Humour and Fanaticism

By Michael Noonan. Michael is an amateur writer and painter, who lives in Halifax, United Kingdom; he maintains two active blog sites.

Some people, especially in the political and ideological spheres, really do deserve laughing it. Otherwise, if they were ever to have power or even influence, it would be no laughing matter for the rest of us. Humour is the necessary antidote to fanaticism, ideological intolerance, single issue orthodoxies, conspiracy theories, and collective delusions, which have arisen from time to time – particularly during periods of economic and social fragility – to hold mankind in thrall.

It is indeed often at times of economic and political uncertainty – such as, unfortunately, the period we are now living through, following the banking crash – when fanaticism and intolerance can come to the fore. We see this with the rise of reactionary, extremist and xenophobic parties in some of the Southern European countries – such as the Golden Dawn Party in Greece – that have been so badly affected by the crisis in the Euro Zone. Indeed we have seen something of a minor renascence in neo-Nazi ideology. Parties have emerged from relative obscurity, that deliberately blame and scapegoat immigrant communities and minorities for all the ills of society; and which try to pin on them the responsibility for a crisis that was generated, not by those targeted groups, but by the existing economic system.

Indeed it is highly probable that Hitler would never have come to power, and swept away the democrat Weimar Republic, if Germany in the late Twenties and early Thirties had not been hit so hard by the world economic recession that followed the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Indeed the fortunes of the National Socialist Party were mightily accelerated during that period, when it leapt from being a marginal, almost fringe party, to a serious contender for power. It was a time of course when faith in the existing parties and political structures took a nose dive and a desperate public, many of whom were unemployed, were vulnerable to the appeal of deceitful propaganda and simplistic, black and white solutions, to complex social and political problems. Indeed to ideas that might have been laughed to scorn and personalities that might have been dismissed as cranks and oddballs, in other, more prosperous and settled circumstances. Hitler’s fanatical and malign ideology, that scapegoated Jews, Gypsies, Blacks and others – and that elevated some entirely mythical Aryan race to superman status – could well have been subject to ridicule and derision, and left to flounder on the lunatic fringe, in other, more benign circumstances – rather than going on to create a totalitarian state, to carry out the Holocaust and plunge the world into a terrible war.

On the subject of totalitarianism, and its inherent antipathy to humour, George Orwell once wrote, in one of his essays, that the goosestep – which, though first used in the old Prussian state, we now associate with military ceremonial in totalitarian countries – could not be used in England, because the people in the street would laugh. And that it can only be used in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.

Of course all the restrictions in Nazi Germany against free expression – with the ominous and sobering reality of the Gestapo and the concentration camp system lurking in the background to reinforce the censorship – didn’t prevent people in foreign nations from having a go at the Fuhrer. People such as the brilliant cartoonist David Low, and Charlie Chaplin, in his famous movie The Great Dictator, took Hitler to task in ways that wasn’t possible for those living in the fatherland – whatever they actually thought of him and his regime.

All fanaticisms – whether fascist, communistic, religious, or even free market fundamentalism – are hostile to humour and comedy, as they are to free speech in general. One doubts if there would be much room for humourists, comedians, satirists and mimics, in the grisly totalitarian theocracy which members of Al Qaeda and other such fundamentalist and terrorist groups would like to create. The comedian could well be an endangered species in such a ghastly society. Indeed one can’t recall Bin Laden cracking many jokes. The political or religious fanatic believes he is helping to create a pristine, perfect society, beyond error or reproach. A society which cannot be improved upon, and in which criticism isn’t welcomed. In such a society – where all contrary views, beliefs and opinions, are not only wrong, but also dangerous, and sacrilegious; and indeed criminal in nature – the place of humour and wit would be very uncertain and perilous.

Indeed being a humourist in a totalitarian state is in itself a rather precarious and even potentially perilous occupation. I’ve just read an article in a newspaper about a comedian in North Korea who has been sentenced to six months hard labour down a mine for telling a risqué joke at some function. And this is the second such sentence that person has received. It seems that being a comedian in such an authoritarian state must be like being a medieval court jester to some prickly and suspicious monarch – who might laugh one minute and order your head to be chopped off the next.

The fanatic, the zealot, and the single-issue obsessive, only accept one side, one interpretation, of life. Humour, by contrast, embraces all aspects of life and humanity; including human flaws and weaknesses. It dares to say that the King has no clothes, when all the cringing courtiers and servile hangers on have deluded themselves into the opposite view. That is why humour is so necessary, to deflate pomposity, pride, arrogance, and hubris; which, as we have seen all too clearly from history, can cause destruction and havoc if allowed to go unchecked.

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