Category Archives: Comedy

Elfwick’s Law

A fortnight back, The Guardian newspaper (1) published a worrying article about the rise of fascism—in its new shiny manifestation, spurred on by various online forums. The sub-headline was worrying enough:

screen-shot-of-guardian

“It started with Sam Harris, moved on to Milo Yiannopoulos and almost led to full-scale Islamophobia. If it can happen to a lifelong liberal, it could happen to anyone”. (2)

It made for grim reading, talking about “cult-like” aspects and flirtations with the far right. The poor author, who had started out as a “normal white liberal”, had been almost brainwashed into the “alt-right” was enveloped in a web of “indoctrination”, but just drew themselves back from the brink because “[D]eep down, I knew I was ashamed of what I was doing…”

Some of us who have followed Sam Harris, and his much-maligned attempts to raise the level of public intellectual debate above the banal and asinine, smelled a rat at the first headline. But, for those unfamiliar with him or his work, there were some not so subtle signals. The brainwashed writer went on: “On one occasion I even, I am ashamed to admit, very diplomatically expressed negative sentiments on Islam to my wife. ‘[W]e should be able to discuss these things without shutting down the conversation by calling people racist, or bigots.’”

(Horrifying indeed!)

Oh dear. Anyone who had not seen the signs by this time had been led up a garden path, one decorated with crazy paving, and bordered by Mad Dog-Weed.

The Guardian had been spoofed.

“I’m not a ‘Grammar-Nazi’, I’m ‘Alt-Write’”…

The article had not come from some anonymous anxious young white man who had just managed to pull himself back from the brink of full-blown Nazi extremism after all. So, where had it come from?

There is a scurrilous (and sometimes hilarious) online troll who calls himself “Godfrey Elfwick” and styles himself on Twitter:

“Genderqueer Muslim atheist. Born white in the #WrongSkin. Itinerant jongleur. Xir, Xirs Xirself. Filters life through the lens of minority issues.”

alt-shite

His account parodies the self-abasing virtue signalling of elements of the far left, and is frequently painful reading for the liberally inclined.

“Elfwick” came forward and admitted that the piece was his. It certainly fits with his normal output, and in the time I’ve been aware of him, this is the first time he’s broken through the fourth wall and come out of character. Some were outraged at his fooling of The Guardian, but I think his example is a reminder of the important role that satire has to play in the modern marketplace of ideas.

The Day the Music Died.

The great satirical songster Tom Lehrer dramatically declared the death of satire on the occasion of awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. How was he, a mere satirist, to approach ridiculing by parody and extension the awarding of the world’s highest peace honor to a man who ordered the carpet bombing of civilians on Christ’s birthday? As the cliché has it: you couldn’t make it up.

This supposed death of satire was much exaggerated. There is always a role for pushing the boundaries of beliefs into absurdity, and one such is when the bearers of such beliefs seem not to have realized that the absurd is where they have taken up more or less permanent residence. And let’s be specific about what I mean by “absurd” here: It means to have abandoned one’s critical faculties to the extent that one is governed by wishful thinking. And one of the ways this is revealed is that the difference between real and fake no longer matters to you. Talk of post-truth worlds or fake news is hot air. We humans have always been suckers for hearing what we want to hear. Satire has always been one of the cures.

But it’s more than just fun at the expense of the hoaxed. A foundational ability in any discipline must be able to tell the real from the fake. Art experts who praised the “furious fastidiousness” of the brushstrokes of Pierre Brassau (actually Peter, a four-year-old chimp from Boras zoo) confirmed what many of us suspected about modern art expertise. (3) The knowledge that wine experts can be fooled by switching expensive and fake labels casts a lot of their expertise into doubt. (4) In the 1970s, Rosenhan’s classic “Being Sane in Insane Places” study threw the whole of the psychiatric community into disarray; by showing that mental health care professionals of the time couldn’t distinguish real patients from ones who were faking it. (5)

Why can’t the opposition just recognise that they are evil and stupid?

An oft-repeated finding in psychology is that expectation conditions perception. We are notoriously easy to hoax when you give us what they want to see. From the Cottingley Fairies, to the Roswell Alien Autopsy, through the Book of Mormon, to Uri Geller, the history of humanity is a history of people seeing daft things because they wanted to.

