Tuesday, May 1, 2018

the ever-changing but always important calling of the jester...

There has been quite a fluster throughout the US concerning the recent White House correspondent's roast - and Michelle Wolf's searing routine in particular. Both political pundits as well as elected/appointed officials regularly and/or conveniently forget that this dinner is a roast - not a tribute - allowing them to express self-righteous outrage when skewered by a jester's barb. And impaled they were as Ms. Wolf "blasted open the fictions of journalism in the age of Trump." (For an intense and insightful commentary, please see The New Yorker column by Masha Gessen of the same name @ https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-michelle-wolf-blasted-open-the-fictions-of-journalism-in-the-age-of-trump


Ms. Gessen's analysis - as well as that of fellow New Yorker columnist Troy Patterson's - cuts to the chase in two important ways. First, it reminds us of the role of humor in a political context"  "Wolf’s monologue—sharp, unflinching, and pointedly unfunny in places—called bullshit on the role laughter has been performing in Trump’s America."

Over the last year and a half, much of the culture has sought relief in humor in much the same way as citizens of extremely repressive countries. Back in the early nineties, in her book “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed,” the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić described laughter as the ultimate personal triumph over the daily humiliations of life under Communist rule. In today’s Russia, people make jokes about the fear Vladimir Putin inspires (he opens the fridge and the jellied meat begins to quake, but he reassures it by saying he is getting the yogurt) or the suicidal nature of Russian foreign policy (we’ll retaliate against American sanctions by bombing the Russian city of Voronezh), the same way that they used to joke about Leonid Brezhnev’s inability to talk or stay awake during official functions. Jokes serve a transparent purpose: they reclaim the power to define—and inhabit—reality. They also reclaim the goodness of laughter, for regimes weaponize laughter to mock their opponents, creating what the cultural theorist Svetlana Boym called “totalitarian laughter.” Its opposite is anti-totalitarian laughter... 

Laughter in the age of Trump is first a defensive reaction. We laugh to maintain
our humanity. To keep the ugly truths in check. To hold back the collective tidal wave of anguish, fear and shame we feel for having elected such a brute to the highest office of our land. What Ms. Wolf did with startling clarity was call us out for confusing the way we've used humor to merely deflect or deny the reality of this regime. "Don't pretend this isn't real" she sneered, "or that it doesn't matter." 

She called the President a racist, a truth as self-evident as it has proved difficult for mainstream journalists to state. Her humor was obscene: she joked about the President’s affair with a porn star; about his “pulling out,” as promised (of the Paris agreement); and about the G.O.P.’s former deputy finance chair Elliott Broidy’s $1.6 million payoff to a former mistress. She also made mincemeat of White House staff, House and Senate Republican leaders, the Democrats, and journalists on the right and left, in their presence or in that of their colleagues.

First, Michelle Wolf rubbed our noses in the truth of our own actions as we substitute humor for resistance and outrage. Her routine also embraced another role that humor often plays in contexts like our own: speaking truth to power. This is not only the work of the prophet; historically this assignment has been awarded to the Trickster. The Jester. The Fool. Comedian Dave Chappelle put it like this on PBS: "“I really respected what I saw. I don’t know who those people are that she—she can’t say that to them, ‘cause they offend people all the time. And I think that for many people, not everybody who watched it, but for many people, it’s cathartic to watch that woman speak truth to power like that.” What he was describing was the archetype of the Jester in Jungian psychology:

Also known as the clown, trickster, comedian, practical joker or the fool, the Jester is an archetype that is at peace with the paradoxes of the world. He uses humor to illuminate hypocrisy, and also level the playing field between those of power and those without. The Jester is a fun-loving character who seeks the now, inviting others to partake in creating a self-depreciating form of satire. The Jester is also almost always male, though this may be more from the cultural gendering of humor more than a limitation on the archetype itself... The Jester does not seek to solve the story’s problem. His main purpose on the journey is the journey itself. The outcome rarely matters to him, and in some cases, he may even be a bit of a devil’s advocate in the interest of spicing things up. The Jester does not reminisce, or plan for the future 
(For more see The Archetypes: Jester @ https://arielhudnall.com/2015/ 09/06/archetypes-jester/_

The Jester self-consciously speaks aloud what everyone else in the room knows to be true, but is afraid to articulate: the Emperor has no clothes. And Ms. Wolf played her part to perfection! As others have observed: she was not hired to impersonate Rich Little. If you have watched her work on Saturday Night Live you know she takes no prisoners. Small wonder that she took on Mr. Trump and his surrogates. What was shocking to many is that Wolf also nailed the anemic  Democratic leadership as well as the hand that paid for her acerbic "comedic" performance. Cut to Gessen's analysis again:

What makes these dinners possible are fictions about civility and performance. There is a fiction that holds that journalists and their subjects can eat and socialize together and yet maintain the distance necessary to continue performing their professional roles. There is a fiction that they can laugh at one another and themselves and not take offense, that the divisions among guests are ultimately bridgeable, that all of them inhabit the same reality, and that both the humor and the objects of the humor are innocuous. The same fiction continues to dominate our public sphere. In this story, Trump performs the role of President, albeit poorly, and those in the media maintain a strained civility in their coverage of him. In this story, the statement that the President is a racist is still controversial. In this story, the media can discuss his affair with a porn star, and even the question of whether he used a condom, without undermining respect for the office. This is an essential pretense, because respect for the office of the President is indeed a value that should transcend the current Presidency. But it is this pretense, and these fictions, that cast a pall of unreality over most media coverage and make late-night comedy shows the better news outlets. And then there is the pretense that the late-night comedians exist in a parallel universe, separate even from the television channels that broadcast them.

The Trickster calls bullshit on our lies. Some spiritual traditions even honor
him/her as one of the ways the Holy breaks through human deceit and sin. St. Paul goes so far as to call God's upside-down love experienced in Christ's resurrection the path of the Holy Fool. Trusting our failures to bring us into deeper truths, honoring our wounds as the way into redemptive wisdom, such 
revolutionary love punctures our fears and humbly awakens us to the possibility of life-giving solidarity. Harvey Cox celebrated Christianity's minority report when he wrote his 1969 book, Feast of Fools. And his closing chapter describing Jesus as a Holy Fool became the inspiration for the musical, GodspellJesters risk their lives by speaking truth to power and Michelle Wolf did so with aplomb. The final words of her roast make this clear: "Flint still doesn't have clean water."

Through her obscene humor, Wolf exposed the obscenity of the fictions
—and the fundamental unfunniness of it all. Her last line, the most shocking of her entire monologue, bears repeating: Flint still doesn’t have clean water.

Her style is not my own. I celebrate tenderness as the path to healing. But I recognize the hand of the Lord in the unsettling words of prophets as well as jesters. When I was a child Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Grace Slick, the Beatles, late 60s Stones, Janis Joplin and Gil Scott-Heron played the roll of the jester alongside prophets like Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, and the Last Prophets. I still listen to them, but now they are mixed with the sounds of The Roots, Carrie Newcomer, John Coltrane, Pink, John Legend and Herbie Hancock. As the music swells, I also hear St. Paul's challenge more clearly than ever:  "Remember that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? Some demand signs and others desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to some traditions and foolishness to others... For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.... God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  (I Corinthians 1)

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