Sunday, February 12, 2017

Serious Humor in Trumpian Times

Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live

While Donald Trump himself often comes across as a buffoon, there's nothing particularly funny about Trumpism as a political ideology: it's by and large a bleak, dystopian affair filled with horrific problems that only a superhero/savior can fix.  "I alone can fix it," Trump said during the Republican National Convention.  "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now," he said during his inauguration speech.

There wasn't much humor for people who were detained at airports due to the administration's ill-conceived and possibly unconstitutional travel ban.  Trump's cabinet thus far, which includes controversial members like Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, and Betsy DeVos, is no laughing matter.  And those are just the major points.  It's frankly almost impossible to keep up with the administration's deeds from the nefarious to the bizarre (this website makes a good attempt).

It might seem like there would be precious little levity in these Trumpian times.  Yet in the last few weeks comedy has been made great again.

Comedians in the Netherlands, riffing off of Trump's "America First" policy, gave us "America First, Netherlands Second," a call which has been mimicked by almost every other country in Europe and several on other continents.  The original Dutch video is probably the best, but I particularly love Namibia's contribution.  Time Magazine has a comprehensive collection.  Not only are these videos hilarious trolling of Trump, you might even learn a little bit about countries around the world.  And it's not limited to our world.  There's even one about Mordor!

And of course there's the high octane comedic genius of Melissa McCarthy's portrayal of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.  Seriously, if you haven't watched one of those sketches, check it out the second one below.

Does Humor Have a Serious Value?

Funny as all this is, what's the point?  Is there something callous about laughing in these trying times?

It's possible that comedy has real political effects.  It's possible that Tina Fey's portrayal of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live in 2008 had some effect on the US Presidential election that year.  It's possible that Melissa McCarthy's Sean Spicer and Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump are having some effect on the Trump administration today, perhaps by revealing to Americans the absurdity of what we've done.  Comedy may be showing us what happened when many Americans stopped taking politics seriously.

Whether such speculations are correct or not, humor has at least two more effects.  First, it's a vital short-term coping mechanism.  Second, it may have deeper existential dimensions.

On the first point, humor might be necessary for some of us to live through Trumpian times without succumbing to decimating despair or cynical detachment.  It would be easy to despair.  I've felt my own share of despair in the last couple months.  But a little humor can help us put the despair on the back burner for a moment, long enough to pick ourselves up and get back to work.

Humor can also keep us from turning away from the social and political world.  In laughing at the Trump administration's foibles and bizarreness, we might maintain a hope for something better, something that might not be quite so funny -- or perhaps funny in a better way.

This is why I think it's wise to avoid getting too nasty.  There's a point at which humor goes from constructive to cruel.  Aside from the fact that it'd be nice to give people some respect even as we give them shit, excessively nasty humor can have ill effects on those telling the jokes.  Under the guise of humor, we can sometimes feed our worst impulses.  There's no reason, for instance, to make fun of ten-year-old Barron Trump; his adult siblings give us plenty of material to work with.

Likewise, there were a lot of nasty memes going around during the Democratic primary (for all the good any of that did...).  One of them featured Bernie Sanders cast as the hip expert and Hillary Clinton as the lame amateur.  As Annie Zeleski pointed out, this was predictably sexist, casting the man as the expert and the woman as the amateur.  There's plenty of comedic material about Clinton (her awkwardness, her love of pantsuits, etc.), but she's no ill informed amateur.

Another trouble with mean-spirited humor is that it serves to cultivate cynicism: if the system is irredeemably corrupt, there's no point in working to change it.  You might as well sit at home laughing at dank memes or racist Obama pictures while the world burns around you.

Of course there's sometimes a fine line between productive humor and cruelty masquerading as humor.  I'm not saying we have to be nice all the time.  But as I said in my Martin Luther King Day post on the moral arc, "fighting fire with fire needs to be a controlled burn, lest it consume us all."

The importance of humor goes deeper than this, though.  The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (who was by all reports not a terribly funny guy) once wrote
Humour is not a mood, but a way of looking at the world. So, if it’s right to say that humour was eradicated in Nazi Germany, that does not mean that people were not in good spirits or anything of that sort, but something much deeper & more important. (Culture and Value 88)
I don't want to compare the Trump administration with Nazi Germany (this administration is thankfully far less competent), but I think Wittgenstein is on to something.  Humor is a way of seeing the world, one that we may be tempted to lose in difficult times, but to lose it would be to lose something of ourselves.

Apparently there are humorless people who live full, meaningful lives (Wittgenstein may have been one of them).  I applaud their means of psychological maintenance, whatever they may be.  For my part, however, I can't imagine facing the depths of the human condition without humor.

Humor is more than just a coping mechanism.  It reveals something about the human condition.  Sure, you could get morose and angsty when confronted with what Albert Camus calls absurdity.  Or you can laugh.  As I put it in my post on the value of subtle humor on June 25, 2015 (back when Trump's nine-day-old candidacy was still a joke):
We are thrust into a universe we don't understand with no explanation.  We just barely have the ability to comprehend mysteries that we seem unable to solve (such as: how could there be "old news"?). Our brief moments of conscious existence cease after an absurdly short period of time, time many of us spend reading inane listicles and waiting in line to buy overpriced coffee.  If you think about it, the human condition is pretty funny.
So humor is essential in these Trumpian times.  Constructive laughter is at times the most effective response to the dismal dystopianism of Trumpism, both for our short-term resistance and for the longer term project of being human.