Why satire matters



As recently as a few months ago, the common wisdom seemed to be that the only people who raise concerns about illiberalism in academic life are the embarrassing old avuncular types. You know the ones: the men in Hawaiian shirts who want to know why they can’t call women \”dames\” anymore. There was little serious engagement with the real problem of the trade-off between freedom of expression and the concern not to offend.

Then came a turning point, when, in Paris, a death squad targeted some cartoonists, and the widespread reaction in the online and academic left (increasingly indistinguishable from each other) was: \”Well, the cartoons were offensive.\” This is when I found I could no longer contain my own dismay. I, an American academic based in Paris, came suddenly to feel as though my relocation to France were not simply a career move but a proper exile from the political culture of North American academe, which has become inflexible, unsubtle, and dogmatic. The issue was no longer the anti-PC griping of uncles. It was now a matter of life and death.

If I try, in the aim of cool-headed analysis, to contain that dismay, I find that my American colleagues’ quasi-rationalization of the assassination of caricaturists is rooted in a failure to distinguish between certain basic varieties of the exercise of the freedom of expression. In particular, there seems to be a broad misunderstanding of the social function, and therefore also the necessity, of satire.

In Roughing It, Mark Twain’s 1872 fictionalized account of a real journey west, the iconic American storyteller chronicles the genocide that is unfolding all around him. He is blithe about it, mostly. The Native Americans are a nuisance to him, as the wagon in which he is crossing could be attacked at any moment; and a boon to him, as this threat, and the real attacks happening all around, provide fodder for his tales. He meets men who boast of the arrowheads lodged in their bodies, and speaks of them with admiration. The Native Americans, too, are admired, even as their elimination is accepted as a historical inevitability.

Mark Twain is complicit in the genocide, but he is no Andrew Jackson or Hernán Cortés. His role in the world is different. He is the genocide’s resident humorist, as Charles Darwin is the Beagle’s resident naturalist. When Twain tells the stories of the men with the arrowheads beneath their skin, his aim is not to stoke more hatred of Native Americans, nor to defend or to damn the Euro-American appropriation of their land, but to make us laugh. Why, though, is this funny? Because it reminds us that we are all hanging by a thread, that life is precarious.

The world is not divided into the exploiters and the exploited, but rather into the sinister and the suckers.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas explained some decades ago that humor typically involves a sort of unexpected downward thrust back into the body. Kant offered a variation on the same point when he defined laughter as \”a sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.\” Life, when taken in earnest, is filled with great hope. This hope draws an adventurous young soul out across the frontier, for example, only to be brought low by a flying fragment of carved obsidian. The expectations of life eventually come to nothing, and in this respect jokes are small anticipations of death. Humor doesn’t describe different facts from those of straight-faced reportage on the sufferings caused by human cruelty or by indifferent nature. It reports the same facts, but does so in a different mood. The humorous statement is in some sense exactly the same as the declarative one, yet it carries a different charge. It is typical of authoritarian regimes and blunt-minded individuals alike to be unable to detect this difference.

Not all satirists concern themselves with the precarity of life. Some are more concerned with their own precarity, with their own absurdity, with the way they themselves teeter always on the brink of nonexistence. But often this self-absorption inadvertently serves a double purpose as social commentary. When the cartoonist R. Crumb depicts himself as a scrawny, pathetic excuse for a man, in the shadow of an overwhelming Amazonian woman, he bares his own soul and offers a point of entry for reflecting on gender. He does not tell us that the conditions he depicts are a product of nature or of contingent features of our own sick society: Such instruction is the work of pedagogues, not satirists. He only lays pathologies bare, and while the literal-minded see this labor as a condoning of the pathologies, others will see it as an occasion to reflect on them.

