Friday, May 21, 2010

on silverman.

i love sarah silverman. i do. i think she's funny, independent of any view that i might have of myself on any particular occasion for thinking that. so i was listening today to her interview with tom ashbrook on on point, and of course the topic is roughly: "is anything sacred?" "is everything fodder for your jokes?" and more subtly the topic turned to the question of (1) whether it makes a difference (a moral difference, is the implication) whether or not the listeners are in on the joke, and (2) if it's better to say what we're all already thinking. if sarah silverman makes a joke about kids with mental retardation, and the "real" joke is that she (or, rather, her on-stage persona) is morally obtuse, well, what does it mean that some people are laughing at the joke of her obtuseness and some people are laughing at retarded kids? and are we all really laughing at the kids, while a few sophisticates are simply able to tell themselves that they're laughing at the former rather than the latter? and is it better, as she claimed, to give a voice to the -isms that would otherwise be there, tamped carefully down upon. is there something potentially redeeming about being forces to confront that in ourselves?

i think that there's some merit to these defenses, but listening to silverman kind of vaguely and uncomfortably offer them (she is humbly uncomfortable in the role of theoretical explicator or moral philosopher), i thought, as i often do, of this passage from arendt's on totalitarianism, in which she addresses the actual impact of the work of another group of artists (silverman is clear in expressing her belief that comedy is art, and that this means the comic, like other artists, has no business telling the audience what they ought to make of their work) looking to expose some middle-class hypocricy:

Since the bourgeoisie claimed to be the guardian of Western traditions and confounded all moral issues by parading publicly virtues which it not only did not possess in private and business life, but actually held in contempt, it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard human values, and general amorality, because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest. What a temptation to flaunt extreme attitudes in the hypocritical twilight of double moral standards, to wear publicly the mask of cruelty if everybody was patently inconsiderate and pretended to be gentle...

At the time, nobody anticipated that the true victims of their irony would be the elite rather than the bourgeoisie. The avant-garde did not know they were running their heads not against the walls but against open doors, that a unanimous success would belie their claim to being a revolutionary minority, and would prove that they were about to express a new mass spirit or the spirit of the time. Particularly significant in this respect was the reception given Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper in pre-Hitler Germany. The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when the respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann dommt die Moral,’ [LG translation: first comes a full stomach, then comes ethics] was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elites applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior and wonderful fun. The effect of the work was exactly the opposite of what Brecht has sought by it. The bourgeoisie could no longer be shocked; it welcomed the exposure of its hidden philosophy, whose popularity proved they had been right all along, so the only political result of Brecht’s “revolution’ was to encourage everyone to discard the uncomfortable mask of hypocrisy and to accept openly the standards of the mob.

obviously, this isn't pre-war germany. despite some insane shit going on at the moment, i don't think that we're on the verge of a collapse into totalitarian dictatorship from the right or left. and i don't think, where our -isms are concerned, we're anything like eager to drop the pretense to embrace our worse selves. i don't think that we're weary in the right ways to start thinking that our worst selves are our true selves. but the point is, there are worse things than hypocrisy. there are worse things than tamping down on our base impulses. there can be a sophomoric holden caulfieldish naivete in the urge to point out and rile them.

of course no one decried hypocrisy more directly than hannah arendt, who famously referred to it as 'the vice of vices' ('integrity,' she said, 'can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.'). so the lesson isn't 'tolerate hypocrisy for fear of something worse', but i does suggest that there are real moral and political risks in even an act so seemingly righteous. our moral responsibility doesn't stop with being honest or demanding honesty. taking a hard look at the worst of ourselves is not, itself, morally worthy-- though it can lead to acts of great moral (and artistic) worth.

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