CLVXIII – The Emperor Has No Humor

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There
is nothing we humans need
so much to do right now as
to laugh at ourselves, particularly
at those aspects of our lives
that we take most seriously.
In a complex world of uncertainty
and inconstancy, there is
nothing so dangerous as those
who rigidly posture in self-righteous
grimness. This is evident
throughout much of our institutionalized
world, nowhere more so than
at airports, which have become
theaters of the absurd where
psychodrama plays itself out
without benefit of a healing
catharsis.

A
work of satire opened recently
at Boston's Logan International
Airport, authored by a nineteen-year-old
MIT student by the name of
Star Simpson. She showed up
wearing a sweat shirt with
a circuit board and nine-volt
battery pinned to it that
no teenager would have mistaken
for a bomb. The young woman
explained the item as a piece
of art, designed for and worn
to MIT's career day. To the
airport security crowd, however
— the kind of people to whom
the undetermined and ambiguous
are to be taken as imminent
threats — the woman was seen
as being in possession of
a bomb.

This
incident is reminiscent of
the young man who, a few months
ago, was arrested for wearing
a T-shirt with what was obviously
a drawing showing sticks
of dynamite connected by wires.
This man, along with Ms. Simpson,
experienced how confronting
the state can become as dangerous
as teasing a rabid dog. The
Boston airport's police chief
commented that Ms. Simpson
might have been shot over
this matter, and should consider
herself u201Clucky to be in a
cell as opposed to the morgue.u201D

This
is not the first time that
Boston authorities have revealed
their gullibility at being
taken in by teenagers with
toy-store gadgets. Earlier
this year, a number of battery-operated
plastic circuit-boards, each
containing a smiling face
character, showed up in highly-visible
public locations. Government
officials responded the way
government officials always
respond to the unknown: they
panicked and shut down much
of the public transportation
facilities for a considerable
time. When it was revealed
that the devices had been
put up around the city as
advertising for the Cartoon
Network, government officials
cajoled the young men into
making apologies for their
actions. A more appropriate
response would have been for
the government officials to
have resigned their offices
for having irrationally inconvenienced
tens of thousands of commuters.

In
court, the government prosecutor
declared that Ms. Simpson
demonstrated u201Ca total disregard
to understand the context
of the situation she is in,
which is an airport of post-9/11.u201D
By definition, all
subsequent human activity
will occur in u201Cthe contextu201D
of u201Cpost-9/11.u201D Does he prognosticate
that those who engage in similar
activity in 2107 or even 2207,
will have to deal with an
equally absurd prosecutor?

I
would suggest that this prosecutor
shows a far greater u201Cdisregardu201D
for the cultural history of
the area he presumes to defend.
Not far into the Boston suburbs
is the town of Concord, wherein
once resided one of America's
most revered public figures,
Henry David Thoreau. He wrote
an essay depicting the night
he spent in jail rather than
pay a poll-tax. His focus
was upon the apparent mindset
of town officials who totally
failed to grasp the meaning
of his protest. u201CThey plainly
did not know how to treat
me,u201D he stated, u201Cbut behaved
like persons who are underbred.u201D
In the end, Thoreau declared,
u201CI saw that the State was
half-witted, that it was timid
as a lone woman with her silver
spoons, and that it did not
know its friends from its
foes, and I lost all my remaining
respect for it, and pitied
it.u201D

Most
Americans will join with government
officials and members of the
media in condemning Ms. Simpson
for her actions, and will
fail to acknowledge the importance
of her contribution to helping
restore the sanity that has,
for over six years now, been
dissipated in an incessant
collective frenzy. Western
civilization — with its emphasis
on the literal and the concrete
for defining u201Crealityu201D — long
ago dismissed the value of
artists, poets, and comedians,
in helping to balance the
diverse energies and interests
at work within society. It
was once considered the role
of the u201Cjokeru201D or u201Cjester,u201D
to challenge the king — via
humor — whenever his dictates
began to go so far as to threaten
the base of his own power.
The joker's role was to antagonize,
albeit at a subdued level;
to incite the king to consider
less troublesome options.
Through humor, contradictions
were both revealed and eliminated.

