So You’re a Subversive Artist, Are You?

Maybe it’s because Don Rickles, the best-known insult comic of postwar America, just died, but I feel a strong desire to, well, piss on—I mean “subvert”—the three previous essays, even as they are penned by people for whom I have nothing but the greatest respect. Jeremy McLellan absolutely killed at this year’s International Students for Liberty Conference, where he mixed jibes at obvious targets such as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton with edgier-for-the-room barbs shot directly at the heart of libertarian-movement favorites Rand Paul and Gary Johnson. I’ve seen Lou Perez work a room of 1,500 people at FreedomFest in Vegas like a high-class hooker and his We The Internet videos are pretty damn swell too. Michael Munger is the definition of an intellectually serious libertarian political scientist who ran such a good race for North Carolina governor in 2008 that I was moved to write, “I humbly submit that Duke University political science professor Michael Munger, who ran a strong bid as a Libertarian Party candidate for governor in North Carolina, set his eyes toward an even bigger and remote target in 2012, that stationary Death Star known as the White House.”

And yet, as Rickles himself might have put it, What a bunch of sanctimonious hockey pucks!

Comedy is “inherently subversive” and you might get “killed” for mocking the room? Not literally, like good old St. Genesius, but figuratively, like Gilbert Gottfried did for making jokes about planes crashing into buildings right after 9/11 and about Fukushima, when Japanese people were still fleeing from a nuclear disaster just like in a Godzilla movie.

Puh-lease. Truth be told, there’s nothing inherently subversive about comedy, whether it’s political or the lamest sort of observational humor. In fact, it’s not even clear comedy is inherently funny. Bill Hicks, often lauded as “truth teller” about corporate power, was no more a threat to the Republic than is Carrot Top. How many watermelons and cantaloupes must die to make Gallagher great? Does anyone doubt that Nazi Germany had its own version of the Capitol Steps, the dreary comedy troupe that does hacky song parodies poking fun at John Kerry’s snowboarding fiascoes, John Boehner’s skin tone, and Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits? You can almost hear their hoo-larious version of “We Didn’t Start the (Reichstag) Fire” or “Ballroom Blitzkrieg,” can’t you? If the CIA had just bought Khalid Sheik Mohammed orchestra seats for the Capitol Steps (“We put the MOCK in democracy!”), waterboarding wouldn’t have been necessary at all. The only thing possibly subversive about ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s act (including his god-awful “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” puppet) is that he, like all grown men who appear in public with their hands up a dummy’s pants, may secretly be mainstreaming fisting as normal behavior (what is it Leonard Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, used to say? “Anything that’s peaceful”).

Having suffered through a lifetime of Mark Russell concerts (which is to say, one), I no longer believe that comedy is subversive, or even funny (“We recently dropped a 22 thousand-pound bomb on Afghanistan,” goes a recent Russell gag. “That is one big bomb. It’s as if we dropped the entire Trump administration on Afghanistan”). Of course some comedy does stretch the boundaries of good taste and epistemological certitude. Check out the stunningly ambivalent abortion riff at the start of Louis C.K.’s new Netflix special, where he says abortion is either murder or the equivalent of, pardon my French, taking a shit. But 90 percent of comedy, including “serious” comedy, is, to paraphrase an iron law formulated by the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, crap.

Put another way: How many standup comedians (besides Gandhi of course) have changed the world? And don’t grab the Ouija board and conjure the opioid-constipated ghost of Lenny Bruce, who was only funny twice in his lifetime, once when he made a great Vaughn Meader joke the day after JFK was assassinated and, more famously, when he anticipated Elvis Presley’s death by dying on the crapper from an OD. Even rock and roll bands have a better record at spurring social change than do comedians, with the Velvet Underground’s sadomasochistic aesthetic that was condemned in the free and communist worlds alike inspiring Czechoslovakia’s bloodless overthrow of communist tyranny. Yet we wait in vain for, I don’t know, Janeane Garofalo or Dane Cook to birth a terrible beauty in Ireland or anywhere else. Lebanese Danny Thomas would never have started the Arab Spring; that took a Tunisian fruit vendor willing to flambé himself in protest over repressive state rules.

I am neither a professional comedian nor political scientist. The closest I came to any of that was writing for the late-and-lamented-by-some, “the first great website.” Under the nom de plume Mr. Mxyzptlk, I wrote scabrous essays about how getting crippled was the best career move Christopher Reeve ever made, Saving Private Ryan was a generational grift perpetuated by aging Baby Boomers, and the Kennedy Clan perfectly illustrated “the Stupid Grandson Theory.” My professional memoir, yet to be written, will surely be titled Antidote to Laughter (my erotic memoir, a work of science fiction, is tentatively titled Jesus Only Came Twice). I have appeared as the straight man, the non-comic relief that is, on shows such as Bill Maher’s Real Time and The Colbert Report. Whatever good points I made were not by being funny (the producers of each show wisely insist that non-comedians don’t do jokes) but by being well-informed and persistent.

But even I recognize that the main function of comedy, especially political comedy, isn’t to stretch people’s minds or get them to confront the limits of their systems of knowledge. We’ve certainly been telling ourselves that often enough, even though it’s wrong. At least since the Romantic period, virtually all artists have claimed to be subversives, to being “oppositional” to the status quo rather than expressive of it. Rather than channeling the vox populi, political comedians stand against it, don’t you know, like Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann, as brave Cassandras who can’t be denied. Shelley famously declared that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and exist solely to speak truth to power. Comedians are always happy to get in on that action, especially if they can retreat when the heat comes down and aver, “Hey, I’m just a comedian!Jon Stewart, that would be you.