When in turn Crumb reproduces the \”pickaninny\” caricatures of an earlier era of American visual culture, he is also working out the pathologies of American history, and not, or not simply, perpetuating them. Kara Walker, too, channels similar fragments of racist visual culture, and plainly not for the sake of perpetuating them. One significant difference between how we evaluate the two artists is that we suppose Crumb, a white American man, is capable of harboring the same pathologies that generated the racist images that are the focus of some of his art, while Walker, an African-American woman, could only possibly be reproducing them as a form of opposition. But this point of difference should not be exaggerated. If there is a racial difference between Walker and Crumb, there is a species difference between both of them and the blunt-minded ideologue or crass hawker of goods who would use a racist caricature in a political pamphlet or an ad for soap.

Twain and Crumb can help us to establish a general point that has been systematically misunderstood since the attacks in Paris. Charlie Hebdo, as the cliché has it, is an \”equal-opportunity offender,\” whose sole purpose is to épater la bourgeoisie, to aim its low mockery in all directions, but particularly at the smug, the self-serious, and the hypocritical. Inevitably, the leaders of conservative Islam, and of the political distortions of Islam we call \”Islamism,\” were not spared. Since Muslims are in serious respects a persecuted minority in France, many on the Anglophone academic left felt that in targeting Muslim leaders the magazine had gone too far.

There is, in fact, a widespread view that humor abandons its true purpose when it ceases to punch upward from below, when it ceases to play David to the great Goliath of state or society, and instead punches down, targeting the weak and the downtrodden, the suckers and the yokels. But we would have to scrap a good deal of history’s most treasured works of humor if we were to apply this criterion rigorously. If Thomas Hobbes is correct that humor is an expression of one’s own superiority, to the humiliation of the inferior party, then we would have to scrap all of it.

In his stunningly lucid Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno observes that satire cannot be, and has never been, simply a talking back of the powerless to the powerful. There is, rather, a sort of wistful nostalgia that permeates satire. Satirists detest the present age, not only in view of the horrible people in power, but also in view of the plainly unimpressive record of all of us who have failed to do anything about it. The world is not divided into the exploiters and the exploited, but rather into the sinister and the suckers.

Satire tells us we are all yokels, we are all suckers, we are all doomed.

This dimension of satire may be hard for some readers to appreciate, in view of the fact that there are rather few outlets for true satire in the United States, and most supposed satire in fact follows the misguided principle that a satirist’s true purpose is to play the underdog or to stick up for the little guy. I say \”play\” here intentionally. Jon Stewart, for example, is putting on an act, the purpose of which is to whip the audience into a frenzy of proud identification with the smart and quick-witted host. The message of Stewart to his viewers is: Those guys in charge are awful, but you and me, we’re all right.

Perhaps the mainstream outlet closest to the true mission of satire is The Onion, with the slogan Tu stultus es (\”You’re an idiot\”). The newspaper does not say, as Stewart does, that those guys out there are stupid. It says that you are stupid. Satire tells us we are all yokels, we are all suckers, we are all doomed. We’ve all got arrowheads lodged in our necks, whichever side of history we are on, whether exploiters or exploited. Death is the great equalizer, and one way of thinking about humor is that it is the mode of experience in which this equality, true equality, becomes clear.

As we move to the left of Stewart’s safe liberal affirmations, and from cable television to the fast-flying memes of social media, we find a version of humor that has group identification as its overt purpose. Thus we have Twitter feeds such as @feministhulk, which reimagines the big green brute as an enlightened explainer of the political construction of gender, or Feminist Bingo, which imagines the views of antifeminists as preset squares on a card: thus not views at all, really, but only moves within a very limited game. Some of the bingo squares cite truly awful things said by awful men—\”Abortion is worse than rape.\” Yet others say things we might all easily say ourselves in the course of our domestic lives—\”But I want to talk about this. Listen to me!\”

What is wrong with wanting to talk about things? Feminist Bingo is about consolidating a group, through jocular means, around a set of shared values. These values concern the delimitation of acceptable forms of opposition: what a domestic partner, or a friend or a work acquaintance, may legitimately say. To the left of Jon Stewart, then, we witness a preoccupation with defining the boundaries of the group (if you don’t share the joke, it’s safe to say you’re out), and an extremely illiberal desire to narrow the limits of debate. There is a core ideological commitment here which holds that anyone outside the group who \”wants to talk about things\” really only wants to sneak in, within the belly of the Trojan horse of speech, yet another assertion of his unjust power.

