Scoundrel Time

Laughing at the Demagogues

East end of a westbound elephant, Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa by Tony Eprile

It’s become predictable—though still, I hope, not normal—that a Saturday Night Live skit will be followed by an angry tweet from the new President, using words like “unwatchable” and “not funny.” If these silly overreactions at times seem like part of the joke, it’s because we’re still not used to the fact that we’ve moved into a world of harsh simplicities and policies based on fear and fury. The whole furor seems a tempest in a Trump-pot, but that’s because we think that if we still can laugh at someone’s foibles, everyone will find it funny. If there’s one thing that authoritarian types invariably lack, it’s a sense of humor. For who can march around, jutting out their chins, and bellowing slogans if they have a sense of the ridiculous? Charlie Chaplin, who was not Jewish, found himself on a Nazi hit-list featuring “artistic Jews” after he parodied Germany’s leader in the film, “The Great Dictator.” The Führer was evidently not amused.

I’ve been thinking lately of a book that explores just how dire the consequences can be when the humorless encounter a joke. This is Milan Kundera’s first novel, The Joke, and I reread it recently in hope it would give me some inspiration to reckon with the dark times we’re facing. The novel begins as Ludvik, a young man in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, decides to take out his frustration with his girlfriend by sending her a postcard mocking her ardent, unquestioning beliefs:

I too believed in the imminence of a revolution in Western Europe; there was only one thing I could not accept: that she should be so happy when I was missing her so much. So I bought a postcard and (to hurt, shock, and confuse her) wrote: Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.

Ludvik’s postcard, sent to the training course where his girlfriend Marketa is spending her summer, is seen by the “Comrades in charge” and our wry protagonist finds himself on trial for anti-revolutionary activities. The trial is presided over by a friend, Comrade Zemanek, who is now the university’s Party Chairman. The more the 19-year-old Ludvik tries to explain that he was just trying to be funny, the worse things get. Almost as bad is the internal effect of attempting to explain what had been a whim:

…(and here we come to what now, with hindsight, I find most upsetting and most revealing), I began to see the three sentences on the postcard through the eyes of my interrogators; I myself began to feel outraged by my words and to fear that something serious did in fact lurk behind their comedy, to know that I never really had been one with the body of the Party, that I had never been a true proletarian revolutionary…” (pp45-6)

His erstwhile friend Zemanek presents a devastating case against Ludvik at a Party hearing, and there follows the horrifying moment when every one of the 100 or so people present (including friends and teachers) raise their hands to approve his expulsion not only from the Party but from the university as well. Ludvik thus loses his military deferment and is then sent to a military labor camp, virtually a prisoner and perceived enemy of the state. All due to his little joke.

The novel describes Ludvik’s many hardships and his increasing cynicism, but gradually shifts from its more overt political critique to explore various kinds of cosmic jokes of fate as Ludvik later tries to extract vengeance for the injury done against him. The book has much to say about sexual aggression and the irony of fate, but what stays with me is that moment of helplessness when this not entirely innocent young man tries to explain that he was just trying to be funny. It reminded me of a story told to me by a fellow South African, Philip Ivey, whom I interviewed for an article on draft resistance in the late 1980s. He had become famous for a moment when he’d turned the tables on the Apartheid authorities. The South African police were notorious for using a water cannon filled with purple dye to spray anti-Apartheid protestors, leaving anyone with indelible purple dye on their skin subject to arrest at a later date. The activists nicknamed this spray “Purple Rain.” Philip had seized an opportunity when the water cannon was passing the ruling Nationalist Party’s headquarters in Cape Town and jumped up onto the vehicle, grabbed the nozzle and swung it around to cover the headquarters’ building façade in purple dye. He had then jumped off the vehicle and escaped into the crowd. However, a photographer had caught the moment, the image not quite clear enough to identify him.

