Humor can be a subversive political act. There are a couple of examples I’ve stumbled across about race and the election that I thought I’d share. Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing at The Atlantic, has a very funny and scathing piece called “In Defense of White Racism,” that’s worth reading. And, Keef who draws the KChronicles has a rather devastating political cartoon up (I’d reproduce it here, but I’m pretty sure it’s protected, so I’ll just link to it). There’s a long tradition of using humor to skewer whites. And as I’ve written here before, Chris Rock is just the most recent in a long line of comedians to use their craft in subversive ways (image from here). As just about every late night comedian has noted, and even the New York Times has picked up on, it’s going to be a difficult time for comedy writers if Obama gets elected. Not that that’s a bad thing, as they would say on Seinfeld. But it is worth noting, I think.
And, here’s both the challenge and strength of humor: it’s best when it’s skewering those in power. So, take the example I mentioned above. Chris Rock does some amazing political commentary on race and racism in his stand-up routines. In his current routine, he does a great bit about the neighborhood he lives in in New Jersey where his neighbors include some of the black elite entertainers (Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z). The punch line is something like, “and you know what the white guy does that lives there? He’s a dentist.” Much funnier when Chris Rock delivers it, of course, than with me re-typing it into text-only here, but it’s a very funny, and very pointed, routine that really lays bare one little corner (albeit a very privileged corner) of racial inequality. Still, Rock’s current routine is also a little disappointing for his reliance on the old, decidedly unfunny tropes of sexism and homophobia. Humor that sets out to hurt people or groups that are already pummeled by life or social position is not funny, in my opinion, so much as a form of bullying.
Yet, trying to find this particular brand of humor is vexing, to say the least. For example, I do wish Google would quit suggesting “racist jokes” as a search term. If I use Google in a browser, and type in “racis” (yes – the beginning of a vanity search for my own blog), Google suggests several search terms for me: “racing games” “racing post” and third on the list, “racist jokes” (425,000 results). The Google-app on my iPhone suggests “racist jokes” first, as a tab. And, apparently this is a fairly popular search term. As Macon D points out over here, lots of people end up at his blog who initially started out searching for racist jokes. If, instead, you Google “anti-racist jokes” you get many fewer results (39,100) and no prompts from the search engine at any point that might lead you in that direction or suggest that as an option. And, there’s really no tag or Google alert that I can set for “subversive humor, non-sexist, non-homophobic, please.” Or, maybe there is but I’m just not tech-savvy enough. It seems to me that the search engine is undermining even the possibility of finding subversive humor.
So how to find, create and support subversive humor? I’m not sure, but I’d love to hear any ideas. I could use a good laugh.