This point of difference between liberals and the new-media left has been analyzed by Jonathan Chait in a recent article in New York magazine. Chait rightly observes that, in the United States, the right has created a huge conceptual mess as a result of its very successful propaganda campaign to blur the distinction between liberals and leftists. But where Chait goes wrong is to suppose that the delegitimation of speech is characteristic of true leftists. It definitely has no place in classical liberalism, but it doesn’t really have any place in Marxism either. Many Marxist and socialist theorists over the past few years have eloquently disputed the core commitments of identity politics, the principal ideological basis of speech-policing tactics. Many members of the traditional left—which predates the rise of identity politics and sees material inequalities between groups as far more important than mapping individuals on the grid of intersectionality—see identity politics as a betrayal of the quest for the sort of broad solidarity that would be required for any real change in the economic relations on which society is built.

So speech-policing is not truly Marxist. Yet it is, plainly, Stalinist, and thus understanding the current situation has a great deal to do with how we understand 20th-century history, in particular whether or not we think Stalinism is a development of Marxism or a betrayal of it. I’m of the latter camp, not principally in view of Stalinism’s brutality, but in view of its turn away from internationalism and toward the project of building socialism in a single state. This was in its own way a turn to identity politics, and sure enough by the end of his reign Stalin was persecuting not just individuals with educations or creative impulses or sensibilities that could not be controlled, but also whole ethnic groups, including, at the time of his death, Jews.

Now here one might protest that there is an obvious difference between individuals policing one another’s language and state repression. Of course there’s a difference. There’s also a difference between a neo-Nazi parade in Skokie and a Nuremberg rally, but we reasonably take the one as a possible portent of the return of the other, and do our best to prevent that. In its approach to opposing views as illegitimate a priori, and in its technique of automatically delegitimating those deemed enemies of social justice, the new activism—much of it rooted in academe—revives the pathologies of midcentury Stalinism.

It is the return of this mentality that has produced the ridiculous figure of the \”male feminist pig,\” as he is now being called on social media: the opportunistic young man who believes he has discerned which way the wind is blowing and so presents himself for service to the feminist cause, but does so in transparent service of his own interests as well. Such men sometimes act as enforcers, helping to create an environment in which few dare to speak out, for example, against even the most flagrant violations of due process in a university’s handling of sexual-assault accusations, for fear of being called a \”rape apologist.\” Liberal dissent is squelched by the enforcement of a rigid line. Plainly, here, liberalism and leftism are not the same thing.

Where have we seen this before? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes in The Gulag Archipelago of a Soviet conference in honor of Stalin, where a speech was met with \”stormy applause, rising to an ovation. … But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.\” No one could stop, though, as there were NKVD enforcers standing around the room, also clapping, and watching to see who would be the first to stop. So all clapped themselves to exhaustion, with pretend glee, with glee that is obviously pretend: a political reality sustained by bullshit in the rigorous Frankfurtian sense, where everyone knows that everyone knows the enthusiasm is a lie, but maintains it is sincere nonetheless.

Outside of the meeting halls, of course, humor thrived, as samizdat, as oral culture, as the irrepressible truth beyond the pretense. The transmission of anekdoty—jokes, but literally anecdotes—remained a crucial form of resistance. Not surprisingly, many of these jokes focused on the sort of humor beloved by Jews, typically embodied in the figure of a certain Rabinovich. It is existential humor: tragic and hilarious. One joke in particular tells the whole story of the idiocy of regimes of seriousness, and of the redemptive power of humor as a response. An Odessa census taker knocks at Rabinovich’s door. \”Does Rabinovich live here?\” he asks. Rabin­ovich replies: \”You call this living?\” (Razve eto zhizn’?)