This is one reason I advise all my students to study a bit of magic. Not enough to turn pro, but just enough to see how hoaxable we all are. It’s like any self-defence course, although in this case it’s mental self-defence. It’s a humbling experience. Anyone can be blindsided and beaten in a fight. Likewise, any of us can be fooled if someone matches our expectations to their pitch.  Ideally, of course, a good scientist should have no expectations, but scientists are human too. Uri Geller for instance, managed to hoax a number of famous physicists but no magicians.

This is one place where satire comes in. In the 1990s Sokal gloriously hoaxed a post-modernist journal called Social Text. (6) He produced an article of high-sounding gibberish that the editors happily let through to publication as it appeared to speak to their idea that science was just one way of knowing among many. It was filled with supposed physics support for bizarre claims about “physical ‘reality’” [being] fundamentally “a social and linguistic construct” and with needs for a “postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project”.

1996sokaltext01co-museum-of-hoaxes

When he revealed the hoax, what did the editors do? Remove the article in embarrassment? Sore up their editorial policies? Laugh along? Not a bit of it—they somehow tried to maintain the fiction that this tosh was meaningful all along, losing any opportunity to develop their thinking, if thinking it ever was. After Rosenhan’s study, the field of Psychiatry made a concerted effort to tighten its procedures—resulting in new editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Whether it was 100% successful is a different question, but there was an effort to reform in response. But Post Modernism as a field never took this option. Having effectively amputated itself from critical self-reflection, it is now largely moribund, although versions of it still exist to poison efforts at critical reflection in the academy.

Don’t like my opinions of post-modernism? Well, they are true for me…

Now, I’m not claiming that expertise rests on getting it right every time. Expertise does not imply that. But the desire to understand a phenomenon must involve the disciplined attendance to mistakes—so when one is fooled (by nature, colleagues, the maliciously mischievous, or oneself) then one goes back and studies how so it doesn’t happen again. To not do this is to forever live wishfully, rather than authentically attending.

So, what’s the next step? Here’s my suggestion: There are a number of famous Internet laws. Rule 34 is the famous law that somewhere there is a porn version of everything. (7) Godwin’s Law is the tendency over time from all Internet discussions to tend towards an accusation that the opponent is Hitler. An addendum to Godwin’s Law is that the opponent to first yield to the temptation to Hitlerise their opponent automatically loses. (8) Poe’s Law is the rule that any right wing fundamentalist internet site is indistinguishable from a satirical parody of right wing fundamentalist Internet sites. A few minutes on Alex Jones’ will confirm the truth of this. But why should the right wing have it all their own way when it comes to being mocked?

I think we need a new Internet Law to invoke that mirrors Poe’s Law. If a piece of far left virtue signalling cannot be reliably distinguished from a satirical version of it, then this deserves its own nomenclature.

Given his latest achievement I would like to propose the term “Elfwick’s Law” to mark such occasions. If nothing else this would serve as a reminder that descending into parody, and not caring about real or fake, is not the preserve of any political tribe, but is part of common humanity. That’s real equality for you.

—Robert King

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References

1) For those not in the UK—The Guardian is a respectable left-leaning broadsheet newspaper.

4) Hodgson, R. T. (2008). An examination of judge reliability at a major US wine competition. Journal of Wine Economics, 3(02), 105-113.

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/10/you-are-not-so-smart-why-we-cant-tell-good-wine-from-bad/247240/

5) Rosenhan, D. K. (1973). On Being Sane In Insane Places. Science, 179, 250-258

A good write-up is here http://www.holah.karoo.net/rosenhanstudy.htm

6) Sokal, A. D. (Ed.). (2000). The Sokal hoax: the sham that shook the academy. U of Nebraska Press.

7) My advice is to never, ever, check on the truth of this.

8) In the light of recent events the use of Godwin’s Law is under judicial review

9) For more details of the Heterodox Academy see: http://heterodoxacademy.org/

((Of course it’s also possible that Godfrey Elfwick is playing some elaborate game of double bluff and I have been fooled along with others. Which would have a touching irony about it! But–let the record show that when respected newspaper (the Guardian) and respected journalist (Glenn Greenwald) were confronted with the hoax accusations their response was to double-down  and, in Greenwald’s case, to insist that truth was not the issue–the piece spoke to a “deeper truth”.

