Posts Tagged ‘authoritarians’

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

May 13, 2021

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

 For since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which everyone designs secure by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making, whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience…

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

Since the first shots of the American Revolution, this nation has been devoted to the notion that only representative government is just and morally legitimate.  With somewhat less unanimous affirmation, we have also held that representative government was the best.  As one of our former overlords, now believers in democracy, put it:  “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time..”  By contrast, others have argued that democracy might be “just” but that it was just too inefficient to survive; and still others have declared that democracy itself is not only inefficient, but also in some sense immoral and corrupting of its citizens.  Fascists, for example, complain that democracy makes a nation “soft” and “effeminate,” too peace-loving, coddling children and putting families ahead of the national economy.  Theocrats claim democracy is too “secular” and turns people away from God, specifically the theocrat’s own religious dogma and organization.  The rich complain that democracy allows the rabble too much power, failing to protect the powerful from victimization by the poor.

When the Berlin Wall fell, it was heralded as the final victory of democracy over authoritarianism and oppression.  The contest was settled; freedom had won.  Some called it “the end of history.”[1]  But with the rise of Islamist dictatorships and insurgencies, and Christian Dominionist and nationalist populist movements in the West, the longed-for golden age of prosperity and peace vanished before our eyes.  Instead, 2016 saw Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro and many other retreats from the free politics and free markets that were supposedly triumphant, and a worldwide rise of isolationism, xenophobia, protectionism, racism and authoritarianism.  Nowhere was this more visible, or more catastrophic than in the United States, where a shallow, decadent, close-minded, deeply ignorant, deeply fearful egotist backed by oodles of inherited wealth took over first one of the major political parties, then the presidency, despite multiple scandals, ties to hostile foreign governments and losing the popular vote.  Despite the obvious lack of a serious mandate, he and his fellow business cronies threw themselves into reversing decades-long national priorities, undermining allies around the world while appeasing generational foes, and rewriting policies in ways that enriched themselves and their business interests.  Other nations looked on, our traditional democratic allies in dismay, dictators and strongmen in triumph.  In a few years the political conversation in the popular culture went from “Is history solved for all time?” to, “Is democracy dead?  Has the age of the authoritarian finally arrived?”

In 2019, the author of the notion of “the end of history” expressed disappointment about the rise in religious and populist authoritarianism, which seemed to refute his optimistic claims.  In the meantime, authoritarian governments had grown steadily bolder and more boastful over the supposed failure and imminent collapse of democracy.  Even the U.S. government chose people for important posts who said things like, “I’m not a big fan of democracy.”[2]  However, this year which supposedly showed the failure of democracy actually showed the ultimate weakness of authoritarianism.  If the authoritarians win, 2019 has shown us that the ultimate end of civilization, and possibly humanity itself could result.

As 2019 drew to a close, a doctor in China noticed a SARS-like virus in some of his patients.[3]  He sought to warn his fellow doctors, in an online conference, to take extra precautions to avoid infection.  The government of China, an authoritarian regime which prides itself particularly on its superior efficiency compared to the chaotic, individualist West, responded by immediately threatening him with prison for spreading seditious rumors.  By the time they finally admitted he was right, and that his efforts were heroic and patriotic, it was too late; the doctor himself had become infected and died of COVID-19, one of the first of what soon would be millions.  Donald Trump, who had earlier disbanded the NSA group formed to fight pandemics because it was an Obama initiative, declared that concern over the coronavirus was “the Democrats’ new hoax.”  While he initially seemed to be saying the the disease was real but the worry was politically motivated, his followers heard “hoax” and insisted (and still do) that the disease was fake.  Trump supporter Rush Limbaugh said COVID-19 was just the common cold.  FOX News called it a “hoax.”[4]  All echoed Trump’s claim that the virus would never become a problem in the United States; we had 15 cases and soon it would be zero.[5]  Anyone who said otherwise, Trump, the Republican Party and the right-wing media proclaimed, was just trying to stir up trouble for political gain—pretty much what the Chinese government had said to silence the doctor who tried to warn others about the new virus.  By the end of his presidency, Trump’s non-response to the epidemic ravaging the nation had wrecked the growing economy left him by Obama, killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, sickened millions, left many thousands with long-term or permanent disabilities, turned states against each other to compete for resources to fight to save their citizens without direction from the federal government, polarized the nation and left most of his base still convinced that the whole thing is just  hoax, and anyone who says otherwise or seeks treatment or a vaccine is a traitor.