The
uncertain and unpredictable
nature of our world is rendered
more troublesome by the fact
that our understanding of
it rests on networks of subjective
opinions. Each of us holds
onto the u201Creal worldu201D with
strings attached to what we
have been taught are u201Ceternal
truthsu201D but which, upon closer
examination, often prove to
be indistinguishable from
fashion. In troublesome times
— as we are now experiencing
with the decline of centralized
authorities (e.g., the state)
and the emergence of horizontal
networks (e.g., the Internet)
– the boundary lines
that separate our versions
of u201Cthe good, the true, and
the beautifulu201D from u201Cthe bad,
the false, and the ugly,u201D
become hazy. Many of us find
ourselves drawn back to the
u201Csettled truthsu201D that are
now in decline, and welcome
the assurances of leaders
who soothe us that u201Cif you're
not with us, you're against
us.u201D

Because
institutions are organizations
that have become their own
reasons for being, their well-being
depends upon restraining any
changes that might prove threatening
to their sense of permanency.
As a consequence, the boundary-lines
we have drawn around our versions
of u201Ctruthu201D must be firmly
defended against those who
would redefine reality and,
in the process, possibly shake
the foundations upon which
our institutional attachments
are built. One sees such forces
at work in the presidential
campaign of Ron Paul, whose
interpretation of current
events as an extension of
decades of destructive American
foreign policy has rendered
him persona non grata to the
institutional order.

This
institutional need to remain
unyielding to change is what
makes judges and bureaucrats
— as well as many other institutional
officials — such a humorless
bunch. Courtrooms often prove
to be settings for the theater
of the absurd, with judges
imposing rigidly-defined rules
to govern the complexities
of the human condition. Likewise,
DMV clerks cling to a faith
that every eventuality with
which a motorist might have
to deal has been explicitly
anticipated and spelled out
in a detailed set of regulations.
The prospect of some unanticipated
problem or, worse, the existence
of contradictions among different
code sections, would send
these clerks into great turmoil.
Lines exist to define and
restrain conduct, and children
are taught the importance
of u201Cnot going over the lineu201D
in their coloring-books.

Humor,
like art and poetry, has a
way of blurring the lines
of rigidity that are necessary
for preserving the prevailing
mindset. Humor — a pun, for
example — helps us look across
the boundary lines of separation
and see how we are interconnected
with what we have been trained
to think of as the irreconcilable.
But institutionalists cannot
abide such open questioning,
as its very presence implies
a sense of fluidity — rather
than inflexibility — to life
processes.

It
is in just such an environment
that the artist and the joker
are most needed. Their role
is to challenge those in authority
by bringing to the surface
the dangers, evils, and absurdities
implicit in state action.
But to fulfill that function
requires a common awareness
of its importance. This role
comes to be despised, however,
as men and women attach their
identities — their sense of
being — to the state itself.

I
have long regarded Lenny Bruce
as one of the most important
20th century contributors
to libertarian thinking. It
is not that u201Clibertyu201D consists
in the use of four-letter
words for which Bruce was
so well-known, but that he
helped to create an environment
in which it was acceptable
to think and speak of politicians
and their systems in four-letter
terms. Once we freed ourselves
from the burden of regarding
state authority with awe and
respect, we could proceed
to an open inquiry into its
more insidious nature. In
their 1975 article, u201CFour-Letter
Threats to Authority,u201D David
Paletz and William Harris
explored the dynamics by which
unrestrained speech becomes
a threat to political rule.

Humor
and art have long been annoyances
to the state. People cannot
be seen laughing at what the
state regards as sacrosanct.
Jon Stewart has conflated
news and entertainment — in
its creative sense — with
a television program that
allows politicians to reveal
their own contradictions and
absurdities. The comedian
George Carlin did a pre-9/11
routine on airport security
which, if performed today,
would probably subject him
to the same fate as Star Simpson.
Ms. Simpson has provided an
opportunity for Boston officials
to demonstrate how easily
they can be stampeded into
a paranoid fear of childhood
toys. In so doing, she has
confirmed the insights of
her 19th century
Massachusetts predecessor,
who u201Csaw that the State was
half-witted, . . . and did
not know its friends from
its foes.u201D

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