“When you meet a contradiction, make a distinction.” I’ve always loved that thought from Thomas Aquinas. Applied to contemporary politics, it means that rather than seeing the Tea Party as the wicked Other, we might consider the ways in which the Tea Party reflects the general atmosphere.
Consider the affinity between Tea Party laughter and Comedy Central laughter.
Invented by Jon Stewart and refined into its purest form by Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central laughter attains its peak of perfection when it encounters a figure representing authority or expertise. The premise of both comedians’ shows is that such figures are responsible for most of the world’s folly. The worst authority figures are the politicians, who by definition are stupid and venal in proportion to the amount of power they possess. Right behind them are the experts, who are almost always the authors of books, and whose theories about life woefully pale when playfully pushed. Confronted by such asses, who are pompous enough to expect other people to abide by their ideas, Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert mock, taunt, outrage and ironize until the expert or authoritative guest liquefies like metal in a forge. Of course, liberal guests get a kind of complicitous wink at the end of their ordeal, but only after they’ve been de-expertized and un-authoritied and returned to the common mass of couch-dwelling humanity.
Returned, in other words, to the couch alongside Carl Paladino, Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle and all the other Tea Party candidates who publicly excoriate the United Nations, the Department of Education, any type of tax legislation and the entire collection of experts and authority figures who, together, make up what is known as modern-day “government.”
Yes, yes, I know, the comedians ultimately rely on rationality to expose the irrational ideas and sentiments that influence public mores, while the mad Tea Partiers are themselves the very spirit of irrationality. But a single fact remains. Both cultural forces spring from democracy’s latent pathology, which is the belief that in the name of democracy, expertise and authority must not be allowed to serve as social levers elevating certain individuals over others.
Make no mistake about it: The Tea Party pratfalls that stir rational people to laugh incite the Tea Partiers to laugh, too. That’s the idea. Sane people might shake their heads in disgust at Mr. Paladino’s threats to reporters and his anti-gay slurs and wonder how anyone could take them seriously. But on some level, Mr. Paladino doesn’t want to be taken seriously. He wants to provoke laughter; he wants to harness the bullying laughter of enraged nihilism. Sarah Palin’s wink, Glenn Beck’s histrionic sincerity, Ms. Angle’s and Ms. O’Donnell’s deliberate earnestness about the most far-fetched views–this is all Comedy Right-of-Central. These people are upending the sacred cows of established fact, of intellectual expertise, of elected authority. They are doing all this to radically different ends than Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert, obviously. But they are drawing their energy from the hyper-democratic hatred of expertise and authority. Just like Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert.
In this Olympics of derision, the triumphal moment comes when laughter is cowed by stronger emotions. When Mr. Colbert lent his comic prestige to the issue of migrant labor in front of Congress a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t wring my hands as some priggish commentators did over the desecration of those hallowed halls. Watching his blowhard persona crumble under the seriousness of the occasion, I felt as though politics itself had stopped, for a moment, being just another hollow spectacle to be laughed at. When “Colbert” suddenly became Colbert and told a questioner with spontaneous sincerity, “I like talking about people who don’t have any power,” you felt that satiric truth was bending its knee to ethical beauty. You wanted to kiss the guy’s hands. And then it was back to “Colbert,” and to the hilarious–but not just hilarious–war against expertise and authority.
Once you begin pissing against what you consider the wrong type of authority and expertise, what do you do when the wind begins to blow in the opposite direction? Nearly a hundred years ago in Germany, a similar situation prevailed. After the vast devastation of the First World War and the official lies that led hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths, the forefathers of Comedy Central, the Dadaists, also made it their job to see through the claims of authority and expertise. They wrote and recited nonsense poetry because they believed that nonsense was a liberation from fake public meaning. They made photomontages–mash-ups–showing German statesmen bathing nude, implying that underneath the pomp and ceremony of official power lay an amoral puniness, symbolized by these bare, unlovely bodies. The Dadaists embodied a general rage against hypocrisy. But they also helped accelerate the general madness. Their principled rage created an atmosphere where all kinds of rage were possible.
Let the guardians of Periclean gravity continue to worry that Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert will turn the nation’s Capitol–with its zillion trapdoors and invisible springs–into a burlesque house. What I fear is that as the Tea Party empowers the powerless by mocking “elite” inventions like public education and international law, the two uncannily influential comedians will continue to mock anyone who has something serious to say. In that case, all distinctions between good and bad laughter will eventually be lost. The airwaves and ballot boxes will bend to the most abusive guffaws. Even benign authority and wise expertise will be drowned out by peals of indiscriminate derision. Humor will link arms with power, and there will be nothing funny about that.