These are Dangerous Days, or How to Fight the Fire This Time

8 12 2015

Some long time ago, back in my first, fresh out of high school attempt at college, I had an idea – an idea I dearly loved, but knew would be received very poorly by a lot of people – 32 Short Films About Adolf Hitler (an obvious nod to 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, and probably more directly to The Simpsons episode “22 Short Films About Springfield”). Short films about Hitler aren’t in themselves objectionable, but here’s the kicker – they were all to be slapstick and absurdist comedy.

Hitler, in full Nazi regalia, walks by a wig shop. A moment after passing it, he walks backwards to stare for a time at the window display. He walks into the shop. The shot lingers on the front of the shop for a few moments until he walks back out, adjusting his hat atop a brand new rainbow clown wig.

Hitler passes time in a Laundromat, clad in his undies, while waiting for his uniform to dry.

Hitler wakes up one morning to find that his moustache has wandered on his face. He attempts to sort it, only to find that it has other ideas.

Joseph Goebbels plays gleefully with his pet rodents in a short called “Goebbels’ Gerbils.”

And so on. It probably came mainly from the fact that Hitler and Charlie Chaplin shared a moustache style, though I didn’t realize that back then. Back then, I just thought the idea was hilarious and that it would probably get me death threats if I were to make it. In my mind, though, there was something wonderful and perfect about taking the greatest monster of recent memory down with utterly absurd comedy. I meant no disrespect to the millions of victims of the Nazi regime, and I certainly didn’t want to create the impression that the Holocaust was in any way a laughing matter. Still, there was something powerful to me in the idea, something like “We won. We get to laugh at you now.” Comedy as victory cry and damnatio memoriae.

Of course, Hitler is in the past. He can be made fun of because he’s at arm’s length, and we had our victory against him in particular. Along with the right to laugh at him, we feel a certainty that we learned from his story. We solemnly, wholeheartedly intone Niemöller – “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out…” We tell ourselves “Never again” and “It can’t happen here.”

Once again, there’s the kicker – of course it can happen here, and it looks very much like it is currently happening here, at least to some degree. Aspirants to political power are calling for the exclusion and stripping of human rights from religious others and outsiders, and a decent portion of the populace is loving it. They’re being told explicitly that the things keeping our country from being “great again” are people whose nefarious intentions are self-evident and are inextricable parts of their nationality or faith. Their religion tells them to do evil, we’re being told, or their foreignness makes them invaders.

Hearing those lines of thought isn’t surprising – they’ve always been there, after all, and lots of people even like to espouse them while dressing like Hitler. The Nazis’ genuinely impressive fashion sense aside, that actually made it easier. We don’t have to listen to those guys, they’re just pining for that monstrosity we already beat. We soundly whooped his ass, so they can dress up all they like, but it just makes them look stupid.

The problem is that this time, it’s not just fringe loonies. It’s purely mainstream loonies, and they’re not being shouted down. No, it’s far worse than that – they’re winning. France’s National Front just enjoyed an unheard of level of support in elections. UKIP is taken seriously. Here in the US, the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are climbing over each other to reach the pinnacles of Mount Xenophobia and Mount Islamophobia, uncovering heights long shrouded in clouds of common decency.

This troubles me for the very obvious reasons, but I’ve got a less obvious dilemma in the mix. Not long ago, I started using Twitter as an outlet for the kind of nonsense humor I find unbelievably funny. I quickly established a daily posting pattern – two nonsensical “facts” about Donald Trump wrapped around one word or phrase that tickled me. It’s done better than I expected, with followers appearing from outside the expected bunch of friends and family and a couple of Tweets even getting retweeted around a bit. It felt pretty good, putting comedy into the world and having it receive at least a few virtual chuckles.

The problem is that it has started to feel inappropriate. In the wake of the Paris and San Bernadino attacks, Trump and Cruz and company aren’t just being embarrassing and ugly. I believe that they are furthering the exact narrative that ISIS wants, an apocalyptic Us vs. Them. You want to kill our people? Fine! We’ll call every one of your coreligionists terrorists and strip them of their rights and basic decency – even the ones who are already running away from you! We’ll isolate and demonize those who are already here, reminding them at every turn that we don’t trust them and we don’t want them here! Voices that forcefully say “We will defeat ISIS, but we have to do it carefully, and it’s going to take time” are met with derision and promises to “bomb the shit out of them” and attacks that will make the sand of Syria “glow in the dark.”

In that context, where one of the two major parties that control the national agenda of the most powerful, most well-armed country on the planet is openly embracing religious hate as the solution to a monster fueled by religious hate, is comedy appropriate? Is taking the absurdist piss the right thing to do? Does pointing out the fact that Trump is an idiot who never thinks more than two words ahead diminish the reality of his threat?

Can I, in good conscience, post a slightly more trenchant (or at least weird) version of “Donald Trump eats boogers” when Donald Trump is successfully firing up the worst in a whole lot of people?

Yes, I can. Yes, I will. As a good friend reminded me, “Fun is always right.” It may not be the most effective way of fighting back, but the idiot and his pals aren’t actually rounding anyone up off the streets yet. There may be a time for more serious responses. I hope there isn’t – I hope we come to our senses well before then. If we don’t, though, many of us will remember Niemöller, and we’ll speak up even when they’re not coming for us. Even then, maybe especially then, we could probably all use a laugh.

EDIT 12/8/2015, 2:44PM – Changed “firing the worst” to “firing up the worst.”

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