The Joy of Laughter
Why we will win.


“Cheese-eating surrender monkeys”: There’s not a third-grader left who hasn’t heard and repeated this phrase these past months. Thanks to the war with Iraq, Americans have finally found an appropriate means of regarding the French — as the butt of a joke. Long made to feel inferior by snotty French waiters with incomprehensible, yard-long wine lists and snotty French intellectuals with incomprehensible, yard-thick books, Americans have finally recognized their superiority to the French.

Witness the ubiquity of the French joke. What’s the French battle flag? A white cross on a white field. How many gears does a French tank have? Four reverse and one forward, in case the enemy attacks from the rear. Did you see the French military rifle on eBay? Never fired, dropped once. Even the New York Post got into the act: A February headline read “U.N. Meets: Weasels to Hear New Iraq Evidence.” The huge front-page photograph had been digitally altered — at least I think it was altered — -to replace the heads of the French (and German) ambassadors with weasel heads.

In life’s lesser conflicts, as in war, one of our most valuable weapons is humor. In his lively and provocative philosophical study, The Morality of Laughter, Francis H. Buckley makes the case that laughter can also be a moral tool. Laughter, he maintains, is judgmental: It “announces and enforces a code of behavior through the jester’s signal of superiority over a butt. There is no laughter without a butt, and no butt without a message about a risible inferiority.” Thus, when we laugh at the French, we recognize not merely their moral cowardice, but our own moral courage; we see our virtue a little more clearly, a feeling that is unifying and mutually reinforcing.

(“Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion.” — Norman Schwartzkopf)

According to Buckley, there are two main theories for why we laugh: the Positive Thesis and the Normative Thesis. The Positive Thesis asserts that we laugh because we feel superior to the butt of the joke, though we may or may not actually be so. The Normative Thesis maintains that those who laugh actually are superior to the person being laughed at. Humor enables people to see a fault and avoid it, or to note virtue and reinforce it. Laughter contains lessons for avoiding bad behavior.

“The morality of laughter,” argues Buckley, “provides an answer to one of the oldest questions in philosophy: How ought I to live?” This is also the question the terrorists have compelled us to pose. Should we regard America as a racist, sexist, homophobic nation getting its deserved comeuppance — as the antiwar protestors, the politically-correct champions of moral relativity, would have it — or should we recognize our superiority to freedom-hating radicals, and vanquish them, before they take our lives and liberty away?

As Buckley observes, since the rise of political correctness in the 1970s, our culture has increasingly been dominated by moral relativists. Moral relativists cannot laugh at anyone’s foolishness or evil, for laughter is necessarily judgmental — hence the ubiquity of humor in the military, that most comfortingly judgmental of professions, and its near-absence on university faculties. Buckley, who directs the Economics and Law Center at the George Mason School of Law, knows first-hand the humorlessness of academe and its consequences: “The loss of a sense of humor has impoverished academic discourse, where nonsensical theories that could not survive the test of ridicule are now taken seriously.”

Other than on elite college campuses, America’s celebration of moral relativism appears to be coming to an end. One of the unintended consequences of September 11 has been a renewal of American self-confidence, of our recognition of our basic decency as a people. That self-confidence manifested itself through laughter. Not long after September 11, page after page of anti-bin Laden humor popped up all over the Internet. Once the initial shock of those first dark days passed, Americans did what Americans have always done in time of war: While arming ourselves mightily, we prepared for battle mentally by laughing at those who would vanquish us.

(What do you call 100,000 Frenchmen with their hands up? The French Army.)

Buckley examines the origins of laughter in both incongruity and superiority, and argues that it always arises in a social context, involves surprise (whether the jokester be Jack Benny on the screen, or Mark Steyn on the page), and requires a “playfulness of spirit.” He supports Henri Bergson’s vision of the comic butt as a “machine man” who functions mechanistically, lacking intellectual, emotional, and spiritual suppleness.

Such mechanistic functioning is typical of the formulaic response offered by the politically correct to complex problems. Political correctness eschews humor because humor stereotypes its objects. This call for sensitivity had some justification — ethnic jokes can be hurtful — but the politically correct extended this butt protection to more and more groups, only allowing it for those they consider evil. Unfortunately, the white, capitalist patriarchy isn’t a very funny target.

Does Buckley think it fair to condemn people, such as the politically correct, for being humorless — and hence for lacking the ability to correct their faults? Evincing no compunction about being judgmental, Buckley cheerily asserts that the lack of a sense of humor is, indeed, a genuine moral defect: “As Aristotle noted, being moral is not simply a matter of right action; it also involves having the right sentiments. We can and do blame those whose feelings are inadequate, who cannot feel friendship, love, patriotism, anger, or joy when these are called for.”

(Why did the French plant trees on the Champs Elysées? So the Germans could march in the shade.)

One of the most engaging aspects of this book is Buckley’s revelation of humor in unexpected places. He argues, for example, that Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France can be considered a satire attacking the comic vice of hypocrisy (“the hypocrisy of the pettifogging lawyers who made up the Tiers Etat and who claimed a political virtue they did not possess; and the hypocrisy of a revolution that proposed to rid France of a tyranny but replaced it with one infinitely worse . . .”). Burke, suggests Buckley, employed humor and ridicule to make his points against the Jacobins; he did not rely on cool reason alone, for he believed “that our traditions and sentiments are more reliable guides to action than abstract rationalism is,” and that the “mechanic philosophy” of machine theorists offers a “comically inadequate” view of life.

Despite its serious philosophical aims, The Morality of Laughter abounds with amusing anecdotes and observations. Among the wittiest sections are those dealing with the law. Buckley’s chapter on “Machine Law” includes wry analyses of what he deems “Risible Law,” such as Kreimer v. Morristown (a case concerning an odiferous vagrant’s right to offend library patrons), and the infamous “Sick Chickens Case” (Schechter v. U.S.), in which the laughter provoked by the illogic of the law helped torpedo FDR’s New Deal.

Buckley also ponders the theological implications of humor. He sees in humor an element of malice, and thus relegates it to the earthly rather than the divine pleasures, concurring with Baudelaire that, though there will be joy in Heaven, there will not be laughter, as the latter reflects human impurity. “Jesus wept, but did He laugh?” asks Buckley, and comes to Chesterton’s conclusion that “there is some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

Though it proclaims superiority and includes malice, “laughter always contains the hope of redemption,” asserts Buckley. Watching a computer err isn’t funny; watching a human being (who knows better) do so, is. It is man’s failure to live up to what is possible for him that makes him risible. And as we share the laughter, we also share the hope for his and our redemption.

We will win this war because, unlike our enemy, we know how to laugh, including — and especially — at ourselves.

Newspaper headlines from The Onion:
Pentagon Promises Spectacular Halftime Show
War on Iraq Drags on for Fifth Whole Day
North Korea Wondering What It Has to Do to Attract U.S. Military Attention

Laurie Morrow is the host of the talk-radio show, True North with Laurie Morrow, broadcast on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1 FM Vermont.