Author’s note: This ambitious essay was intended to be published prior to the U.S. election. However, I was unable to find a venue for publication for something of this scope. As the thoughts expressed remain in many ways as (indeed, if not more) relevant as when I wrote them, I am publishing the piece after the fact in the hope that it might spark some reflection.
“[I]t’s a pity there’s no air here, it’s stifling…. It makes one’s head dizzier than ever… and one’s mind too…
– Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment
As this long, hot, and mad summer of 2020 comes to a close, clearly I am not the only one who feels a little like Raskolnikov – as if all the air has been sucked out of the room, and we are being pressed into a narrower and narrower mental and spiritual space, akin to the tiny closet in which Raskolnikov hatched his feverish schemes of fashioning himself into the superman.
I thought of Raskolnikov recently, as I read that open letter in Harper’s Magazine, signed by a bevy of high-profile leftists. “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” they wrote. There now exists, they charge, “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The result is a “stifling atmosphere.”
That we are all – left and right alike – labouring under a pervasive and growing sense of oppressiveness is self-evident. The precise cause, however, is less so. Certainly, part of it is an historical accident – that of living through a pandemic. Clearly, however, that is not the whole story. A great deal more, in my view, can be attributed to our acceptance of a pernicious, two-fold reduction.
First is the reduction of all the varied richness of human life – of culture, religion, spirituality, science, art, family, friendship, etc. – to politics. We have somehow arrived at a place where absolutely everything is reflexively viewed through a political lens, subject to analysis into political categories. One consequence of such an attenuated view of life is that there is little room left for the enjoyment of the simple but transcendent human goods that politics exists to protect.
Second is the reduction of politics to a choice between two narrow, and ever-narrowing sets of binaries, policed with ever-more ardent zeal by their respective true believers. This reduction is even more oppressive than the first.
It is truly dismaying to witness the speed with which enormously complex matters are now reduced to sets of opposing political orthodoxies. As each new controversy erupts onto the public stage, there are a few days of uncertainty. But with machine-like efficiency the madness is reduced and sorted into a very few positions that one is expected to adopt and to telegraph so as to establish one’s bona fides as a member of one’s group. Meanwhile, the vast swathes of conceptual space between these poles goes largely unexplored, with would-be political adventurers shamed into returning to the fold the minute they dare set foot outside camp.
This is a very dangerous place for us to be.
Progress in a democracy depends on the capacity for differing parties to talk to one another, to work out complex solutions to complex problems. But if, like Raskolnikov, we simply shut ourselves up in our airless closets, brooding gravely on our own brilliance, and reacting even to the jocund questioning of our friends with defensive anger, then what hope is there of anything but further disfunction?
“Madmen are always serious; they go mad from lack of humour.”
– G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill
There are two dramatically pivotal instances in Crime and Punishment in which two different characters diagnose the remedy. “[W]hat all men need is fresh air, fresh air . . . more than anything!” the villain Svidrigailov says to Raskolnikov. This notion takes such hold of Raskolnikov that he is stunned when, shortly thereafter, the enigmatic but kindly police inspector Porfiry Petrovich says to him, independently of Svidrigailov, “What you need now is fresh air, fresh air, fresh air!”
The remedy for our situation is the same.
We are in desperate need of fresh air – the fresh air of honest conversation, of friendship and mutual good will granted across party lines, of complex problems met squarely with a proportionate degree of thought and deliberation, of a renewal in non-political civic organizations, of a renaissance in authentic leisure, of a rebirth in our churches…anything and everything that might elevate us above the political mud-pit in which we are wallowing.
But above all, we need the fresh air of humour.
G.K. Chesterton was fond of saying that the essence of humour is found in all the old jokes about the gentleman sitting on, or chasing after his hat. That is, at the core of humour is the existence – and recognition – of incongruities. The greater the incongruity, the greater the hilarity. And thus, funnier even than the joke about the gentleman sitting on his hat, is the one about the prime minister sitting on his hat.
