Cato Unbound's latest debate is dedicated to the proposition that comedy can be a very serious tool in winning hearts and minds to a libertarian perspective. In fact, at least a couple of the participants take the idea even further and suggest that comedy, because it relies on subverting audience expectations and showing the limits of our abilities to predict the world around us, is a form of crypto-libertarian discourse. As Duke political scientist Michael Munger writes, "the comedian/subversive's role is so important is that humor by its nature breaks the listener out of his stupor, or the intellectual straitjacket imposed by convention."
Well, sometimes. If libertarianism is built upon a recognition that all systems of knowledge and power are flawed and incomplete, then some comedy may well be a fellow traveler with those of us who want to reduce the size, scope, and spending of government. No person or group has all the answers and that truth should limit their ability to boss us around. But, I argue in a rejoinder to Munger and comedians Jeremy McLellan and Lou Perez, that there are many forms of comedy and many, maybe most, of them are ability creating in groups and out groups as much as forcing us to contemplate a Hayekian "fatal conceit" that the world is ultimately unknowable. Snippets:
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").
Especially in Donald Trump's America, where everyone seems desperate to be one or the other side with absolute clarity, comedy and other forms of intellectually and ideologically independent discourse suffer greatly. Nobody wants to be confused for those people on the other side or this or that barricade. When it comes to much comedy today, you get less funny and more angry or virtue-signaling.
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!
Lest I be accused of simply being a cranky old fart, let me include some of my recommendations for how libertarians especially can take advantage of a period that straitjacketing liberals and conservatives who are terrified that anything they say may help their enemies. Precisely because libertarians are neither right wing nor left wing, we have an incredible power to range widely in tone, content, and subject matter and reach the plurality of Americans who are tired of a dualistic system of politics and culture that is boring, stultifying, and dying right before our eyes. It won't just be through comedy, of course, and much of it will fail. But as Nietzche—or maybe it was Jared Fogle—said, "Whatever does kill me makes me hungry."
[Libertarians] 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.
Speaking of comedy that makes good-natured fun at the limits of a libertarian worldview while making a pretty good point about U.S. foreign policy, take a look at Reason's Star Trek: The Libertarian Edition, featuring Andrew Heaton. Heaton is the latest addition to Reason TV's crew and he will, along with Sarah Siskind, Austin Bragg, and Meredith Bragg, will be debuting a regular series, Mostly Weekly, in the coming weeks.