Brazil is still a young democracy, having rid itself of a military junta in 1985. In 2019, right-wing populist and former military officer Jair Bolsonaro was elected President, and in 2020 he, too, faced the threat of the oncoming pandemic.  His response has been no different than the other authoritarians:  deny, suppress, scapegoat, and fail.  Brazil was on track to surpass the United States for the worst response to COVID-19; then along came India.  India, the world’s most populous democracy, initially seemed to fair pretty well against the pandemic, and its leader boasted about his nation’s superior response and mocked the nations who had warned of India’s vulnerabilities.  Instead, the authoritarian leader of the right-wing HIndu nationalist BJP, like his political ally Donald Trump, continued to hold massive political rallies, push for huge public gatherings, while failing to consistently advocate for masks, social distancing and other measures that are proven to provide cost-effective protection for the people.  As I write this, the Indian health care system is collapsing under the strain of literally countless multitudes of sick and dying patients; the dead pile up faster than they can be cremated, and bodies are being thrown into the Ganges river rather than being left to rot on land.[6]

None of this should be particularly surprising, and it points to the fundamental, often fatal flaw in authoritarian politics.  This nation is a 200+-year old philosophical experiment, attempting to prove that the theories of representative government laid out by such thinkers as Rousseau and John Locke are workable, despite all that was said against them at the time and since.  The guiding principle of Locke, and the revolutionaries inspired by him, is that legitimate government authority derives from the people themselves, and it is the task of the government to enact the collective will of the people.  Locke’s “social contract” style of thought has dominated American political thinking from the time we were arrogant colonials casting off the ties God had forged binding subject to king.  But Locke’s thought is itself partly founded on the previous Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes, an apologist for absolute monarchy.  Hobbes argued that the government was based on a tacit agreement or “covenant” between the people and their government; they would give up certain rights such as the right to personal revenge against anyone they felt had wronged them, and agree to obey the laws of the government and trust in its justice; in exchange, the government (or “sovereign”) would protect the people’s fundamental, “inalienable rights.”[7]  Outside of such a commonwealth, every individual had a right to do or act as he pleased;[8] but since everyone had such a right, no one had any duty to respect the rights of others.  Without a strong outside force to bludgeon the rest of us into line, there would be unending conflict, war of each against all, and life would be nasty, brutish and above all, short.  The sovereign creates the laws of the commonwealth, imposes them upon the rest of us, and crushes opposition; we accept this because the alternative is miserable anarchy.  And since the sovereign creates the laws, it is not itself subject to them; it is above the law. 

Hobbes acknowledged that “the sovereign” could be a group as easily as an individual, but favored an absolute and unitary monarchy over a divided and hence weaker government.[9]  One reason he gives is that a king will be more attentive to the welfare of the kingdom.  Every person is most concerned with his personal wellbeing; if the national interests conflict with the personal interests of a leader, the personal will win out.  In a oligarchy or democracy, multiple leaders compete against each other and their interests will thus often be at odds with those of the nation as a whole; but a king’s personal interests are identical with those of the nation since it is his nation.  His ego is tied up with its success; its glory is his glory, its wealth his wealth.  Thus an absolute monarch will, Hobbes says, strive for the welfare of the people, not because he must or owes it to them, but because it is more glorious to rule over a rich, enlightened, peaceful, literate and artistic nation than over a vulgar, dirty, impoverished rabble.  The pride of the authoritarian leader is the motivation for national policy and guarantor of the national welfare.