In a brilliant entry on humour in the Encyclopedia Britannica, however,Chesterton made a crucial distinction between humour and “wit.” While the latter is a perfection of the intellect, the former, he argued, is more intangible, being related to the virtue of humility – that most distinctly Christian and transcendent of all virtues.
Humour, says Chesterton, involves “a certain sense of being laughed at, as well as of laughing.” While the great wit is the master at identifying and poking fun at the inconsistencies in others, the man of great humour is the master at identifying and poking fun at those within himself. Humour contains wit, but is more expansive, and more divine, as touching more deeply on truth. And it is primarily in this latter sense that I speak of our need for humour.
Not everything that is humorous is what you might call “funny.” There is a thing called black humour. Death is not exactly funny, and yet some of the funniest jokes are about – or have been told at – funerals. And this is because death is the most incongruous thing of all. It is, in one sense, the punchline of the joke of jokes. It is Richard II’s “little pin” that punctures in a single moment the balloon of all our vast pretensions (“and farewell king!”) – and what could more incongruous (and humbling) than that?
Similarly, there is not a great deal about the present state of politics that you might call “funny.” However, there is a great deal that is humorous. This is because our politics – left and right alike – is swarming with internal incongruities. And yet, the most conspicuous thing about the public square right now is not its sense of hilarity, but of its maddening – and I use the term advisedly – seriousness.
Why should this be so?
The gaslighting of the left
A clue is found in a recent column by Thomas Chatterton Williams, published in The Guardian on June 8. In it Chatterton confessed himself perplexed at the about-face on the question of the dangers posed by large public gatherings in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
In France, where Chatterton was living, the country had only just lifted a requirement for residents to carry a government-issued permission slip to go shopping. And yet, Chatterton wrote, “even here, in the time it takes to upload a black square to your Instagram profile, those of us who move in progressive circles now find ourselves under significant moral pressure to understand that social distancing is an issue of merely secondary importance. … Two weeks ago we shamed people for being in the street; today we shame them for not being in the street.”
“This,” concluded Chatterton, “feels like gaslighting.”
Indeed, it did. A great deal of our public political discourse does. To gaslight someone is, by definition, to cause them to question their sanity by manipulating them into doubting the evidence of their reason. Put another way, the person who gaslights another pretends that self-evident incongruities are, in fact, congruous, and maliciously tricks the other into accepting this claim. Looked at this way, then, gaslighting is the weaponization of humorlessness.
The claim that visiting your grandmother’s deathbed in a pandemic posed an intolerable threat, but that gathering in a crowd of hundreds of thousands did not, contained the essence of humour, in that the claim was composed of self-evidently incongruous things. The “experts” who gravely encouraged these large gatherings, under the rubric of “the science” and “public health” ought to have been greeted by the talking heads on TV with guffaws.
Douglas Murray hints at why they were not, when he notes in The Madness of Crowds that one way totalitarians take away a people’s fighting spirit is by demanding that they say things that they know aren’t true – a quisling act that fundamentally undermines a person’s sense of self-worth. Our progressives, however, go one step further, demanding that we actually believe things that reason tells us are risible. In such a scenario, in which reason has lost its capacity to distinguish incongruous things, humour – and its acerbic sister, satire – are no longer possible. The very foundations of humour have been reduced to a rubble.
This is precisely the situation we find ourselves in now.
Plato stoked the outrage (and prurience) of generations of students with his whimsical suggestion in the Republic that the logical consequence of gender equality is that men and women should exercise naked alongside one another. Even Socrates admits that this will appear “ridiculous”.
Our enlightened age, however, has exceeded Plato in imaginativeness. We now assert that equality demands not only that men and women should undress alongside one another, but also that the men should have the right to beat the women to a pulp. One “transgender” MMA fighter, Fallon Fox, recently boasted on Twitter of having fractured the skull of a female opponent and knocked another out. “I enjoyed it,” Fox stated, noting that those who “spew transphobic nonsense” deserve their comeuppance. The editor of an LGBT sports magazine recently labelled Fox, “the bravest athlete in history.”