This joke distills to its very essence much of what is at stake in the unending war between the forces of grim earnestness and the humorous mode of existence. The earnest ones do what they can to build a perfect society, but always come up short. And so they panic, and come to believe that they can correct for the shortcomings by suppressing mockery of their effort. The mocker knows that that suppression is the very thing that prevents him from fully living, and resorts to humor as the sole available portal to the sort of freedom that the earnest ones see as a threat. The expectations one might have had for life prove to be strained, and collapse into nothing. Life is a joke. This is a disappointment, of course, yet there is liberation in acknowledging it. This is the form of liberation the earnest ones, the straight-faced state-builders and regulators, cannot even consider. And this is why they hate jokes, do not understand them, and are afraid of them.

Prison was often the fate of those caught circulating samizdat in the Soviet Union—not only the \”high\” samizdat such as Solzhenitsyn, but the crude and lowly joke books as well. The official rationale for the prohibition was in context no less reasonable than the rationale given more recently for condemning Charlie Hebdo or R. Crumb. There is always a perception that the very serious project of perfecting society is being undermined. But society will not be perfected, and it is a last resort of desperate perfecters to go after the subtle-minded satirists who understand this.

Freedom of speech, I have been working toward saying, needs to be defended. But we also need to be careful not to lose the sort of critical sophistication that enables us to appreciate the very different functions of different moods of speech. The satirical mood is not the declarative mood. Mockery of an imam in Charlie Hebdo is not the Islamophobia of the National Front. Vovochka, another stock figure of Soviet jokes, who explains to his teacher when asked why he is hurling spit-wads in class that he is a \”class enemy,\” is not really a class enemy.

There are good liberal arguments for why freedom of speech is not, as the Marxists would have it, a mere formal freedom, rendered otiose by the existence of real material inequality in society. These are the arguments that the ACLU can be heard to rehearse, which say that the Klan’s right to proclaim the inferiority of African-­Americans and the nefariousness of Jews contributes, on balance, to the greater health of a society that includes African-Americans and Jews as equals. But I have not been considering these arguments. I have been considering the sort of speech that, unlike the speech of blunt-minded Klansmen, does not mean what it says, is not declarative, but rather creative, imaginative, humorous, and free.

The great threat of political correctness, as of its Stalinist ancestors, is that it fails to make this distinction, and instead takes all speech to be declarative, refuses to recognize that speech can also be a product of the free play of the imagination. This last phrase is of course borrowed from Friedrich Schiller, whose idealist conception of freedom Marxists would come to think of as a mere bourgeois conceit. But this opposition between Schiller’s freedom of the imagination and the Marxists’ insistence that real freedom can only come with real material equality is not necessarily an opposition. Let us indeed work toward material equality. But we will still be mortal, and we will still keep messing things up for ourselves. This is where freedom of the imagination, and most important the free play of humor, will consistently prove to be a useful thing to fall back on.

While we associate political correctness with the left, it is of course not only the left that commits this sort of error: Think of attempts to prosecute hip-hop artists, never materially associated with any crime, simply in view of the boastful violence of their lyrics. It is however at present the left that is most susceptible to the illusion that speech itself can be literally violent, and that is also most unable to distinguish between the declarative and the satirical mood. It is from the left that we hear so often these days that \”It’s just a joke\” can never be a valid defense in response to an accusation of offense. This point is at least half-right: One should not say \”just a joke,\” as if jokes were unimportant. They are vitally important, but for the very same reason they are also irrepressible—not by death squads and not by states.

The basic division in society is between those who suppose the function of language is to get things definitively right, and who strive to use this right language, codified and regulated, for the perfection of society, and those who appreciate that language is infinitely generative, creative, and free, and that it must not be subjected to the regulation. This is an imperative that is protected by the First Amendment in America and by liberal laws elsewhere. But the humorous use of language, which is language at its most free, is worthy of particular care and protection. If it is lost, all is lost. The elimination of class antagonism, if this means we must banish from memory the figure of Vovochka antagonizing his class, is simply not worth it. One should of course take seriously serious efforts to improve society. But when these efforts fail, in whole or in part, it is only humor that offers redemption. So far, human expectations have always been strained, and have always come, give or take a bit, to nothing. In this respect reality itself has the form of a joke, and humor the force of truth.

Author Bio:
Justin E.H. Smith is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris Diderot.