This doesn’t work, but it does make one valid point:  authoritarians are motivated by their own egos, not some slavish devotion to “the common good.”  That is why Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, and so many others held super-spreader rallies during a pandemic, where they could stand before thousands of adoring worshippers willing to risk their lives, and the lives of their families and neighbors, to stroke the Dear Leader’s ego.  It’s also why showing any concern for public health is denounced as disloyalty; it implies that something matters more than the leader’s glory.  As Amartya Sen argued in his Nobel-winning research in economics, fully-functional democracies (ones with a free and independent press, rule of law, free and fair markets and easy access to a meaningful vote) don’t have famines, and generally have longer life expectancies, because they must; if the people have power, the government must see to the people’s welfare or be voted out.  Where there is a compliant propaganda press, leaders who ignore the law without consequences, markets dominated by a few powerful monopolies controlled by oligarchs, and elections rendered meaningless by manipulation or flat-out fraud—-as we increasingly have under Republican policies, particularly during the Trump years——the government feels free to tell people they should be proud to die to keep the economy humming and to support the president.[10] 

In fact, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, the authoritarian cares about holding power; this might mean seeking to be loved by the people, but often means instead weakening, depriving, harassing, oppressing, and essentially warring on one’s own people.[11]  Kim Jung-Un is only one extreme example of this sort of tyrant; for every one “benevolent despot,” there are scores of Amins or Kims.  If the people are terrified, or simply too hungry to muster the energy to rebel and too ignorant to imagine any other possibility or figure out how to resist their oppression, the tyrant is safe.  And above all, the authoritarian wants to feel safe. 

The paradox is that the more power the authoritarian can seize, the closer he or she comes to being a full-blown tyrant, the less secure the authoritarian is.  The true patriot, who cares about the nation, its laws and traditions, can feel the most secure precisely because the true patriot considers power something to be used for some worthy goal, not something to be grasped for its own sake.  There is likely no one who fully meets that ideal, but some come closer than others; those are the ones who can lose magnanimously, win humbly and gratefully, lead or follow as required, and rejoice when the nation prospers regardless.  Plato’s ideal leader was one who didn’t wish to lead at all, but who recognized that the price of good persons refusing power is to have bad ones in charge over them.  Aristotle defined a “citizen” as one who both had a hand in making the laws, and was bound to obey them, capable both of leading and following as required.  But anyone who starts to love the power and the status will start to fear losing it.  Saddam Hussein, after becoming undisputed master of Iraq, predicted that if he ever lost power they wouldn’t find even the tip of his fingers intact; his enemies would cut him to pieces.  He had near godlike control over his subjects, with fifty-foot tall idols of himself and multiple palace complexes, but he lived in fear every day.  Aristotle observed that a stable country is one where as many people as possible feel they have a stake in its stability[12]  Locke said that the ultimate foundation of a true civil society is the will of the majority of the people.  Both are making much the same point:  that the state, and thus also the leaders, are actually stronger when power is shared.  The authoritarian fears their own people; that is why, Aristotle says, tyrants recruit foreigners as bodyguards, while in democracies the leaders are guarded by their own citizens.  The tyrant, and any authoritarian to the extent that they approach maximum personal power, is at war with their own people. 

Trump’s followers like to claim that he was a very successful president until he wasn’t, and that he can’t be held responsible for that because his wildly successful presidency was derailed by an unpredictable and unavoidable catastrophe.  The principle facts of this claim are disputable; Trump’s success through 2019 was not as stellar as he boasted, and many warned his administration of the dangers of a possible pandemic and even left a “playbook” for fighting one, which he threw away.  But these disputed facts aside, the real lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that authoritarian governments will fail to protect their people in the event of a catastrophe.  They do not feel themselves answerable to the people, so they look first to their own preservation and enhancement of power; the first instinct of the authoritarian is to regard warnings of disaster to be attacks on the leader’s image and power.  First, they will seek to silence the prophets of doom; next, they will seek to cover up the crisis when it occurs; then they will deny they were warned and/or deny that they refused to act; and at last they will grow impatient with the cries of the victims who make the leader look ineffective and too weak to fix the problem.  Whether it was a pandemic in 2019, or a war, or recession, there was always going to be some crisis.  And in a crisis, while a democracy might stumble as various groups try to wrap their collected heads around the problem and find a response based on multiple perspectives and interests, an authoritarian can be trusted to act swiftly and decisively—-for the protection of the leader, and against the needs of the people. 

