From ridicule to the ridiculous
The war on drugs was weird enough because it was a war on plants, which I found
quite odd. But the whole concept of a war on terror is absurd. How can you declare
war on an abstract, on a notion?
Mark Thomas (Source: Big Issue, December 2-8 2002)
Comedy can be an incisive instrument to reveal the truth. Good satire can be
the most telling and effective form of critique, while in recent years The
Simpsons has probably been the most consistently insightful work of social
observation in any media.
It is not surprising then that comedy has become one of the most potent modes
of political commentary and polemic. In Britain, for example, comedians such
as Ben Elton in the eighties and Rory Bremner and Mark Steel in the present
day have been praised as the most effective critics of the politicians of their
time. Michael Moore in the US and Mark Thomas in the UK have also pioneered
a new hybrid of investigative journalism and comedy. The blend has proved to
be extremely popular. Most notably, Moore’s book Stupid White Men was
a huge bestseller in 2002.
The comedian’s skills, however, do not always lend themselves to the kind of
subtle analysis good political commentary often requires. The problem is that
the political comedian is the master of ridicule. But it is easy to forget that
what has been made to look ridiculous may not in fact be ridiculous.
Take Mark Thomas’s swipes at the war on drugs and the war on terror. Not bad
gags, I would say. But do they add up to serious criticisms of either? Hardly.
Consider the war on drugs first. The joke works because it makes us imagine
an armed struggle in which the enemy is a plant, and this absurdity makes us
laugh. But, of course, the joke is asking us to imagine what is clearly not
the case. No one involved in the war on drugs thinks they are going into battle
with plants. In fact, they probably don’t even think that they’re engaged in
a war in the conventional sense at all. The term itself is merely a kind of
metaphor or shorthand for a policy of working to eliminate the supply and use
What the joke does is takes the phrase ‘war on drugs’, interprets it in a deliberately
over-literal way, and then shows how, on that interpretation, such a war is
ridiculous. But this is a far cry from having shown that the war on drugs itself
is ridiculous. In fact, the joke cannot do this because it doesn’t even begin
to address what the war on drugs is really about. However, comedy is in the
timing, and gags, unlike careful arguments, follow each other quickly. It is
easy in our laughter to think that it is the war on drugs which we are finding
ridiculous, not a clever joke we are finding funny.
The line about the war on terror follows the same logic. Of course the war
on terror is not a war waged by the armies of America against hordes of abstract
concepts. It is a war against terrorists and supporters of terrorism.
At best, the gags may show there is something unfortunate about talking about
wars on drugs and terrors, since in neither case is a conventional war being
waged. But even this is a criticism of descriptions and not the projects they
describe. And by missing the point they actually take us away from considering
the genuinely problematic aspects of both these so-called wars.
If all this sounds like taking comedy too seriously then it should be remembered
that the comedians themselves take their political objectives very seriously.
And they are very articulate and persuasive spokespeople for their causes. Often
their work is excellent, and the jokes hit upon uncomfortable truths. Both Michael
Moore and Mark Thomas in particular have produced some searching and disturbing
work. But both ridicule more than is actually ridiculous and in the process
they can divert our attention from the real issues and make us laugh at no more
than straw men. Comedy can reveal the truth, but it can also make us miss it.