Funny Stuff, Winning the War

Well, gosh. In this month’s Cato Unbound someone tried to have some fun, someone else decided that no one deserves to have fun, and a big fuss broke out. And, as usual, it’s because everyone pretty much agrees, so tiny points of doctrine and imagined slights assume exaggerated importance.

We libertarians really get upset at heretics.  Which is why we spend so little time worrying about infidels: we’re too busy fighting with our friends.

Now, there is something comedic about that, I admit. To outsiders, our inability to do something as simple as having a light-hearted “April Fools Day” exchange without a reversion to a Hobbesian war of all against all is likely hilarious. Readers probably have a “That’s funny…but not really” reaction, because it’s hard to imagine why people insist on fighting.

The problem is that it is hard to put yourself in the other person’s position, and think about their perspective. Which made me think of another “That’s funny…but not really” kind of piece: Mark Twain’s “War Prayer,” which seems to endorse a little disagreement as being good for society. As Twain puts it:

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism… daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms… nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory with stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Anybody who disagrees with a general orthodoxy had better be careful. Don’t want to upset anyone, especially when they are all so sure. But then, Twain says, a strange old man, a figure clad in white, went to the altar and interrupted the prayer cum rally. The stranger warned the fervent and the pious that their own prayer was actually blasphemous. By praying for victory over their enemies the people were also asking for the things that vanquishing an enemy requires. According to the strange man, their real prayer was:

O Lord our God, … help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst.

Twain concludes in a way that might very well serve to describe today’s comic who questions political orthodoxy:

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Funny stuff, but sometimes the audience just doesn’t get it.

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.