Satire, one would think, were it not for the absence of laughter.
Aristophanes surpassed even Plato in wild comedic excess, in his comedy about a utopia run by women. In this utopia everything – including sexual partners – is held in common. One of the first laws proposed is that the oldest and ugliest women should have the right of the first pick of the beautiful, young men. The young men had no right to protest, since such a leveling of the playing field is, after all (as one of the old women points out), only “democratic and just.”
We, however, have exceeded even Aristophanes. Our forward-thinkers now gravely assert that if a young man should seduce a young woman, and upon taking her home discover that “she” is endowed with all the genital accoutrements of a man, not only must he not recoil in disgust (this alone is sufficient to prove his “transphobia”), but that he ought to rejoice in his good fortune in having the opportunity to make love to a member of this oppressed class.
Satire, again. But the silence from the gallery is deafening.
Progressivism has become such a mess of such monstrous incongruities that it’s a wonder its adherents aren’t doubled over on a daily basis: a movement predicated upon “openness” that daily devolves ever more into a purity cult, viciously expunging the ritually unclean; that enjoins acquiescence to “science”, while denouncing science as a product of patriarchal Western white males and tossing the findings of entire scientific disciplines (e.g. biology) that clash with its a priori principles; that pledges fealty to feminism, while denying the existence of any objective basis for womanhood, etc.
All of this is a resounding vindication of Alan Bloom’s warning in the opening chapter of The Closing of the American Mind. In it, Bloom cautioned that the logical consequence of the left’s rewriting of the purpose of education as the cultivation of “openness” for openness’ sake would be the death of the Western scientific rationalism that made openness possible in the first place. What we are learning, however, is that when reason dies, laughter dies with it.
The humorlessness of Trumpism
“I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool: and yet I would not be thee, nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, and left nothing i’ the middle.”
– The Fool in King Lear
To compile a list of the incongruities within progressivism would take long effort, and run to many volumes. Those within contemporary conservatism, however, can be identified much more easily – by studying the man who embodies them: Donald J. Trump.
In early 2016, the odd-couple pairing of Trump and social conservatives was evident to everybody. Even his most ardent supporters considered themselves in on the joke: a thrice-married, openly profligate playboy representing the part of family values; the boy born with the golden spoon as champion of the blue collar middle America; the lifelong New York liberal cum hammer against the atheistic elites, etc., etc. Much of this was a joke, but at least it was our joke, and the punchline had its purpose: to rebuke the fecklessness of the establishment GOP.
At some point, it is true, the laughter died on our lips, not so much because we stopped seeing the joke, but because of our astonishment that Trump seemed so bent on delivering. And yet there remains good reason to beware, lest in our amazement and gratitude we lose sight of the continuing cosmic (and comic) strangeness of the fact that Donald J. Trump, of all men on earth, has become our champion.
Indeed, if there is one thing that concerns me more than anything else about the state of conservatism right now, it is the haze of solemnity, even sacredness, that increasingly surrounds the person of Trump.
Take, for instance, that recent letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, in which Vigano praised Trump for leading the “children of light” in their battle against the “children of darkness.” On June 10, President Trump tweeted the letter out to his followers. I admire what the archbishop has done in exposing corruption in the Catholic Church. However, I was perplexed at the time, and remain perplexed, by this letter.
One of many reasons for my perplexity is that even as Trump tweeted it out, I was mulling over another, very different tweet he had sent out the day before. In this other tweet, he accused a 75-year-old protester who was at that moment in the ICU with a bleeding brain after being shoved by police, of possibly being an ANTIFA “provocateur.” Trump even suggested that he may have faked his fall. No information since has substantiated this claim. The two tweets seemed incongruous to me then, and still do.
No doubt, some will say that this singling out of a tweet is petty, as weighed against the substance of Trump’s accomplishments. But while I do not deny those accomplishments, I repudiate the claim of pettiness. There is only one word to describe such a tweet, kicking a wounded man while he was down: cruel. Trump has a cruel streak. His Twitter feed alone stands as testament to this. There is a great deal else about the man that I find incongruous with what I was always taught to value as a conservative and a Christian.
