Neither have I.
This is a strange phenomenon. I come from a big family, and it used to be that, whenever we got together en masse, the boys would find some place away from the ladies and take turns telling jokes. Not all the jokes were dirty. But each depended on a key protection for individuals and cultures: irony. That’s really what humor is: a recognition of human folly and a wall of protection against despair. In this dour time, humor is a need, a way of shielding ourselves from the disasters that surround us. Without a plethora of good jokes, we are doomed.
Humor is a kind of theological virtue. Years ago, after the fitness guru and jogging enthusiast Jim Fix keeled over at 53 following an early run, R. Emmett Tyrrell wrote that “among the manifest attributes of God, we must never forget a sense of humor.” I think we’re in a state of sin.
I spent some time today surfing the web in a desperate search for a good joke. I had little success, finding mostly just a rehash of jokes I’d heard years ago. I did run across a host of sites with dirty jokes. The problem was that they weren’t funny, just gross. A pornography of humor.
I also found a few sites with ethnic jokes, and I was a bit terrified that I’d end up with tracking cookies that would set me up for hacking and subject me to attack from the joke police. The fear that there might be traces of my search got me thinking that I should turn up my security settings and wipe out every cookie stored on my hard drive.
This may be an overreaction, but nowadays even the mildest perceived slight can lead to censure. In this hate-filled age, humor has been vanquished, especially humor that serves the purgative imperative of diminishing resentment. The British philosopher Roger Scruton, whose own work is replete with irony, complains “A society that does not laugh is one without an important safety valve, and a society in which people interpret crude humor not as the first step toward friendly relations but as a mortal offense, is one in which ordinary life has become fraught with danger.”
I might go one better. A society that has lost its sense of humor is dying under the weight of its censoriousness.
Ethnic jokes serve as an example of that death. African-Americans, for instance, now have the tools to propel themselves into the mainstream of the middle class, yet the nation is flooded with accusations of racism, with the race-baiters deployed like an army to mow down the phantom racists. There’s money in that, as well as the compensation of self-righteousness. Black comedians often treat their audiences to a stream of ethnic jokes, but should a white comedian tread that same road he will surely see his career ruined — at least until he grovels with sufficient gusto to be granted a bit of clemency from the humorless police.
And try telling a joke about the ironies between the sexes. You might get away with it in the privacy of your own home, but do it in any of the precincts of the sour left and expect to be skewered, your career crashing into a brick wall. This is particularly harmful because it makes it impossible for men and women to diffuse the tensions that have existed between them since the Fall of Man (and Woman … wouldn’t want to step on any toes). As Scruton notes, “the literature of feminism is devoid of humor—and advisedly so, for if it ever were to employ this resource it would die laughing at itself.”
The loss of humor, however, is not just a disease of the left either. Many conservative Christians have lost the ability to laugh at themselves. Years ago, I was walking with a friend down the sidewalk and noticed a crowd up ahead. As it turned out, it was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses in line to get into a gathering. I quipped to my companion that we’d best avoid eye contact so we wouldn’t be converted. A voice came out of the crowd accusing me of racism. I moved on quickly, fearing for my life, or at least my reputation.
And the Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t the only ones. When Bill Maher uses humor to attack Christians, Catholic or Protestant, it’s the Night of the Long Knives. I’ve never found Maher funny (he’s too angry to tell a good joke), but he’s just appeasing his audience so who cares? But Twitter erupts, and Christians, like the leftist thought police, want his scalp.
Things are worse for Muslims. I’m not here concerned with non-Muslims who risk a Fatwa if they tell the slightest joke about Islam. I’m talking about everyday Muslims, most of whom I’d bet tell jokes about their religion all the time. But they do so at great peril. Islam, especially amongst the Mullahs, has no sense of humor. Tell a joke about Allah and you might lose a hand.
It seems to me that, in this age of resentment and humorlessness, a great many tensions could be resolved if someone told a good joke. But for far too many people nothing is a laughing matter. Ex nihilo nihilo fit.
I was talking this over with the wife yesterday and she asked what my solution was. I got a bit irritated. There is no formal solution. Government can’t reverse the trend with a decree. The only way through this is for people to lighten up by really looking for the irony in their lives. It’s everywhere, but we don’t have eyes to see it. It’s as if we’ve gouged them out and thrown them away.
Yet maybe there is still a way to fight off the humorless, though it will take great courage from all of us, especially high-profile folks. We could start by telling the offended to buzz off if they can’t take a joke. When a comedian, journalist, or politician joins in that refrain, the earnest censors may be forced to shut the hell up. That would be amusing to watch.
By the way, heard any good dirty, ethnic, sexist jokes lately?