No it doesn’t. Not if it’s false it doesn’t. That’s what true and false mean.
“Elfwick” broke character for the only time I’ve known to share his workings on the hoax the day after and I reproduce them here. Could these also be faked? Well, of course they could but its worth asking –why would he pick this one to lie about? And even if he did–what is going on with a journalist telling the world that mundane sorts of truth (you know, those ones that are actually true) no longer matter? When Harris retweeted a story that turned out to be false he apologized publicly. https://twitter.com/SamHarrisOrg/status/675030323923656704 This is how public debate should be conducted

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(Shared via screenshot from Godrey Elfwicks Twitter account on 29/11/2016)

 

Proverbial Wisdom of The Ken

1. Laughter is the best medicine. Although maybe for erectile dysfunction, not so much.

2. It’s always stressful introducing a new girlfriend to the family. The last time I did it, my wife lost her shit.

3. Why is Earth Day once a year and Garbage Day twice a week?

4. I wonder if my wife is sexually frustrated. And a small part of me says “Maybe she is”.

5. I used to be a mime but I got fired. I think it was something I said.

6. Whenever someone says “We need to talk” what they really means is “I need to talk to you. You need to shut up and listen.”

7. I saw a poll where they asked a thousand randomly selected American women, “Would you sleep with Bill Clinton?” Fifteen percent said, “Not again!”

8. I had a job interview the other day. The HR puke opened up with “Tell me about yourself.” I told him “I don’t think I will. This time, I actually want the job.”

9. I have a hard time taking the guys I work with seriously when they get all excited about beer after work. Beer is what I drink when I’m trying to sober up.

10. Going to the local community clinic today for a routine renewal of my Ventolin prescription. I need to bring in my paycheck to prove I qualify for charity.

11. Trust is not a transitive property. A friend of a friend of a friend is a stranger.

12. I get no respect. No respect at all. My GPS just said “In 400 feet, stop and let me out.”

13. Actual conversation at the Hechtman household: Wife: “I finally understood why you never fucked a French girl. You talk women into bed. That’s what you do. That’s why you couldn’t do it to them.” Me: “Yeah, pretty much. I mean what the fuck was I supposed to do? Put on feathers and do a mating dance?”

14. I want my remains to be scattered on my mother’s flower garden. I just don’t want to be cremated first.

15. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Jim Carville wrote a take-down book about Ken Starr. He knew he couldn’t get family-oriented chain stores like Chapters or Barnes & Noble to carry his book if he called it Fuck Ken Starr. So instead of that, he used the title And The Horse He Rode In On (1998). Obscenity is in the mind of the beholder.

16. Donald Trump has finally released his tax returns. He emailed them to Hillary Clinton.

17. I heard Justin Trudeau just opened a Chinese restaurant. You eat there and an hour later you’re hungry for absolute power.

18. Email exists to combine the worst feature of the telephone with the worst feature of print.

19. Facebook is internet porn for your social life.

20. Blogs are for people who don’t have anybody to listen to them at home.

21. I belong to no organized political party. I’m a New Democrat.

22. I was reading about a minor figure in Spanish history, the half-brother of Queen Isabella and previous king of Castile, Henry IV, also known as King Henry the Impotent. You’d think if you were a medieval king, the very least you could do would be to make people stop calling you “the impotent” in public. Otherwise, it’s not much good to be the king, is it?

23. Life in Nebraska (S01E13): I was nodding off in class tonight and the professor asks me why. I tell him I’m just tired and he says (with perfect deadpan timing and delivery), “Take meth.”

24. My mother-in-law just drove halfway across the country to celebrate her son graduating from the Air Force Academy and becoming qualified to drop napalm on women and children but she won’t let him share a motel room with his girlfriend because that would be immoral.

25. Someone at the Library of Congress has a sense of humor. The code that prefixes all versions of the Bible is BS.

26. My current bathroom reading is this cheesy sniper-porn shoot-’em-up set in Cuba in 1953. There’s one line I quite like and I’m going to steal it. After the young Fidel Castro leads the disastrous attack on the Moncada Barracks, his Comintern handler tells him “Don’t worry. Later on, you can order the historians to write it up as a glorious victory. If they refuse, you can shoot them and find new historians.”

27. I don’t believe in speaking truth to power. Power already knows the truth. It just doesn’t care.

28. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy executed a preemptive strike on a nation engaged in developing weapons of mass destruction.

