dancing,” Tucker remarks on the narrow “ideological distance” between the Reverend and many of our current governors, between Puritanism and Wokeism.
The sumptuary laws that Covid-19 has facilitated apply equally to unfettered speech and humor, for Covid-19 culture, a child of Leftist authoritarianism, is also killjoy culture. Not only shall there be no more gynecandrical dancing, there shall be no more hijinks, no more irreverent humour, no more breaking of current taboos, no more iffy jokes expressing a contrary mind – no more “dancing” of any kind. By criminalizing the normal, Leftism is in effect a crime against humanity, fostering weakness, cowardice, abject obeisance, the uprooting of communality, feral aggression, economic vassalage, social misery and, as Finkielkraut wrote, both willing and unwilling servitude.
It is said that the devil has the best jokes. But the “devil” in aphoristic question here is not the incarnation of evil or the agent of cruel and irascible ridicule. He is not a late-night talk-show host telling unfunny jokes to a left-wing audience (since right-wing viewers have to work in the morning). He is not a Saul Alinsky who dedicates his book to Lucifer, but the servant of lively impudence, intellectual audacity and brash self-confidence, of lip and chutzpah in the service of freedom from uncivil duress and the shackles of repressive orthodoxy. As Bakhtin observes, laughter, irony, satire, humour and jokes rip the mask of deceit, sanctimonious self-regard and false authority off the true human face.
By insisting on conveying uncomfortable truths, puns, spoofs, parody and satire are warriors in the fight against the stifling oppression of dogma, ideology, regimes, conformity and – in our era – political correctness. (Source of left image, a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Great Dictator, 1940: twm1340, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Left in its bleak sullenness, no less than the Ayatollah or the Reverend Increase Mather, has killed the timbre of joy and laughter. A man walks into a bar…but in the Leftist world there are no bottles racked on the wall and the bartender is a cultural commissar. The laugh police have seen to that. The Left’s oft-remarked-upon “long march through the institutions” is in large part a brutal foray against wit, playfulness and the imaginative power of the individual. It represents the destructive element in human nature, specifically the traditional vices of envy, lust and sloth which subvert the principles of moral reciprocity and personal integrity as they do the spirit of festive expansiveness and self-determination – the best part of us.
For the war of the totalitarian Left is not, in its essence, an economic or social campaign. It is not a crusade to save the planet or eliminate privilege and inequality. The Left is not a redemptive political movement. It is not a benevolent enterprise that seeks a better future for humankind, as it inveterately proclaims. Whatever its origins and self-professed purposes, it leads inevitably to suffering and carnage, for it cannot change the gradients of fallen human nature as if by some species of political enchantment.
Fuelled at its deepest level by the resentment that lies within the uncompetitive and unproductive, Leftism is a war against personal merit and the consummate self – against, let us say, that aspect of human nature that struggles to rise above its natural default. Leftism is at bottom a war against the freedom to prosper, to be constructive and self-reliant, to make mistakes and assume responsibility for them, to take legitimate pride in one’s accomplishments, to speak one’s mind, to tell jokes, to have fun, to revel in one’s independence – ultimately, to express one’s individuality, one’s talent and one’s hard-earned ability to meet and triumph over challenges.
The Left will have none of this. The Left is waging a war. It is a war against the human spirit. But in the meantime, I’m heading for the nearest bar with an atheist, a priest and a rabbi.
David Solway’s most recent volume of poetry, The Herb Garden, appeared in 2018 with Guernica Editions. His manifesto, Reflections on Music, Poetry & Politics, was released by Shomron Press in 2016. He has produced two CDs of original songs: Blood Guitar and Other Tales (2014) and Partial to Cain (2019) on which he is accompanied by his pianist wife Janice Fiamengo. His latest book is Notes from a Derelict Culture, Black House Publishing, 2019, London.