Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
At the Freedom Center’s recent West Coast Retreat, I made some remarks on a panel about one-party rule and free speech. By chance, my comments about the role of comedy in reinforcing political freedom and equality were perfectly illustrated that evening by Milo Yiannopoulos’ scathing impersonation of Rep. Ilhan Omar. An identity-politics hustler, vulgar anti-Semite, and master of jihadist taqiyya, Omar represents the totalitarian virus that democratic comedy and free speech have for 2500 years been the vaccines.
Indeed, the idea of free speech was born in ancient Athens at the same time political comedy was. Both followed the world-transforming creation of political freedom and equality for the masses, including the poor. The masses were more diverse in their interests, mores, and education, compared to the more uniform aristocratic or oligarchic elite. For the mass of citizens to exercise its right to contribute to public deliberations over policy, then, they had to be free to openly speak their minds in their own ways and by their own standards. As Sophocles said, “Free men have free tongues.”
This insight about free speech highlights the role that manners, decorum, civility, and politesse have always played in defining an elite, excluding the non-elite, and protecting elite power from challenges. Hence the ancient critics of democracy constantly sneered at the lack of intelligence and verbal sophistication of the poor and working-class citizens, which the critics cited as evidence for the folly of empowering them to advise and manage the state. As Plato’s Socrates complained about deliberations in the Athenian Assembly, “When the question is an affair of state, then everybody is free to have a say––tinker, cobbler, sailor, passenger; rich and poor, high and low––anyone who likes gets up, and no one reproaches him” for his lack of knowledge.
Here we see the origins of the modern idea of technocracy: rule by elites who have the knowledge and techniques necessary for understanding human behavior and progressively guiding politics to some imagined utopia. Needless to say, such assumptions are diametrically opposed to political freedom, citizen autonomy, and self-rule. More dangerously, the notion of technocracy scants the universal human tendency to aggrandize and abuse power, justified by a perceived superiority of an elite. Minimizing the limits put on the free exercise of speech is one way to guard against this “encroaching nature” of power, and thus protect both political freedom and political equality.
Another expression of free speech in Athens comprised theatrical comedies. Ancient comedic productions were literally political, since they were civic occasions managed and produced by citizens, who attended the plays in outdoor public theaters during religious festivals likewise managed by the polis. Since all classes and walks of life attended together, comedies were not limited by notions of style or decorum that necessarily are exclusive. They were egalitarian, the scatological and sexual humor reinforcing the notion of citizen equality based on universal human needs, passions, and weaknesses. No amount of wealth, political power, intelligence, or celebrity made anyone immune to the destructive effects of passion or chance. As the Spartan ambassadors said to the King of the Persians before whom they refused to bow and kiss the ground, “It is not the Greek way to prostrate oneself before another human being.”
As well as publicly reinforcing the notion of political equality, comedy also functioned as a mechanism of political accountability. For those politicians who puffed themselves up and preened about their status, being called out by name on the comic stage and accused of every sexual perversion and vice exposed them to the humiliating laughter of their fellow citizens. In an intensely shame-based social system, such ridicule punctured the awe and unearned respect that elites seek to surround themselves with. And that communal laughter also strengthened the bonds of solidarity among the citizens.
This dynamic of free speech, political equality, accountability, and comedy is just as important in modern America as it was in ancient Athens. That’s why the totalitarian left seeks to weaken the First Amendment by enforcing political correctness as a new form of public decorum that insidiously prods people to self-censorship, and coerces apologies as a public sign of political inferiority and inequality. The success of politically correct surveillance and shaming also has made it harder for comedy to function as a mechanism for holding political leaders accountable. As a result, late-night comedy, Saturday Night Live, and most movies and television sit-coms are politically correct, but not very funny.
Now the whole of popular culture has become the punch-line to the old gag:
“How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
“That’s not funny!”
Like Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who said “There is no humor in Islam,” the politically correct left fears the power of humiliation and ridicule that comes from satirizing and mocking their grandiose pretensions.
This brings us to the creative-destructive power of Donald Trump. The postwar bipartisan establishment accepted the progressive professionalization of democratic politics into a technocracy, with politicians and federal bureaucrats now a “managerial elite” replete with a common mode of speaking and rules of decorum that they camouflaged as “democratic norms.” Of course, these standards reflected a narrow demographic defined by a similar education, socio-economic status, and common cultural cargo. And to many critics they suggested common interests, the main one being maintaining the “rules-based international order” that both at home and abroad had failed the economic and security interests of millions of forgotten Americans, even as it expanded elite power.
Donald Trump exploded that consensus with his brash, braggadocios, at times vulgar style, and his street-fighter penchant for taking two eyes for an eye when injured. In doing so he roused and enthused millions of Americans who had become sick of being ignored and talked down to by politicians of both parties, especially Republicans who should know better, but who mouthed the “racist” and “sexist” shibboleths of the identity politics Left. And Trump did this with the sort of coarse, in-your-face humor redolent of the obscene jokes of Aristophanes. Trump empowered his followers by puncturing the Republican establishment’s pretentions to moral and intellectual superiority, and their sense that they were entitled to rule. He ridiculed them into submission or irrelevance.
And he has done the same to the progressive the wing of the establishment, his weapon not the comic stage but the twitterverse and campaign rallies. He knows how to incite the Left to ever greater levels of shrill absurdity and pomposity, exposing their hypocrisies and unearned self-righteousness. The best example is his recent threat to ship illegal alien detainees to sanctuary cities. The hysterical and spluttering responses of the Dem leadership has definitively revealed them to be a political cartel with one overriding interest: their own power and its perks and privileges. Their morality and principle are in fact weapons for demonizing and weakening their political enemies, not bettering the lives of the people for whom they claim to care so much. Meanwhile, the president’s economic policies have done more to materially benefit ordinary “people of color” than have the Black Congressional Congress and the NAACP put together.
Love Milo or hate him, he is part of a tradition of political humor stretching back to the ancient Greeks. They understood that their novel invention of citizen rule and political freedom and equality required free speech and comedy to defend citizens against the corruption of politicians by holding them accountable to the ridicule and laughter of the citizens they are supposed to serve. With a Democrat party corrupted by identity politics, eager to censor and silence, yearning for more coercive state power, and flirting with socialism––the most destructive economic, social, and political ideology in history–– not to mention providing us in their zany, goofy policies and pronouncements an endless supply of straight-lines, we need more than ever the deflating power of laughter.