Departments

Laugh at the devil

To laugh at others can do them good. All minds have a well of strange notions which it is the use of laughter to filter. For beings as imaginative and perverse as we, laughter is a prerequisite of communication: sometimes the shock of being laughed at, always the fear of being laughed at, keep our private languages and worldviews mutually sychronized. To be laughed at now and then is the discipline of sanity.

But any tool with an edge is also a weapon; thus it is a commonplace that to choose always to laugh at a tyrant or would-be tyrant is to defeat him by inches. And in a common saying laugh replaces resist as the cause of the devil's flight in Scripture. Is this true? Can good men and women simply laugh down the devil?

Sometime between The Great Dictator and Der Führer's Face, the Allied propagandists made Hitler the most laughed-at man in history. That was good for the Allies; laughing at him brought them together and gave them courage. But it did not hurt Hitler; he had been laughed at his whole career. Making him laughable was an easy task—that sweaty, lank-haired, squirming, spastic, little tantrum of a man with a mustache pinned on the middle of his face like a punch line. But we were not the first to laugh at him; and before, being laughed at had given him strength—had bought him time.

We laughed at Hitler and the Reich, not Germans; but while we laughed at Tojo we also (see any poster) laughed at his nation of yellow monkey-men. That also helped bring us together, once our population of that kind was out of the way. But do we want more of that kind of help?

The history of humor has brilliant moments when wit has shown up the folly and vanity of tyranny. But, measured honestly, the preponderance of that history comprises the worst of human nature. Laughter can be a means for change; but it has more often been the immune system of complacency. Here humor helped keep blacks in chains, keep immigrants disposable. And though tyrants are easy to laugh at, they are even easier to laugh with. No one laughs harder, or with harder laughter, than the ignorant and the cruel when their ignorance is reasurred by the humiliation of the thoughtful—mocked as effete, despised as misled (seduced by vanity away from pure and pliable simplicity), cursed as seducers of helpless youth—and when their cruelty is indulged and whetted by the public abuse and punishment of anyone who dares insult them by defying their expectation or deserving their notice.

To pick up any weapon is to be reborn as one of the armed, and in this rebirth we are often as senseless and heedless as children. If you pick up a weapon to do good with it, remember that instinct is not to be trusted, for more evil has been done by arms than good—though were it not for that little good, that greater evil would be far greater. You who would laugh at the devil, remember that the devil also laughs, and that one who is always armed with laughter begins laughing as a human being, but ends laughing as a devil.