I would like to believe that the failure of Trumpism to handle even a predicted crisis for which our government had spent years preparing and which we had months to see coming would lead to a world-wide recognition of the weakness of authoritarianism, and a return to the pro-democracy trends we saw towards the end of the 20th century.  However, the eagerness of Republicans to first act surprised at an attempted coup despite many warnings, then to ignore it and ask everyone to forget it and “move on,” and finally to justify it with false claims about the election, does not give me much confidence that they’ve seen any fault in the authoritarian model.  In 1980 Paul Weyrich argued before the National Republican Convention in Dallas that Republicans do better when people don’t vote, and therefore it was in the party’s interest to work against the democratic principles this country claims to champion.  Since then, the Republican party has worked vigorously to make voting as difficult and as pointless as possible, to undermine people’s confidence in the democratic process, to discourage civic interest or participation by the majority of citizens, and to convince their base that any fact that didn’t fit their preconceived notions, whims or prejudices was simply politically motivated “fake news” from “liberals” and should be ignored.  The culmination of this forty-year project has been to create a conservative electorate that lives in its own alternate reality, rejects science and history and any other expertise while blindly obeying any party mouthpiece, denies that it is even possible for them to lose an election, and is willing to resort to violence when counting the ballots tells them otherwise.  Republicans are so far from the principles of representative government that they openly work for minority rule, and embrace a failed coup leader as their best chance for victory—-victory for their party and the oligarchs who back it, regardless of the fate of the nation. 

I don’t know if the authoritarians will ultimately succeed, or if freedom-loving patriots will put aside previous partisan divides to defeat them.  What I do know is that there will continue to be crises that threaten this nation, and even this world.  And I know that authoritarian governments will not meet these crises.  It is in their interests, and in their nature to ignore bad news, cover it up, blame others for their failures, make bad things much worse and corresponding good fortune less beneficial for any but the ruling elite.  Eventually the people lose all faith in their government, which suits the authoritarian fine when things are going well since an apathetic and dispirited populace is more easily ruled.  However, when the government finally realizes that it must act, it will find that not only is it too late to avoid disaster, but the people will likely refuse to cooperate.  I cite as example the experience of Liberia during the Ebola crisis; the people had been lied to so often that when the government really needed them to undertake basic safety measures, they refused, and turned a crisis into a catastrophe.  As J.S. Mill wrote in his essay “On Representative Government,” even the most “benign” despotism tends to infantilize its subjects.  People under an authoritarian regime become passive, detached, and thoughtless.  And I would argue, authoritarianism also infantilizes the leaders.  We mature by encountering others with whom we must reckon and negotiate; but the authoritarian will not tolerate equals and thus never encounters an “other.”  Instead, as Aristotle said, the authoritarian surrounds himself with flatterers and sycophants.  A functioning democracy is a society of adults, who argue in good faith, who accept reality, who strive to be rational and just.  A despotism is a nation led by an overgrown toddler, who seeks to bully the other children on the playground.  In a high-tech, fast-changing world such as ours, with an unending stream of crises small, large and existential, we will not long survive as a race of toddlers.

