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

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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