The U.S. Is Losing Its Sense of Humor

In his speech accepting the 1950 Nobel Prize for literature, Bertrand Russell said it is normal to hate what we fear, and it happens frequently, though not always, that we fear what we hate. Elsewhere, he commented that we tend to be more aggravated when someone speaks against a concept which we hold dear but about which we have lingering doubts. In his later years, Russell came to be regarded by many as "a very intelligent old silly." Still, he has much to offer; he had a grand sense of humor and was able to laugh not only at those with different views but at himself. In the process, he managed to offend both the left and the right, but in an often humorous way. We need to find ways to do that too.

An eon ago, when I was in undergraduate school, my roommate for two years was a self-proclaimed Trotskyite. We were able to talk about world events without anger. If anger seemed likely to erupt, one of us would divert the discussion, perhaps subconsciously, with humor; then the discussion would continue. Humor is worth a try; little else seems likely to be effective.

True, comedians still exist and some make lots of money. The jokes about Governor Palin during the recent presidential campaign produced laughter, and those about former President Bush and Vice President Cheney did as well. However, they and the laughter they produced were largely grounded in -- and promoted -- bitterness and the associated hatred. The few jokes directed at President Obama were much the same; there were then and there are now very few, because of the racism charges almost certain to be thrown at those making and laughing at them. Those accused, even wrongly, of racism are generally punished severely. "Code words" are found, and even unspoken and unintended words are heard subliminally and apologies must be forthcoming, even though they are not generally accepted.

Political correctness, from which all suffer to some extent in the United States and in Europe, has played a major role in this. It teaches us not only to avoid giving, but to take offense. More of us are easily offended than at any time I can remember. It is demanded that we be "responsible" citizens and that we give no offense to the now multiple protected groups; there are very few who do not fall into one or more of the protected groups. Political correctness, even to a greater extent than global warming, has become an established national secular religion. Heresy is to be condemned and punished -- not by burning at the stake, but in other more politically correct and hypocritical ways. Blonde jokes are still marginally acceptable, but those and attempts at little bits of self-deprecating humor are about it. President Obama is not a blonde, and his very few attempts at self-deprecating humor have generally fallen flat. Self-depreciation requires a sense not only of humor, but of one's own foibles.

What's to be done? Lighten up. This not to suggest that the country does not have very serious problems; it does. Humor won't solve them, but it may clear the air and promote their resolution.

Back when there were very few female attorneys, in the presence of whom no respectable gentleman of the day would stoop so low as to tell a dirty joke (that's probably no longer the case), such a joke was often very helpful. One of my former law partners was nearly always able to break the tension in a negotiation gone bad because everyone had become too self-focused and angry to proceed. The joke could not be at the expense of any side to the negotiation but had, somehow, to fit the occasion; he had a large repertoire. When the tension had broken and the laughter had died down, progress was often made. Maybe some type of endorphin caused this to happen; whatever, it worked. With most everyone prepared, even anxious, to take offense these days, this may no longer be possible. Still, it's worth a try; there is little to lose, except a façade of political correctness.

Even when things are going in abysmal directions, a little bit of humor, better than a little bit of sugar, might "help the medicine go down." Perhaps we need a modern-day Will Rogers or Jack Benny. How about a modern-day Bertrand Russell? Where are the conservative, or even leftist, comedians who could try? Have they gone the way of the dodo bird? I hope not -- because they may be our national salvation.