This picture was widely distributed, even becoming a postcard for several anti-Apartheid organizations. The police were furious at this subversion of their own weaponry, and they assiduously sought out the perpetrator of this act. Philip was arrested and the police confronted him with evidence against him, including a letter to him that had never reached him. A mutual friend, then studying in New York, had heard of his act of defiance and written him a short note to say that she had heard he was “listening to a lot of Prince lately.” I like to think she wrote this on the postcard, but I don’t think she was that foolhardy. Philip tried to argue that his friend was merely making fun of his musical tastes. In the end, the attorney general dropped the charges against him and other arrested activists. When I talked to the sender of the letter, she said that she couldn’t believe how stupid she’d been. She had clearly been in America too long, she said, and had become lazy and not on her guard, so foolish as to provide ammunition to the authorities. For her, it was a matter of self-blame…not the political absurdity that you could endanger someone by making a simple joke.

But the fact that we are moving into a time when jokes become dangerous means it’s all the more important that we continue to mock those in authority, that we play pranks, that we imitate foolish mannerisms so that people laugh at the absurd postures instead of marching behind them. Humor is often the weapon of the underclass because it renders the viciousness harmless and laughable. I once worked with a survivor of Dachau who had an endless supply of jokes about beleaguered Jews. A typical one: Several Jews are trying to escape the SS in Poland and they persuade the driver of a horse-cart to hide them inside some burlap bags, along with sheep he’s bringing to the market. The cart is stopped by an SS patrol, and the commander points to a bag and asks what’s in it. “Sheep,” says the driver. The commander strikes the bag with a stick, and the sheep inside bellows, “Baaa!” He then points to another bag and demands what’s inside. Not wanting him to hit it, the driver says: “Teacups.” The commander strikes it with his stick anyway. “Clink, clink,” says the Jew inside the bag. “Okay, drive on,” says the Nazi.

George Orwell illustrates in his autobiographical essay, “Shooting An Elephant”, how oppressive the fear of being laughed at is for white colonial officers. “When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys,” Orwell explains:

For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.  He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.

Orwell, then a policeman in Burma, found himself forced into the position of having to shoot a no-longer dangerous elephant only because he had been followed by a large crowd. He hates the idea of killing this large, sentient animal but he does it anyway; otherwise, “The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

Relinquishing tyranny means also relinquishing the fear of being laughed at. The willingness to be mocked—especially in a good-natured way—is the sign of a strong leader. Barack Obama felt comfortable enough with Keegan-Michael Key’s parody of “angry Obama” to invite the latter on stage with him. While campaigning for election, Nelson Mandela used to regularly share the podium at political rallies with Evita Bezuidenhout, the cross-dressing caricature of a middle-aged Afrikaner woman created by Pieter-Dirk Uys. They would appear in front of crowds of as many as 100,000, Madiba holding tight onto Evita’s hand as Pieter-Dirk/Evita would make politically incorrect jokes about how Mandela must not get his blue pills mixed up with the pills for his eyes as “no one wants a blue-eyed black president.” In contrast, Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki engaged in several angry exchanges with Uys, infuriated by Evita’s criticism of Mbeki’s poor handling of the country’s AIDS crisis.

Totalitarian regimes also tend to censor criticism—including the implied critique of humor—and to encourage self-censorship. This is done through changes in the law, through intimidation, and through restricting access to media critical of the administration. The former is still unlikely in the US, but we can already see the latter methods in process well before Trump has stepped foot in the White House. During the Apartheid years, Pieter-Dirk Uys found the perfect response to the National Party’s extensive censorship. The censorship boards were required to investigate any citizen complaint of possible violations. When Uys put on his one-man shows in Cape Town, they were quickly shut down for violation of the very broad censorship laws that permitted the banning of publications and public performances deemed to be “blasphemous,” “offensive or harmful to public morals,” or a threat to society’s “peace and good order.” A week or so later, Uys would put on a brand new performance, and that, too, would be banned. After a while, Uys revealed to the press that he was the citizen writing complaints about his own shows, providing completely ridiculous reasons for banning them, such as the performer’s use of presumed obscenities that were completely made up. (He said disgusting obscene words like kroch and flisch and vreg to a mixed audience, the letters would claim, and sure enough that became the reason the board banned that particular play.) The censorship board became the object of much mirth, as Uys claimed they were his most loyal audience.

Some people argue that humor provides a catharsis that vitiates against true protest and more direct forms of opposition to totalitarianism. But the strongest argument I can think of for satire and parody is that despots and authoritarian regimes of all stripes hate it so.

“Not funny at all!” “Totally biased.” “Unwatchable.”

One can ask no higher praise.