Can humor neutralize the right-wing?

Listeners to my show and visitors to my website know that much of my time is spent arguing for liberal solutions and debunking right-wing disinformation and cant. A related sub-topic has always been how not only to reach moderates and conservatives but also to persuade them that conservative ideology is destructive.

On any number of hot-button issues liberals are correct.  Anthropogenic global warming is real and an immediate threat.  Unregulated markets do not work best.  Highly progressive tax schedules and a strong safety net lead to broad-based prosperity and happier citizens.  A muscular go-it-alone foreign policy has led more often than not to disaster.

Sadly, many Americans have failed to grasp these obvious truths perhaps because they are in thrall to propaganda outfits like Fox and right-wing talk radio.  In response, I have tried a balance of reason and emotion to argue the liberal case.  But a recent post by Corey Robin – one of my favorite bloggers – and Saturday’s op-ed by Alexandra Petri in the Washington Post suggest that humor may be an underutilized weapon in the progressive arsenal.

Robin points out that thought leaders as diverse as Mel Brooks and Hannah Arendt saw humor as an effective strategy against the Nazis.  Here’s Brooks:

How do you get even with Adolf Hitler? How do you get even with him? There’s only one way to get even. You have to bring him down with ridicule… If you can make people laugh at him, then you’re one up on him…One of my lifelong jobs has been to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler.

Petri takes on Bill O’Reilly, Fox’s most popular entertainer, scathingly and effectively.  For crossing the line between braggadocio and outright lying, Media Matters and other news organizations are demanding that Fox fire O’Reilly.  This, Petri concludes, is like “trying to take down Froot Loops for not containing fruit.”

Petri’s onto something important here.  We on the left have to be careful not to take the O’Reillys of the world too seriously.  If Hannah Arendt is right that the trial of mass murderer Adolf Eichmann can serve as an appropriate comedic vehicle than so can the “O’Reilly Factor”.  O’Reilly’s power comes not from the fact that he has nightly television show but that millions watch it and take him seriously.  To the extent that he can be shown up as a phony and blowhard, his clout evanesces.

Still, comedy shows like “The Colbert Report” apparently have had little or no success converting conservatives.  Many accepted Colbert’s mock conservative pundit unironically and were even attracted by his hollow patriotism.  So what’s the answer?

To the extent we can ridicule conservatives, we should do so.  But for them to get the joke, we must eschew irony and use broad-as-a-barn-door slapstick.  Think Three Stooges as opposed to the Marx Brothers, Family Guy as opposed to Seinfeld.

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