The assault of laughter

Fox News homepage, August 22, 2018, 8.30am or thereabouts.

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the Fox News homepage leads off today with a story about the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant. “If it bleeds, it leads,” goes an old journalistic cliche, and it’s apparently written on posters in the Fox newsroom. Interestingly, they don’t report on the recent EPA study admitting that the Trump administration’s new rules on energy emissions “could lead to up [to] 1,400 more premature deaths a year,” but Fox News is fair and balanced, so I’m sure it’s in there somewhere. No doubt Trump supporters believe it’s better to be murdered by a native than an immigrant.

Ah, me. The events of the past day have given those of a more flippant constitution more than a few reasons to break into peals of laughter, and I’m sure that the writing staffs for Seth Meyers and other late-night comics are working overtime; I can’t wait to see what they come up with myself. (Alas, John Oliver is on hiatus until September 9 and the great Michelle Wolf‘s The Break on Netflix has been cancelled.) Our current president isn’t much for comedy, I’m afraid. Meyers performed the traditional comic monologue at the 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner, at which Trump was in attendance, and while then-President Barack Obama accepted Meyers’ jibes with laughter and good grace, Trump didn’t — especially not after observations like: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assumed he was running as a joke.” In the September 12, 2015, issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik suggested that Meyers was perhaps to blame for all that followed, in a skewed sort of way:

On that night, Trump’s own sense of public humiliation became so overwhelming that he decided, perhaps at first unconsciously, that he would, somehow, get his own back — perhaps even pursue the presidency after all, no matter how nihilistically or absurdly, and redeem himself

Nihilistic and absurd, for sure. But if he was humiliated then, I imagine he’s even more so this morning. While no reports have surfaced of Donald Trump destroying the White House like Charles Foster Kane raging through Xanadu in the last reel of Citizen Kane, that day can’t be far off. And maybe he wasn’t running as a joke then, but he’s sure a joke now.

Our current political crisis may justifiably lead us to despair, but it needn’t do that — just because the stakes are high doesn’t mean we can’t laugh about it, and maybe we should, for the sake of our own sanity. We’ll need it to rebuild whatever’s been destroyed. Towards the end of his life, the great Mark Twain in The Mysterious Stranger reminded us that it’s important to laugh at the greater things just as much as at the smaller things. As the stranger puts it:

You have a mongrel perception of humor, nothing more; a multitude of you possess that. This multitude see the comic side of a thousand low-grade and trivial things — broad incongruities, mainly; grotesqueries, absurdities, evokers of the horse-laugh. The ten thousand high-grade comicalities which exist in the world are sealed from their dull vision. Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug — push it a little — weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. You are always fussing and fighting with your other weapons. Do you ever use that one? No; you leave it lying rusting. As a race, do you ever use it at all? No; you lack sense and the courage.

The stranger turns out to be Satan, but in this case I’m inclined to give the devil his due.

So here’s to Meyers, Wolf, John Oliver, and the rest, who have that sense and courage. Let’s try to grab some of that sense and courage for ourselves as well.

Here’s Seth Meyers at the 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner to see us out: