All public figures must suffer the slings and arrows of humor. Whether a politician or a celebrity… comedy adds a measure of humility into the lives of those proud souls who consider themselves to be “the great and the good.”
But some folks don’t take too well to humor – especially when it is directed at them or those they feel a kindred nature with. They seek to restrain or codify free expression, and in doing so they kill the very nature of comedy itself.
Imagine what would happen if the Federal Elections Commission took comedy seriously and began requiring Saturday Night Live or Jimmy Kimmel to count their comedy routines as corporate-sponsored paid political advertisements? What would become of the humor once it was codified and restrained in such a way?
Earlier today, a political figure – the top Democrat Party official in Atlantic County – asked a small, local newspaper to take punitive action against a journalist for engaging in the high crime of humor. In this case, the journalist made a joke at the expense of United States Senator Elizabeth Warren, about something that she choose to focus the world’s attention on… namely, her self-identification as a native American or, in the parlance that she was brought up with, an “American Indian”.
Yes, yes, we all now have endlessly heard that “American Indian” is somehow “incorrect”, but it is a matter of historical perspective isn’t it? The same way that “British” somehow became the correct form over “English” and an American is a “Yank” in Britain, even if he’s from Alabama, and someone of Italian-ancestry is an “Englishman” to an Amishman, simply because he doesn’t speak Pennsylvania Dutch. Understanding takes away the offense (unless one is seeking to be offended).
So this journalist (and the United States Supreme Court has given wide leave as to who can be called a “journalist”) made a joke aimed at Senator Warren, who earlier had announced her intention to run for President of the United States in 2020. And this prominent Democrat politician – Michael Suleiman – responded, not with his own joke, but with a call for brutal repression. How uncool.
We’ve seen this before. In Europe.
On February 9, 2006, the French-language humor magazine Charlie Hebdo published an article titled “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists” in which it added its own cartoons and reprinted twelve cartoons previously published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. In response, the top politician in France – President Jacques Chirac – condemned the journalists for their “overt provocations”. The politician argued against Freedom of Expression, saying: “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.” It should be noted that Monsieur Le President comes out of the notably authoritarian traditions of bureaucratic France.
The Grand Mosque of Paris, the Muslim World League, and the Union of French Islamic Organizations condemned the humor as “racist”. It should be noted that Charlie Hebdo (Hebdo is French for “weekly”) is a decidedly Leftist publication and that its humor is more generally aimed at the National Front and Catholicism. It describes itself as “secular, skeptic, atheist, far-left-wing, and anti-racist.” But it does believe in comedy and in the right to Free Expression – and, as a result, it got into trouble with the political thought police.
What happened to Charlie Hebdo is an important reminder of what happens when you can’t take a joke and escalate humor into something it’s not. Some offended parties brought a legal action against the publication, with the publisher memorably stating: “It is racist to imagine that they can’t understand a joke.”
When the legal action was tossed out, the anti-comedy crowd took it further, they firebombed the offices of Charlie Hebdo and hacked its website. But Charlie Hebdo, true to its traditions of free expression, refused calls for “self-censorship” and went on its merry way.
Then… on January 7, 2015… two terrorists who clearly had no sense of humor, two determined repressors of comedy, forced their way into the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and proceeded to murder journalists, cartoonists, editors, and staff – plus two police officers – twelve dead in all and eleven wounded. It was an act of terror justified by the offense taken at a joke.
America today is at a crossroads. Do we use humor to combat humor… or do we oppress it every time someone is offended? The latter equals the end of humor, for as all great comedians have recognized, the core of humor is transgressive – somebody is going to be pissed off.
This is why what this politician – Michael Suleiman – has done is so dangerous. By asking the newspaper publisher to take punitive action against a journalist for publishing a joke, he has placed himself with those who are at war with comedy and free expression. If you want to “get back” at a joke you don’t like, undo it with a better joke of your own, don’t seek to harm those engaged in the free expression of humor.
We hope Democrat Chairman Suleiman will withdraw his silly complaint.