29. I’m going to my grandmother’s birthday party tonight. It sucks to be her. The only thing worse than having your birthday on Christmas is having your birthday on Buy Nothing Day.

30. I’ve decided to take up bungee jumping. A broken rubber is the reason I was born. What are the chances it’ll also be the reason I die?

31. It was so cold today that the flasher hanging around the schoolyard was just describing himself.

32. Anybody who does cavity searches for a living doesn’t get to complain about their own privacy being violated.

33. If I complain about transfer speed from a third-world website, is that still a first-world problem?

34. There’s something a little bit obscene about burning five full tanks of gasoline just to put in a personal appearance at a pipeline protest. I’m still going, don’t get me wrong, but I just want to be clear that the irony isn’t lost on me. Somehow it never is.

35. A friend’s post suggested a creative new way of disciplining children. Apparently, I should gift-wrap a bunch of empty boxes and when the children misbehave or don’t listen, I should throw one in the fire. Sounds like a great idea. Can’t wait to try it with one of Wendy’s kids. Even if the little fucker manages to crawl out of the fire, he’ll never throw another tantrum again as long as he lives, tell you that much. One thing I can’t figure out though. What do I need the gift-wrapped empty boxes for?

36. How in the fuck did all these other people die this year and yet Keith Richards is still alive?

37. Consciousness is vastly overrated compared to the lack thereof.

38. Got next year’s Halloween costume already picked out. I need a big-brim hat, the male version of fuck-me boots and a light-saber. I’m going to be Darthagnan.

39. If the politicians don’t trust the people, they need to dissolve them and elect a new people.

—Ken Hechtman

Good Monday

Mixbook  Beautiful Possibilities A Graphic Introduction to the Examined Life by John Faithful Hamer - Google Chrome 2015-09-27 52513 PMIndie: “Daddy, what’s so good about Good Friday? It wasn’t a particularly good day for Jesus. In fact, it was probably the worst day of his life.”

Me: “Yeah, probably was.”

Indie: “So we’re celebrating the death of an innocent man?

Me: “No!”

Indie: “Sure we are. Think about it, we’re celebrating the day that a guy we supposedly love and care about was tortured and killed. That’s cold.”

Me: “But, um, his death made all sorts of new things possible. It was a necessary plot twist in the story of salvation.”

Indie: “If you die on a Monday, and I inherit a whole bunch of money three days later, can I celebrate the day of your death for the rest of my life and call it Good Monday?”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Dexter’s Midnight Juniper Service

This is the story of Dexter and his Midnight Juniper Service.  Dexter is not, of course, the real name of the person in the story.  His real name is Ryan.  I’m just using Dexter to help prevent any embarrassment.

10reokI went through a very rough patch in my life in the ’80s.  I’d just faced two consecutive major failures.  (Unintentional ones, I mean.  I was quite used to failure when I’d decided I just didn’t give a shit and didn’t bother working.)  This was a really new experience for me and left me psychically scarred.  Compounding this was some (largely self-inflicted) alienation from my family.  I fell deep into what I later figured was probably depression and correspondingly deep into welfare dependency.

After a year and a half of this I’d decided that enough was enough.  It was time to climb out of the pit of despair I’d dug for myself.  Of course, along the way, there were a few times when the walls of the pit collapsed in on me.  This story is about one of the earlier collapses.

See, I’d hooked up with College Pro Painters for some income.  I wasn’t a college student, but I was of the right age and I hung out with college students.  This particular franchise was working over the winter (long after most franchises had closed due to lack of employee prospects) and was doing indoor painting work.  I was hired because there was nobody else to hire; everybody else in the target demographic was hard at work at their studies and prepping for exams.

When summer came, the usual outdoor work started to get assigned.  One job stood out over that summer: the German Ogre’s house.  The German Ogre, one of the purest examples of nouveau riche I’ve ever encountered in my life, was both German and a complete (skinflint) ogre.  (How do I know so certainly he was German?  I spoke to him in German.  He was more comfortable with it.)  He would only pay for the cheapest possible outing: no scraping, no sanding, no prep, no cleaning—only slapping paint on his house, his garages, his garden wall, etc.  Of course once work started he would insist we scrape, sand, prep, clean, etc. in direct contravention of the contract he signed.  We took to having the contract out on top of our equipment so every time he came over to shout at us for doing things wrong we’d pull out the paper and point to his initials next to each line saying which services he’d explicitly said he didn’t want.

