Good and Evil Humor
A few days back I wrote a little piece satirizing the truly crazy obsessions of the media with Sarah Palin. In the course of the piece, I assumed the “voice” of various media types who hate, not just her, but her children—and especially her disabled son, Trig—with the white hot passion of a thousand suns. I linked to one particularly despicable attack on Trig (whose author denied was fantastically tasteless and whose editors only removed from their site when the outcry from readers became so intense that sponsors began to pull out).
Most people saw the point of the satire but one good man wrote me in fury and told me, with perfectly understandable anger, that I better never meet him in person or he’d knock my block off (or words to that effect). His instincts where, I think, pitch perfect—because he has a disabled daughter and was defending her from the culture of death with a father’s righteous anger. He’d only skimmed the piece and had missed that I was writing satire. When I explained to him that my purpose was to hold up our Chattering Class’ sophisticated contempt for the disabled to broad daylight and heap upon it the scorn it deserved, he sweetly apologized and we parted as friends.
It’s a story that shows what a tricky business humor can be. Some people have the notion that humorous things are not “serious” things. This is, however, completely false. It was Chesterton who said that the opposite of “funny” is not “serious”. The opposite of “funny” is “not funny”. In fact, it is not possible to be funny about things that are not serious. All our best humor is about all our most serious subjects: sex, death, politics. Find any hilarious joke and you will find that it traces back to something serious.
With satire, there is a particular burden or duty that goes with the genre and it is simply this: the rule in satire is that it is open season on the powerful, but forbidden to mock the weak. That’s because satire is, in fact, the province of the underdog and often the only way in which the people on the short end of the stick get to cope with their situation. So when a Donald Trump, imagining himself suited to add the Presidency to his long list of bought-and-paid-for toys, tries to suddenly persuade us he’s had a Come to Jesus moment and really cares about abortion after a long career as a supporter of Planned Parenthood, it’s bombs away for those of us who enjoy satire. That’s why, when John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence, he joked that he was writing large so Fat King George would not need to put on his spectacles to read. It is a healthy thing to laugh at a tyrant.
But it’s a very different thing to laugh at, say, the desperate teenager who is terrified that her boyfriend will beat her if she doesn’t get an abortion and writes begging for help. To mock her would be a grave sin, because she is powerless.
Indeed, one of the markers of a culture that has begun to undergo serious rot is precisely the moment when the powerful begin to pervert satire into mockery of the defenseless—and especially when the general culture meets that mockery with a gush of popular approval. We saw precisely this, for instance, in the ramp up to the Holocaust as popular publications made Jew hatred the In Thing. We see it now as our manufacturers of culture make contempt for the weak trendy again. It’s endemic on the Left (as the contempt heaped on Trig demonstrates) and it is also visible in other ways on the Right, as Rush Limbaugh’s “Homeless updates” demonstrate as they make fun of the most wretched members of our society.
The Church’s teaching is clear: the measure of a society’s health is in how it treats its most defenseless members. Just as it is impossible to imagine Jesus joining the despicable chortles to be heard on the Left over “retards”, so it is unthinkable that Jesus would be joining in the general guffaws over the homeless and mentally ill who wander our streets.
When the powerful start to satirize the weak, not merely with impunity, but with the fawning admiration of sycophants and hangers-on who see such contempt for the weak as the next stylin’ trend in hipness, civilization is very near its end and tyranny of the rich and powerful is just around the corner. Something to consider on this day in which we celebrate our long history of liberty and justice for all.