A prominent evangelical leader recently justified his enthusiasm for Trump by comparing the presidency to the job of an airline pilot. We don’t ask how many wives the pilot has had, he noted, but rather how well he can fly the plane. But in my naïveté I believed that conservatism had always emphasized character in politicians, precisely because we understood that a politician’s job involves seeking solutions to problems that do not require mere technical proficiency, but rather that rarest and best of all things – wisdom.
Wisdom is something we hear very little about these days. In part, I suppose, this is because if asked whether Trump is wise, even his most enthusiastic fans would have a hard time keeping a straight face. Wise? No. Effective? Yes. Effectiveness, of course, isn’t nothing. But it isn’t everything either. What is “effective” in the short term may, in the long term, turn out to come with an intolerably high hidden costs.
God may well be using Trump for his purposes. But if so, this is not so much proof of Trump’s extraordinary brilliance or personal fitness for the task, as of God’s capacity to use flawed instruments, and His wicked sense of humour.
Conservatives are making a terrible mistake when they compare the president to the Old Testament kings, and treat him with corresponding solemnity. If Trump sometimes speaks truth to power as no one else can, it is not so much because he is the last in a long line of prophet-kings, a new David, but rather because he has mastered the art of the jester.
Trumpists will recoil at this remark, thinking that I am calling Trump a clown. Well, I am. But this is not so much because I wish to belittle Trump, but rather to restore the clown to his rightful place of honour. It is worth remembering that the only sane character in King Lear is the character known only as “Fool.” Iron-clad in his coxcomb, the king’s jester alone among Lear’s friends has the freedom to roam unchecked in his thoughts and speech, piercing even Lear’s towering wrath with honey-tipped barbs of bitter truth: “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”
The space that Trump inhabits is that of the jester. For those who crave clarity, listening to him speak is an exercise in frustration. He riffs freely on whatever comes to mind, and seems strangely unconcerned at his lack of structure or blatant contradictions. Too often the result is boorishness and a bewildering stream of half-truths or untruths. On the other hand, this heedlessness of the pretenses and pieties that infect our politics is also freeing, permitting Trump to run roughshod over the conventions that constrain others.
Where others tremble in the presence of the our culture’s de facto demagogue – i.e. the progressive orthodoxy that dominates the media and cultural institutions – Trump thumbs his nose and turns cartwheels. Because of this, he can speak truths that no one else would dare say or do. And for this, he is beloved of many.
However, there is one critical difference between the Fool and Trump. Whereas the jester knew that he played the fool and laughed at his own absurdity, being laughed at is the one thing that Trump cannot abide. Ironically, it is in this very characteristic that Trump fails in the comparisons to David.
David, proud man though he was, made a fool of himself dancing naked in front of the Ark of God. Scripture recounts that when Saul’s daughter Michal saw David thus dancing she was “filled with contempt”. But when she belittled him to his face, David only laughed. “I was dancing before the Lord,” he replied. “He appointed me as the leader of Israel, the people of the Lord, so I celebrate before the Lord. Yes, and I am willing to look even more foolish than this, even to be humiliated in my own eyes!“
Trump is not without wit, but when it comes to the question of his own follies, he is dangerously humorless. Dangerous, I say, because the surest sign of sanity is this capacity to take oneself lightly, which is both proof of self-awareness and the precondition for self-correction.
The increasingly fervent form of Trumpism that greets even the mildest criticisms of the president with furious accusations of traitorousness is not uninfected by its own flirtation with gaslighting. Too often, it demands that we deny the evidence of our own eyes and ears that Trump is frequently incompetent, callow, and cruel. Such evidence may seem wholly incompatible with the claim that Trump is also conservatism’s current best hope; but to the sane man, this is merely to say that reality is complex. And the proper response to this complexity is not to seek comfort in a reductionistic simplification, but rather to keep our wits about us.