[1] Tamer Fakahany, “‘The End of History’?  30 Years on, Does That Idea Still Hold Up?” Associated Press Nov. 7, 2019)

[2] Peter Wade, “Trump’s Fed Nominee Isn’t a ‘Big Believer in Democracy;’” Rolling Stone April 14, 2019 (

[3] Stephanie Hegarty, “The Chinese Doctor Who Tried to Warn Others about Coronavirus;” BBC 6 Feb 2020 (

[4] JM Rieger, “Sean Hannity denied calling coronavirus a hoax nine days after he called coronavirus a hoax;” Washington Post March 19, 2020 (

[5] Mary Papenfuss, “It’s Been 1 Year Since Trump Boasted 15 COVID-19 Cases Would Soon Be ‘Close To Zero’” Huffington Post Feb. 26, 2021 (

[6] “Amid India’s COVID-19 Surge, Dozens of Dead Bodies Found Floating in Ganges River;” CBS News May 11, 2021 (

[7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, part II, chapter 17

[8] I say “he” because Hobbes meant “he;” he treats women not as citizens themselves but as one of those things men fight over.

[9] Leviathan chapter 19

[10] Bess Levin, “Texas Lt. Governor: Old People Should Volunteer to Die to Save the Economy;” Vanity Fair March 24, 2020

[11] Aristotle, The Politics, Book V, chapter xi

[12] Politics Book II, chapter ix

A Response to Bergson’s “Laughter” (pt. 3)

August 19, 2020

III. Conclusions


The derivative nature of aggressive humor: Bergson’s theory is that laughter is intended as a social sanction. We mock the person who has fallen into habit and “mechanical” behavior, particularly when that has reached the point of impairing the person’s functioning as a living and social being. Self-deprecating humor is derivative of this; for example, I might tell a joke about my absentmindedness as a way of chiding absentmindedness itself, and thus all others who fall into my habitual failing.

Toddlers show us humor that is neither self-deprecating nor aggressive; it is simply without a strong sense of self-consciousness at all. There seems to be an innate desire to provoke laughter in others, and the young child will do whatever gets a laugh. It is only later, when we develop a sense of shame and thus an immediate tendency to try to hide our flaws, that we can consciously choose to violate normal standards by intentionally calling attention to our faults in deliberately “self”-deprecating humor. Humor is one of the ways we bond with one another. We share a laugh the same way we share a hug, or a compliment, or a snack, or our ancestors shared a session of grooming: social actions giving pleasure to another and thus strengthening social bonds. Aggressive humor, using humor not just to strengthen some bonds but to break others and to exclude some person from our fun, is what is derivative.

Because of course, as Bergson shows, some humor does chide or punish the socially deviant or harmful person, either to pressure that one back into society or to utterly exile. But the fact that something can be used aggressively does not mean that is its primary use, or even a worthy use. Children laugh together, but at some point they learn to laugh at another, most usually without regard to whether that causes pain. And as we mature and begin struggling for dominance among ourselves, humor becomes another weapon, first to tease and bully an individual and then to bully a group, or even a race. The ability to communicate gives us the ability to lie; likewise the ability to laugh gives us the ability to mock.

Sex, Death and More: “Oh Death, where is thy sting?” asks the prophet and the apostle; and while it may be faith that promises full victory, it is laughter that provides the first defense for many.[1] We often laugh at things that are the most important to us, because they are so frightening and/or tempting. The internet search to find the funniest joke in the world found a death joke; and here it is:


Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guys says “OK, now what?”[2]


One of the oldest jokes I know, from the Vikings, is also a death joke, or more accurately a joke told at a death. Several men planned to kill a famous warrior and sent one of their group to scout ahead and see if their quarry was home. When the scout came back they asked, “Well, is Bjorn home?” He replied, “I don’t know if Bjorn is home, but his ax certainly is,” and fell over dead. I’ve read that a lot of Viking humor was like that: dark and violent. Death was a constant threat, and they dealt with it not only with the promise of Valhalla but also by making light of it. If you can laugh, it isn’t as terrifying.