The main purpose of much and maybe even most creative expression—whether we’re talking fiction, video, art, music, journalism, comedy, you name it—is to virtue-signal, to show to your audience that you already agree with each other and that you are politically correct (however your group defines it). If you doubt this, watch John Oliver, whose peerless comic timing and authoritative British accent is outmatched only by the complete glibness of his research. Another Daily Show alum, Samantha Bee, is running a similar con on TBS. “We’re off this week,” goes one promo, “but we made you a present: Ted Cruz!” Haw haw haw!

Such in-group virtue signaling is as true for libertarians as it is for liberals and conservatives, alas. Don’t we all love South Park not because it challenges our deepest-held beliefs – but because we agree with most of the show’s anti-authority, anti-Al Gore, anti-nanny-state messaging? It’s nice to see our broad world view being validated from the big stage.

So where does this leave libertarians? Is everything just an excuse for expressing group solidarity rather than persuading new people to adopt a libertarian mindset? No, I don’t think so, and I appreciate that Jeremy McLellan, Lou Perez, and Michael Munger agree with me on this basic point. But we need to get real by jettisoning the idea that any form or genre has any special claim on truth, justice, and the American Way. And we need to recognize that libertarianism—which I’ll define as a principled interest in reducing the size, scope, and spending of the government while increasing the power of the individual to live peacefully however he or she wants—must participate fully in discussions of politics, culture, and ideas if we want to become the new baseline identity in the 21st century.

This isn’t a pipe dream by any stretch. If you can remember the 1970s, you realize that we’re in the midst of what my Reason colleague Matt Welch and I have dubbed the Libertarian Moment—an ongoing, massive increase in lifestyle liberation and technologically driven advances in the ability to live life on our own terms—that gives us more and more control and possibilities in how to structure our world. To do that, we need to be working on at least two levels at once.

First, we need to be willing to confront and enjoy the limits of our point of view in a way that is at once serious and fun (watch this and tell me you didn’t laugh). Second, we need to be constantly analyzing the subterranean tropes and conceits of politics and culture and laying them bare (watch this for a master class in such exegesis); what is far greater about South Park than its plots and characters is that it satirizes whole genres and forms of storytelling that have become invisible to us through repetition. Until you understand how, say, moral panics operate, you can’t understand when we’re in the middle of one. The audience has immense control over popular culture and media, but only when we are engaged and on guard for the ways in which it tries to lull into acceptance, like the robotic viewers in Mystery Science Theater 3000.

In addition, we need to not simply comment on culture, but create it in all sorts of ways and at all levels. Jeremy, Lou, and Michael are plainly doing this, with good results (there’s no shame in losing a political race by 90-plus points!). Apart from the hundreds of thousands of words we produce, Reason cranks out hundreds of videos a year. Some are documentaries, many are interviews with folks like the men and women of Cato, and some are stabs at comedy.

What libertarians writ large need to do is recognize that if we want to subvert the current order—and we do, in all sorts of ways—we need to be simultaneously expressive and persuasive, to explain what we believe, why we believe it, and why it will lead to a world that is more prosperous, more peaceful, more interesting, and more sustainable that what we have now. Sometimes our cultural work will involve humor, sometimes it will involve earnest policy work, sometimes it will involve three-handkerchief journalism, and sometimes it will involve a fully clothed Michael Munger taking a dive into the Atlantic Ocean to protest exclusion from political debates. But it will never be just one thing or another. And just like this essay, 90 percent of it will be crap, though we will almost certainly disagree on which 10 percent really makes the grade.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Jeremy McLellan explains why we’ll always have comedy, and why it will always make people uncomfortable. In politics, comedy tends to expose the cracks in the system, the people, practices, and situations that even autocrats can’t control. The social rules that we set for ourselves are never complete; our control of the world is never perfect. Comedians are ambassadors from a world of chaos. That is… they are ambassadors from reality.

Response Essays

  • Lou Perez describes a different problem that comedians can face: the audience who agrees with them too much. When comedy gets political, which sometimes it will, there’s a great danger of coasting on shared assumptions and beliefs, and not actually being funny. That danger is just as real when libertarians take the stage as when anyone else does. Comedy might be a mirror held up to the powerful, but that mirror needs to be turned on the audience sometimes too.

  • Michael Munger discusses his experiences running for governor of North Carolina, including an incident with a hot mic that he describes as his finest moment. Candidates, he suggests, are not supposed answer questions or talk policy; they are there to bicker. Too-frank talk about policy or the difficult choices needed to govern will have a result for them that’s similar to what bad comedians suffer on stage. Misdirection, cunning, and courage are sometimes needed to get people to see what’s all around them.

  • Nick Gillespie dismisses the idea that comedy - or any art form, really - exists with the higher purpose of doing anything socially subversive and therefore redeeming. This, he says, is a romantic myth. In reality, comedy is shot through with in-group virtue signaling. This is much like all art, and most of the rest of what we do besides. Comedy usually just shows that you’re the right sort of person, and that you fit in with the right sort of group. Once we let go of our idealism on that score, we can perhaps get down to the work of changing how people think, using both comedy and other forms of expression. But let’s not have any illusions about it.