My argument then, such as it is, is not in favor of a particular action, but rather of a certain attitude. By all means, vote for Trump. But, do not march to the polls with the stony aspect of a true believer performing a sacred rite; rather dance in like a sane man, like a Christian who knows his Scripture (“Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation”), and pull the lever with a laugh, fully cognizant of the strangeness of such a state of affairs, in which so much of our temporal hope should rest in the hands of such a man as this – quite as absurd and fallible as ourselves.
Conclusion: A spring of merriment
One of the most ironical jokes ever told is about the Soviet judge who emerged from the chamber laughing, tears running down his cheeks. When one of his aides asked him what the joke was, he replied, shocked, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly repeat it. I just gave someone ten years for it!”
This joke is what we now call “meta” – a joke about a joke. And the irony on which the humor hangs is that the judge should be sane enough to laugh at a joke, but so thoroughly mad that he could no longer see that he was a joke – a man who had, by choice, become a worm, a willing slave to a system that had murdered humour itself.
Let this judge be a warning to us all: The minute we lose our capacity to recognize and laugh at our own internal incongruities is the minute madness knocks at the door.
The Chestertonian observation that humour is found in this recognition and enjoyment of internal incongruities – and, ultimately, in humility – is expressed in its most sublime form by Hilaire Belloc in a passage in the Path to Rome. At the moment in question, Belloc has just clapped eyes, for the first time, on the Alps. He writes of his reaction:
Let me put it thus: that from the height of Weissenstein I saw, as it were, my religion. I mean, humility, the fear of death, the terror of height and of distance, the glory of God, the infinite potentiality of reception whence springs that divine thirst of the soul; my aspiration also towards completion, and my confidence in the dual destiny. For I know that we laughers have a gross cousinship with the most high, and it is this contrast and perpetual quarrel which feeds a spring of merriment in the soul of a sane man.
What Belloc is saying is that at the very heart of the human experience there exists a joke, and the joke is this: that we humans are so much like gods, standing astride the earth like colossuses, that we sometimes convince ourselves that we are gods; yet, we are also worms, destined, in a cosmic second, to decompose back into the muck and mire from whence we oozed forth.
If, as Belloc suggests, merriment in the face of this contrast is what makes the sane man sane, then it must be that the insane man is the man who has never seen, or who has forgotten the incongruity of which he is constructed. He is the delusional man who believes himself superman (like Raskolnikov), full stop; or the morbid man who believes himself worm, full stop.
But the sane man – the humble man – balances these incongruous things on the ends of his balancing pole, as he dances with a laugh across the tightrope wire of reason.
If there was one thing that Raskolnikov could not do, but needed to be able to do more than anything in all the world, it was to laugh: and more than that, to laugh at himself. And, even more paradoxically still, to laugh at his seriousness. Though this may not have solved all of his problems, it would have made him sane, and the sane man, at the very least, knows the truth of his situation, and thus may yet find a way out of it.
So much the same for ourselves.
Lear was a great sinner – arrogant and abusive towards those whom he ought to have loved. He was, however, also gravely sinned against – inhumanly treated by those who ought to have loved him. To the simple mind, it should seem impossibly incongruous that one man should be both abuser and abused, with respect to the same people, at the same time.
This is what the simple-minded, professional politicians who surrounded Lear all concluded. Each of them dissolved the incongruency by reducing it to but one side of the coin: to Lear’s daughters he was villain, meriting only murder; to Gloucester and Kent, he was lamb, worthy only of loyalty.
Only Lear’s Fool knew that truth was to be found on the tightrope between these competing madnesses. For this reason, though he walked on a high wire, only he was free: free to transcend the reductions of politics, and from that higher vantage to see the truth of things.
My prayer for us, then, is this: that our political loyalties may be like those of the Fool – fierce, but open-eyed, honest, and keen, and ready to crack a joke at our own expense – rather than that of Kent. As it turned out, Kent’s too-absolute allegiance to Lear not only brought no advantage to his master, it lead him in the end to hang himself, precisely at the moment when his country needed his wisdom the most.
Let us take care not to similarly hang ourselves for lack of a sense of humour.