Fighting Fear with Funny


by Mark RodgersThere is nothing funny about racism or anti-Semitism.  About fascism.  About white supremacists, neo-Nazis or anarchists.After watching the Vice/HBO video on Charlottesville I had to check my initial reaction, which was very Old Testament; an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.But I was reminded that there is a New Testament response to oppression as well, and pondered on this when I read Jesus' sermon on the mount:Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.For some of us (including Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King) a violent response to violence is not the best option, if an option at all.  What, then, are other responses at our disposal?A recent PBS documentary, The Last Laugh, explores one non-violent weapon in our arsenal: humor.  The Jewish community had few options when Hitler stole all earthly power, so they took the high ground and fought back with parody, sarcasm and stand up comedy.  "By ridiculing the Nazis we take away their power," the documentary asserts."Comedy put light into darkness, and darkness can't live where there is light," adds Sarah Silverman.  "It is important to talk about things that are taboo, otherwise they just stay in this dark place and they become dangerous,"Dick Gregory, who recently passed away, embraced a similar approach as the comedic spokesperson for the Civil Rights movement.  In one of his earliest performances in 1961 before a largely white audience, he quipped:“I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight. I know the South very well. I spent twenty years there one night. Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, "We don't serve colored people here." I said, "That's all right. I don't eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken. Then these three white boys came up to me and said, "Boy, we're giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we're gonna do to you." So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, "Line up, boys!"Gallows humor is nothing new, but there is something powerful about making fun of your enemy.  It can be ennobling, while at the same time it can be cathartic.  It is a God-given defense and coping mechanism, like a twin to crying.I think this is why we turn to comedy and other entertainment during times of trial.  In the article "No Shame in Channel Change", Kathy Doyle, executive VP of Half Price Books noted: "The country's separated right now, it's split.  There are people on both sides so there has to be a nice place for people to talk about things and read things about things, and that is where pop culture and lighter fare comes in."Neo-Nazis, terrorists and anarchists want to fight with fear.  Again, Jewish comedians have shown us how to respond with humor, including Lenny Bruce,  Jerry Seinfeld, Mel Brooks and more recently late-night talk show hosts like Jon Stewart.Moises Velasquez-Manoff observed in his essay “How to Make Fun of Fascists” that “humor is a particularly powerful tool — to avoid escalation, to highlight the absurdity of absurd positions and to deflate the puffery that, to the weak minded, might resemble heroic purpose.”It's not easy, though.  Jerry Lewis never allowed his dark comedy The Day the Clown Cried to see the light of day.  One of the few critics who saw it, Harry Shearer, said "this movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. "Oh, My God!"—that's all you can say."Fight hatred with humor?  Can comedy really conquer hate?  Velasquez-Manoff noted that "violence is just not as effective as nonviolence. In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works, Dr. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth examined how struggles are won. They found that in over 320 conflicts between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance was more than twice as effective as violent resistance in achieving change. And nonviolent struggles were resolved much sooner than violent ones."The main reason, according to Velasquez-Manoff, is that "nonviolent struggles attracted more allies more quickly. Violent struggles, on the other hand, often repelled people and dragged on for years."And even worse, he notes that "violence directed at white nationalists only fuels their narrative of victimhood — of a hounded, soon-to-be-minority who can’t exercise their rights to free speech without getting pummeled. It also probably helps them recruit."So my word to my friends who are righteously outraged at what can only be described as demonically-inspired your enemies...and laugh at them. It's the better way to take the high ground and win the war.