It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.