Maybe that’s why there are so many jokes about sex. Sex is a prime motivator for much human activity, to say the least. Our nation spent the last several decades spilling more sweat and treasure to research impotence cures than preparing for the next pandemic. The TV show “Ally McBeal” used to refer to the penis as “the dumbstick.” This reflects several things about sex, most obviously that it’s funny. Much of the show’s humor revolved around the ridiculous situations characters got into because of sex, or the ridiculous sex they got into because they were such characters. Second, men and women seem to both agree that men are particularly controlled by the dumbstick. And for men, this seems to be psychologically problematic; they want sex and they are fascinated by it, but also somewhat afraid of the lengths they will go to and the risks they will take for it and in particular afraid that they are being manipulated by the women around them. The sex drive is powerful, and that power makes it frightening. Sex itself is also powerful. If God is that which creates ex nihilo, then sex is the closest thing we humans have to divine power: the ability to literally create life, so that two become three or more. The genders generally find each other mysterious and at times bizarre, but also indispensable and attractive; and this in itself generates tension. And often we relieve this tension with humor, sometimes good-natured and sometimes seemingly barbed.

There are also a lot of jokes about poop, something that is quite the opposite: repulsive rather than attractive, something we seek to be rid of rather than pursue, and which is the very opposite of creation, the waste products of life. It is not “important” in the way either sex or death is, but no one who has seen the beans scene in “Blazing Saddles” can be ignorant of the comic potential there. I’m not a big fan of scatological humor myself but I find it fascinating that it even exists.

All three of these are generally somewhat “taboo” in adult “polite” conversation. In different ways, all are psychologically powerful. And often, when something is “unmentionable” but also unavoidable, we use humor to discuss it more obliquely, taking the sting out. Bergson might say that each of these brings something “mechanical” to a human life, something controlling rather than controllable by the individual, and it is that tension between the lively expression of the individual and the universalizing and irrational aspects of life that provokes laughter. My hypothesis is again to look at the child. We learn to speak before we learn what things are supposed to be unspeakable. Children blurt out whatever strikes them in the moment, often in ways that would be judged wildly inappropriate for an adult. Sometimes this is because of the child’s ignorance. One story goes like this: Sally wouldn’t stop eating acorns, so her parents told her that if she didn’t stop she’d become very fat. One day in the park Sally saw a pregnant woman and said, “I know what you’ve been doing!” The humor relies on the fact that the child does not know; what would be merely gross if spoken by an adult is funny when said by a child who does not understand. My grandson finds farts hilarious, particularly if they come from an adult. When he loudly said “Uh oh!” when someone broke wind, it was funny because he understood what had happened but not that we don’t usually talk about it; “polite” conversation just tries to ignore it. At some point, a child is going to unconsciously voice some double-entendre, or announce some fact with a directness unforgivable for a serious adult, and the adults around will laugh. The child may have no idea what is funny but will still want to be part of the fun, and will want to repeat it. We thus learn what topics those around us regard as funny, and also (a little or a lot later) learn which topics we are not generally supposed to just discuss directly when making “small talk” or “polite conversation.” Some of us learn to discuss this topics more indirectly with humor, simultaneously raising the tension by presenting these taboo topics and releasing it through laughter. Others may memorize jokes to share about these topics, so as to be able to share laughter with each other even if one lacks the creative wit to create humor oneself.

I suspect (though I know no way to test this) that comedians are allowed more leeway in society precisely because there is something childish in humor. Whether a professional comedian or “the life of the party,” some people are particularly good at raising serious or even taboo topics in a way that evokes laughter, and we react in a way analogous to the way we react to a child saying something otherwise inappropriate: “Well, the tyke didn’t really mean it, so it’s okay.” The child can’t really mean it, since the child lacks the discernment; the comedian likewise doesn’t mean it, because he or she is only a comedian and therefore not “serious.” But sometimes the comedian “crosses the line” and says something the audience finds so repulsive that no humor can excuse it.[3] Gilbert Gottfried notoriously derailed his career with a tweet comparing the Fukashima nuclear disaster to a Godzilla attack. At that point it didn’t really even matter if the joke was funny; it was “too soon,” too painful, and no amount of humor was able to deflect attention from the human suffering. But generally Gottfried is able to say what would otherwise be terrible things in a way that provokes laughter rather than outrage. The successful comedian may say something that is taboo, or insulting, or otherwise generally not what we’re supposed to say, but does it in a way that evokes laughter; and that laughter seems to cause us to take it as “only a joke” even if we simultaneously see real truth in what is said. It is similar to the way we can “laugh it off” if a child says something true but also unmentionable; we sort of treat the comedian as not really “serious” even when we say, “Still, you know, she’s got a point.”

