Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Jokes, Memes and the Election

As the father of 23- and 19-year-old sons, I had an up-close look at the importance of jokes in this election. In The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum has a good piece on this phenomenon:
Since November 9th, we’ve heard a lot of talk about unreality, and how what’s normal bends when you’re in a state of incipient autocracy. There’s been a lot written about gaslighting (lies that make you feel crazy) and the rise of fake news (hoaxes that displace facts), and much analysis of Trump as a reality star (an authentic phony). But what killed me last year were the jokes, because I love jokes—dirty jokes, bad jokes, rude jokes, jokes that cut through bullshit and explode pomposity. Growing up a Jewish kid in the nineteen-seventies, in a house full of Holocaust books, giggling at Mel Brooks’s “The Producers,” I had the impression that jokes, like Woody Guthrie’s guitar, were a machine that killed fascists. Comedy might be cruel or stupid, yet, in aggregate, it was the rebel’s stance. Nazis were humorless. The fact that it was mostly men who got to tell the jokes didn’t bother me. Jokes were a superior way to tell the truth—that meant freedom for everyone.

But by 2016 the wheel had spun hard the other way: now it was the neo-fascist strongman who held the microphone and an army of anonymous dirty-joke dispensers who helped put him in office. Online, jokes were powerful accelerants for lies—a tweet was the size of a one-liner, a “dank meme” carried farther than any op-ed, and the distinction between a Nazi and someone pretending to be a Nazi for “lulz” had become a blur. Ads looked like news and so did propaganda and so did actual comedy, on both the right and the left—and every combination of the four was labelled “satire.” In a perverse twist, Trump may even have run for President as payback for a comedy routine: Obama’s lacerating takedown of him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. By the campaign’s final days, the race felt driven less by policy disputes than by an ugly war of disinformation, one played for laughs. How do you fight an enemy who’s just kidding?
If the defining feature of the current moment is confusion about what is real, edged humor has played a big part in creating this confusion. Trump has again and again introduced serious ideas into the discourse by pretending they are jokes: asking the Russians to find Hillary's missing emails, for example. Trump's supporters made everything into a joke, including the things they believed most strongly. As Nussbaum explains, humor was especially prominent in the struggle over "political correctness," expressing the bitterness of people who hate being told what they can't say. She spends some time on South Park's crude fictionalization of the election, which gave us gangs of angry feminists battling men's rights activists while "Mr. Garrison" tells jokes about Muslims, blacks, women, and anyone else. South Park did not capture everything about the election, she writes, but it did get
how dangerous it could be for voters to feel shamed and censored – and how quickly a liberating joke could corkscrew into a weapon.

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