Long before I returned to my conservative roots, I loved the humor of a Buckley – the right seemed to have more fun with ideas. Great satire points out the foibles of the disproportionate. Jane Austen understood that. It is the sharp recognition of a truth about human nature that makes us smile, albeit ruefully. Even with the rather meager set of social values Seinfeld embodied, his friends, in their superficiality and greed and general laziness, made us laugh. We laughed because they didn’t recognize what we owe to others, what living with others requires of us – say, not sleeping under the desk or sharing bathroom tissue. The writer’s sense of the variety & density of our cultural restraints and our own impulses permeated that series.
We enjoyed Seinfeld and his friends because they loved words but also because we took a certain pleasure in their violation of good manners that restrained us: we wouldn’t make their choices, but we would be tempted. We restrained those impulses (or hid them) because we understood they violated not just gentility but morality. The last episode made that clear to us: in the real world, we would have felt contempt (or guilt) – but watching them, we could laugh. That wasn’t a funny episode; it was an arresting conclusion.
4 Weddings and a Funeral opened with the characters repeatedly shouting f*** as if it were, of itself, funny. I soon realized we’d stepped into a pretty lame movie. I had no delightful sense of shock as the single expletive rolled from their tongues time after time; that is customary among some people at some ages. I waited for wit. But it was a sad movie, representing a tired, indeed, an immature, culture; it preened itself on its transgressive nature but was about as transgressive as junior high jokes. It had no sense it was the façade – pretending to be transgressive but with no sense of what it was transgressing. Such humor is centerless.
Jane Austen takes the stance of the conservative: ironic and witty, she describes the foibles of her society – absurd because we recognize what isn’t absurd, but appropriate, thoughtful, proportional, and, often, moral. With the Brontes that standard is lost. We may read them with certain breathlessness, but we don’t consider them proportionate. The Romantic hero’s heroism is disproportionate in what he does, what he risks. And disproportion without understanding proportion isn’t so funny: it sure wasn’t on Air America.
A second problem with the left’s inability to laugh is that it relies upon two reflexive modes of thought. The first is the anecdotal. All politicians do that; indeed, Reagan’s use was famous. But the left is more willing to raze an institution. If we keep our horizons narrow, we are more likely to make bad laws from hard cases. It is that sympathy that leads the left to think it cares. The right tends to let them think that, despite the fact the programs of the left have pretty much screwed over any country caught in its path. And despite its hubris. Vanity ignores history and sets about rediscovering the wheel. If conservatives are too slow to redesign it, perhaps to contemplative, that is a failing – but at least we still have the wheel.
Secondly and because the truth is that the more systems have leaned toward state solutions, the more they have denied liberty and, in the end, material well being to their chattels, those on the left live in remarkable cognitive dissonance. Academics may seem foolish but they aren’t fools. To maintain such thinking requires effort. Irony and self-consciousness endanger its precarious balance. Projection can be a ploy (though often to fool one’s self). Those uncomfortable thoughts so likely to pop up are surely what the “other” feels always, all the time. Those “others” must, so much more than we, think in racist tropes, turn to violence, hate others. What we hate is often what tempts us. Surely if Grayson thought for a moment he’d realize he isn’t the appropriate critic of the right’s verbal violence. It isn’t all that convoluted, but old human nature. And so, as in the previous post, Goldstein’s critic fears seeing Obama as rapist will inspire violence while seeing Bush as vampire will not (because, well, the “other” is more prone to violence).
The South produced little art before Reconstruction and much after – the sense of the tragic comes hard, but frees us to grow. Faulkner makes that argument repeatedly. Growth is learning to accept fallibility, paradox. Facing the fact that consequences are more complex than we had hoped is bracing; not facing it doesn’t mean our guts forget it. Acknowledging the depths of dissonance means coming to terms. For the academic, it requires recognizing theirs was the position complicit with Walter Duranty, with the thugs of On the Waterfront, with those who sent the boat people to sea, with those decreeing the cultural revolution, with those bribed by Oil for Food money – indeed, with those who believed wearing a Che shirt was a sign they identified with the oppressed and not the oppressor. The pre-war South had but one major writer, that outlier Poe, whose works were wisest about a subconscious that would not remain buried. Many modern writers, trained in the kinds of writing programs over which Goldstein’s old teacher presides, concentrate less often on truths because so much effort is expended burying the obvious.