Maybe we allow comic discussion of topics that we avoid seriously discussing because in some way we take the adult comedian as in some sense a child, and give the comedian a similar leeway to speak the unspeakable—so long as it is accompanied by laughter. Without laughter, we remember that we are listening to an adult and judge by adult standards.

Humor and humility: Bergson claims that art aims to capture the individual reality or liveliness of its object. Too often our “utilitarian” concerns cause us to see everything as a tool, raw material, or obstacle to fulfilling our own desires, instead of seeing things and people as realities independent of ourselves. Art aims to break the dominance of utilitarian thinking by presenting its object apart from all functionality. The goal of a still life is not to sell apples or to stimulate the appetite; it is simply to present the viewer with the beauty to be found in a simple bowl of apples, existing for its own sake. Bergson says that comedy, by contrast, does not depict individual unique realities but instead depicts stereotypes and generalities. A good drama can be named after a particular person, such as Othello or Hamlet, and the drama’s quality will largely depend on how well the playwright presents the particulars of the protagonist’s personality. We want the dramatic protagonist to be “believable,” to seem like a real person. A comedy by contrast can be named for a type or generality: “The Jealous One” in Bergson’s example, or perhaps “The Jerk” to cite a more recent example. The comedic protagonist does not have to be “realistic;” in fact, that can get in the way of the comedy, particularly if it leads us to have too much sympathy for the character. It is more than enough if the comedic character is sketched in broad strokes, so we can recognize the type and the “mechanism” that is being lampooned.

But this claim that comedy is rooted in social structures depends on Bergson’s prior claim that humans are the only animal that laughs, or is laughed at; and scientific evidence indicates that this claim is wrong. Other animals have humor, small children have humor, and the essence of humor is much more basic and fuzzy than Bergson suggests. Laughter is a reaction to something that gives joy, and often what gives joy by virtue of being funny. We say “it’s funny because it’s true,” meaning that something seems funny because it expresses or reveals a truth in a surprising and generally oblique way. No one laughs if you simply state that men and women often do things differently; but entire comic careers have been based on comically stating specific different reactions of men and women, or the comedian and his or her spouse. But we philosophers don’t need to visit the comedy clubs to see this saying illustrated; we have our great hero, Socrates, the world’s first stand-up philosopher, who went down in history for his use of irony to reveal the absurdities of the social assumptions of his day and the presumptions of its leaders. Chuang Tzu also used humor to raise epistemological or metaphysical points.

Just as humor can be self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing, friendly or aggressive, so too it can be revelatory, falsifying or neither. Racist humor is aggressive and relies on false stereotypes, intending to dehumanize its target. Python’s “Banker Sketch” is closer to Bergson’s ideal; it relies on stereotypes not merely to dehumanize the target but also to rehumanize. One can see that sketch and laugh at those rich snobs, or see oneself in the Banker and resolve not to be like that. The joke that makes us laugh at ourselves, or at one of our idols, can be supremely revelatory. If art is supposed to reveal truth by presenting its object outside our usual framework of desires and tools, then humor can do so by presenting to us ourselves. We immediately perceive the world in orbit around ourselves, with everything either a tool or an obstacle. We can step away from that solipsistic perspective when we are caught up in our appreciation of beauty or harmony, in art or music; but we can also do so through learning to laugh at ourselves, and thus learning humility.

Why do authoritarians hate humor? As The Doctor said, “the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t change their beliefs to fit the facts, they change the facts to fit their beliefs.”[4] Authoritarians want authority over everything, including—-especially—-true and false. They want to be able to control others, by forcing them to accept the despot’s version of reality or, failing that, to at least force them to act as if they do. And they don’t want to be challenged, and any independent truth-claim represents a challenge to their power.

