The Tragedy of Comedy
by Joshua Katz
by Joshua Katz
The best indicator of a society in decline is not what a society will accept, but what it will laugh at. We all know that people can be convinced to accept great evil in the name of the state. We can all agree that this is not a good thing. I think, though, that once a central state is in place, all people everywhere and at all times will tolerate great evil, with only a few in any society actively opposing it. So, that people have passively accepted illegal, unjustified wars, torture, denial of habeas corpus and due process, search and seizure without warrant, and so on is not a surprise, and is not necessarily an indication that the people and their moral sense have declined more than usual.
Indeed, even the fact that more and more citizens are willing to actively support such extraordinary things may not be a terribly dramatic indicator. The people who support such things today, had they lived in another time, would likely have been just as quick to support them then.
There is, though, an ultimate indicator that our society and culture have declined to such an extent that they will soon be unable to bear the weight of civilization. When people do not just accept tyranny, do not just provide intellectual justification for tyranny, but laugh at tyranny, joke about tyranny, then a dark age has been entered. Such a society is not likely to turn around before sinking into the lowest depths of depravity. This is the situation I fear we now face in America.
The proximate cause for my concern is the forthcoming release of a movie titled Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo should have entered our culture as an outrage, as something we are ashamed to have our tax dollars pay for — something that we must demand an end to. It didn't, it entered as a topic for discussion. This, though, is far worse than what it is now — a punch line. When Guanatamo is a punch line, the culture has been destroyed.
This, though, is only the proximate cause. Our culture has, over the last few years, grown used to laughing at all manner of atrocities. I have seen students wearing t-shirts with the phrase "Don't tase me bro." Some decades ago, such shirts may have functioned as a mild form of protest. Today, they are worn as a joke, and we are able to immediately identify that this is so. People believe that the line is hilarious. In fact, just around New Years, I saw a VH1 countdown of the funniest you-tubes of the year. The incident in question was ranked just above a cat vomitting.
Just the other day, I heard laughter erupted from the computer lab at school. The students were doubled over with laughter as they watched a video of American troops training Iraqi soldiers. We might be the first culture ever to consider the illegal occupation of a foreign country as a source of comedy material.
I will be called a prude, a kill-joy. I am nothing of the sort; I am, though, unfortunately aware that making a joke out of atrocities lessens their impact and signals the final stage of their acceptance. A culture that is willing to debate the ethics of torture is not in good shape, but at least it understands that there is something which they must argue for. A culture which will literally laugh at the thought of torture has lost the sense that atrocities must either be fought against or justified.
Let's be clear what these events all signify. Guantanamo Bay is a place where people are held, without charges, for 7 years now. In order to avoid judicial oversight, the executive has flown these people outside the boundaries of the United States; there is no law in place to protect them. The people held there, who have not been convicted, or even charged with a crime, are routinely tortured. At the University of Florida, a student asked a Senator a question about what he suspected was a stolen election. In response, he was electrocuted, beaten, and arrested. These are not jokes, these are deadly serious actions which establish, beyond all doubt, that a tyrannical order is being built. Our culture has turned them into jokes.
Why do I say that this is the final sign that the culture is done for? The fact is, civilization is precious, and hard to maintain. A culture must work to avoid falling into barbarity and strife, the characteristics of the uncivilized land. Unfortunately, war, arrest without charges, and torture are not unusual, historically speaking — they are the norm. What is unusual is their abolition, which is why protections against their reinstatement must be upheld constantly. The surest way to eliminate these practices, as we well know, is anarcho-capitalism; that is, the elimination of feudal privilege, and of the ruling class. Short of this, even in the context of a state, we can at least try to build legal protections, which will work to a greater or lesser degree. However, because the state is assumed by most to be subject to a different morality than the people, there are difficulties involved with any effort to hold it back from behaving in these ways. Inevitably, a feeling will emerge that what the state does is right by definition, and that those who stand up to it, even in the name of ideals which all acknowledge, are wrong. This is natural, and to be expected, and it is one of the reasons that the formation of a state tends inevitably to lead to the destruction of civilized norms.
There remains, though, some capacity for moral outrage. The remnant remains, to petualantly remind the people that such actions are wrong. So long as people feel a need to argue for barbarity, the potential remains that the culture can be saved from barbarism. As Mises explains, government ultimately does reflect society's beliefs. The potential remains, then, that people could be convinced of the need to stop such actions. Making a comedy of it, though, lessens the moral blow, and renders the society at large deaf to the reminders of the remnant. Once people begin to laugh at the notion of arresting a man without charges and sexually abusing him, they will no longer be reachable through moral reasoning. If we could but step out of our own culture, something libertarians seem more able to do than most, the horror of it would be obvious. The people would not just be sitting complacently by while their government does horrible things in their names, not just tolerating it so long as they have creature comforts, food, beer, and football, not actually laughing at it — getting enjoyment out of another's suffering — when that suffering is being inflicted in their names! The horror simply defies explanation.
The argument has been made that such comedy arises out of a repressed horror at what is happening. After all, this line of reasoning runs, what else is a man to do? He cannot stop what is happening, he can do nothing to help, and he must find a way to cope. Perhaps he would get drunk or take drugs, but those things are hard to do legally unless you go to a psychiatrist. So, he laughs at it rather than crying. The answer is, if this is the case for all men, or even for a significant portion of men, then the evil of the comedian is even larger than I am suggesting. If men are only living with this evil because they are laughing at it, then if they stopped laughing, they could end it. Mises' statement runs both ways — if the society turned so that such events brought widespread moral outrage, then the government would no longer be able to behave this way. No violent revolution would be necessary — or possible, the actions would simply end. They continue only because they receive passive support — support which, under the terms of this argument, is received largely because people are kept laughing too much, and crying too little.
Men who laugh at torture and warfare are able also to laugh at men who work diligently to stop evil, men like Ron Paul, and Austrians, and the remnant. That Paul's campaign was considered laughable by many is evidence that our humor has wrought the consequences I claim. For all candidates in the race to acknowledge that Paul was the only one who honored the Constitution; for all citizens to acknowledge that Paul was the only man of integrity to run for President in recent years; for the society at large to recognize that Paul was the only candidate calling for freedom and the rule of law — and yet for all these to also believe that he has no chance, and ought to have no chance, that he is a joke, to literally laugh in his face at the debates — indeed, the culture is beyond saving.
April 28, 2008
Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is the Libertarian Party of Connecticut's candidate for State General Assembly in the 23rd district. A member of the faculty of Oxford Academy in Westbrook, Connecticut, his areas of interest include mathematics, philosophy of mind, and the use of the synthetic a priori. He enjoys a glass of port and a wedge of Brie as an after-dinner treat.
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