I always voted at my party’s call
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy!
So sang Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., in Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. Though Queen Victoria was famously not amused by this lyric, it has brought a smile to most audiences for well over a hundred years.
Well could we smile in America or in Britain. Protected by the bulwark of beloved constitutions, the government of the people is well established in each place. The absurdity of governance by unthinking party yes-men was widely appreciated. The irony of the lyric hit home.
In our age, as in every age, those hungry for power remain humorless.
Good humor is appreciated by confident, free people. Party men — or women — are generally not so appreciative. Ripping sarcasm of their party’s enemies is fine because it helps destroy them, but not the kind of humor that holds powerful people to see themselves as others see them. For the party man or woman, there is only one correct view, and no other is worthy of the least accommodation.
In his history of World War II, Churchill described Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov:
I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented the modern conception of a robot…. Correspondence with him upon disputed matters was always useless, and, if pushed too far, ended in lies and insults … Only once did I seem to get a natural, human reaction.
For the communist, of course, all of life was a calculation. Believing in no transcendent values, believing only that all of history boils down to the success of the Party in whatever way that can happen, they can allow no irony. A value that was useful yesterday will be discarded today. If the Party is against it, there is no other appeal.
Molotov came into office because Stalin had decided to make a deal with Hitler and the previous foreign minister had not only been the mouthpiece of Stalin’s anti-Nazi line but was also a Jew. As Europe quavered on the brink of war, the democracies consoled themselves in Stalin’s fierce and constant opposition to Germany. Peace had a chance because Hitler could not risk war with Russia and the democracies at the same time. And then, in May 1939, the old minister was out, Molotov was in, a treaty was soon signed, and Hitler had the green light to invade Poland and begin World War II.
In our age, as in every age, those hungry for power remain humorless. Self-contradiction is a staple for those who judge success only in power accumulated and who find principles confining, useful only for binding others, but never themselves. They do not like cartoonists. Cartoonist David Low, whose work appears above, was on Hitler’s list for execution once he had conquered England. Low had the last laugh.
Corrupt American politicians, too, abhorred those who found irony in their misdeeds. Boss Tweed, the spectacularly corrupt New York politician, was furious with cartoonist Thomas Nast, whose wit pointed out the absurd in Tweed’s claims of his own innocence.
People who care only for power turn into a caricature of themselves. Recognizing no power beyond their own, they strive nonetheless to constrain any who oppose them in any meaningful way.
More recently, Hillary Clinton defied the law and destroyed tens of thousands of emails under subpoena and physically destroyed the smartphones and laptops that presumably contained evidence that she did not want to be revealed but almost certainly had been exposed through her negligence to Russian cyberspies. Donald Trump memorably and hilariously asked out loud for Russia to help law enforcement by sending some of these destroyed emails back. Predictably, the irony went so far over the heads of party operatives that they seriously proposed that very funny moment as collusion with Russia.
As long as we can still recognize irony, as long as we can still laugh, we can still have a constitution. We recognize that we make ourselves into a caricature whenever we hold ourselves unaccountable. When we recognize that we are at core accountable, we honor our agreements in letter and in spirit.
With a tiny majority in the House and an even smaller one in the Senate, the humorless ideologues of wokedom are now trying to remove every obstacle to their complete power. People far wiser and more human than they realized that rule by a mere majority can be as lethal to liberty and human rights as any monarchy or dictatorship. Working frantically to undermine every check and balance that has helped preserve the free flow and wide and energetic exchange of ideas that has been the source of America’s greatness, they care not that they have no mandate from the people to dismantle the Constitution and its spirit as embodied in the traditions that have allowed co-equality among branches of government to preserve the freedom of the people.
In a more strait-laced age, comedian Lenny Bruce was silenced by the law. Eventually, the courts dismissed charges against him and a governor pardoned him, though too late for Bruce, who had died. We seem to be returning to a time when we can only laugh — or write or talk or think — in approved ways.
There is a principle here at stake: none of us are safe when the powerful and the humorless are in charge. We now have more than our share of walking caricatures high up in the halls of power, eager to make any modern-day Nast or Low disappear.
Keep laughing — and don’t despair.