Despots can use humor to reinforce falsehoods or to undermine truth, and often do. They use racist and ethnic humor to dehumanize The Other and give their followers an inflated sense of self-worth which derives entirely from being on the good side of the despot. This is not essentially different than the actions of the schoolyard bully who humiliates one kid to put fear into the others that if they don’t laugh at the victim, they could be next. It is more dangerous, and more wicked since an adult should have a moral sense, but the social mechanics are identical. But humor can turn against the despot too. Humor exposes our pretensions.   As Bergson points out, the gap between empty ceremony and human life is particularly funny. President Ford fell down once due to a knee he injured playing football, and Chevy Chase made an industry out of his “Gerald Ford impression” pratfalls. The physical humor itself was funny because Chase could do the seemingly unnatural without injury and then shout, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” but the idea that the President of the United States is a mere human being subject to gravity and fleshly weakness like the rest of us added another layer of comedy. That was part of the social function of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Roasts, which used be a major yearly event. The President of the United States, and other powerful leaders, would allow himself to be laughed at, and would even join in the laughter. The President would respond with humor at the end, but only when he had shown he could take a joke and make a joke at his own expense could he make one at another’s. An authoritarian cannot stand to be laughed at, because an authoritarian does not want to be merely human; he or she must seem like a mortal god. Someone made a comment about President Xi being round and chubby like Pooh Bear, and now pictures of Winnie the Pooh are illegal in China. The authoritarian doesn’t mind being hated, but cannot stand to be laughed at, because when we laugh at anything we cease to fear it,—at least for a moment,

Humor also, as we saw, is a mechanism for social bonding. Authoritarians want to be the only center of social groups. Just as romantic love becomes a rebellion unless it is yoked to the authoritarian in a State-sanctioned marriage, so too when a group begins to laugh together they become a potential center of power. There is nothing so infuriating to an oppressor as the sound of the oppressed laughing among themselves; it means they’ve found joy that the oppressor did not control. If they can feed their own spirits and find joy in life without the permission of the authoritarian, what other rebellion might they find possible? Authoritarians always attempt to control anything that feeds the spirit, that brings joy to the lives of the people, whether it be art, or religion, or knowledge, or sex, or humor.


There is no virtue more beneficial than a sense of humor, and no divine gift more blessed than laughter. When we are overtaken by the goodness of life, and our whole being overflows with joy, we laugh. When the terrors and griefs of life threaten to overwhelm us, we laugh at our fears and cut them down to size. When our own egos threaten to outrun our capacities, we laugh at ourselves and again learn humility. When self-important leaders seek to humiliate and subdue us, we laugh at them and remember that they are mortal, the same as us. Gratitude and contentment, courage and endurance, humility and confidence, are all boosted by a proper sense of humor. And, it makes you laugh! What other virtue can say all that?

[1] Hosea 13:14; 1 Corinthians 15:55

[2] Alva Noë, “What is the Funniest Joke in the World?” NPR March 7, 2014 (

[3] Sometimes the joke simply falls flat and the audience doesn’t think the comedian is funny or even trying to be. One notorious example of this comes from the 2016 presidential campaign, during the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner .[3] Traditionally part of the event has long been a roast, presenting opposing candidates the chance to trade some good-natured barbs with one another. It is not surprising that sometimes this gets a little close to the bone, but Trump took his routine to such an extreme of negative directness that the audience of polite Manhattan society began to boo and even heckle him. He didn’t so much make a joke that Hillary was corrupt as simply say, “She’s so corrupt you should vote for me; and she hates Catholics too.” At one point Trump said to Clinton, “I don’t know if they’re booing you or me,” and someone in the audience shouted back, “You!” Years later commentators pointed to this as one example of Trump’s lack of a sense of humor. He may say things that some find funny, but he is said to fundamentally lack two elements of genuine comedy: the ability to take a joke about himself, and the ability to tell a joke about another in a way that even the target has to admit is funny.

[4] “The Face of Evil,” Doctor Who