(The German Ogre’s wife was even worse.)

This alone is not really a reason to be afraid of him and to call him an ogre, of course.  Asshole, yes.  Ogre, no.  Except for the fact that he was a really scary guy.  I say this as a guy that others consider to be really scary, mind you!  We had a pretty abiding suspicion that he was criminally connected and perhaps outright criminal himself.  (His business cards read “contractor”.  Nothing more.)

His house was huge.  So huge, in fact, that we had two teams on the site: one working the main house exterior and the other working the garages (yes, multiple) and fencing.  I was in the latter.  Most of the time the two teams worked separately, but every so often we’d find ourselves working within conversational distance and we’d start shooting the shit and generally turning our increasingly dreadful working days into something that didn’t quite approximate a Dantean vision of Hell.

Needless to say it was in one of these sessions that The Disaster™ happened.

Dexter (whose real name is Ryan, recall, although I’m not using his real name to spare his feelings) was up on the roof of the house slapping paint on the gutters.  And of course Marieke and I, the team working the periphery, were razzing him about how he was going to fall off and loudly taking bets on how many bones he’d smash when he hit the ground.  (Ryan Dexter had a bit of a fear of heights, see.)  Dexter thought this was getting out of hand and swung around to hang his legs over the edge of the roof so he could shout at us without looking completely idiotic.

And that’s when it happened. The Disaster™.  Dexter knocked the can of white paint off of the roof and launched a stream of paint unerringly aimed at the German Ogre’s prized juniper bushes.  We knew they were prized, you understand, because the German Ogre had taken pains several times (daily!) to tell us how much he loved those juniper bushes.

I’m pretty sure he would not have liked them in white.  Which they now were.

Panic set in and both teams zoomed over to the site of The Disaster to see what could be done.  (Hint: nothing.)  In desperation we tried to remove the paint with turpentine which proved to be as idiotic a thing to do as it sounds.  The scale-like leaves were turning brown before our very eyes.  This was as bad as it could get.

Visions of the German Ogre’s “business associates” disappearing us in our heads, we came up with a scheme to hide the damage: we put all our equipment next to the bushes and then covered it (and the bushes) with a tarp, explaining to the German Ogre’s wife when she asked that we heard it might rain overnight and we didn’t want our equipment to get wet.  We still didn’t know what we’d do, but we’d at least put off the shit storm for a night.

I didn’t sleep well that night.  I was strongly demotivated from going to work as well.  Marieke and I could legitimately claim that we weren’t working on that bit, but I wasn’t especially eager to see Dexter die; nor was I looking forward to the wild gesticulation and the incoherent ranting.  I eventually picked Marieke up and we headed in for work.

Imagine, if you will, my utter shock when we arrived and found … juniper bushes.  Healthy ones.  Looking, if anything, better than they had before.  Dexter was standing there looking really fatigued, but with an enormous shit-eating grin spread over his face.  We couldn’t pester him for details on the job site, of course, not when the German Ogre (or his even worse wife) might overhear it.  At lunch time, however, we drove off site with Dexter (it verged on a kidnapping) and got him to spill.

Dexter had been a busy little boy that night.  Upon leaving for the day he’d scoped out the neighbourhood and found a house with juniper bushes that were dead ringers for the killed ones a few streets away.  (Truth be told, to me they all look about the same.)  He then snuck back into the neighbourhood at midnight and “liberated” two juniper bushes, carting them over to the job site.  He dug up the dead junipers and transplanted the live ones.  The dead junipers were subsequently taken safely away and disposed of (burnt).  Neither the German Ogre nor his wife ever realized a thing.  We’d gotten away with it!

Hysterical laughter poured out of all of us as relief flooded in to replace the sick feeling of dread.  I think it was Marieke who dreamed up the “business”: Ryan’s Dexter’s Midnight Juniper Service.  We all riffed over the advertising.

“Juniper not living up to your expectations?  Something gone wrong?  Don’t worry or frown, just call Dexter’s Midnight Juniper Service!  We’ll take a look at your troublesome shrubbery and fix it overnight like magic!  It’ll look like new once we’re through!  You won’t even recognize it!

(We also provide security services to protect you from the recent bizarre rash of juniper thefts!)”

Green Side Up

“That which doesn’t kill you gives you a new nickname.”—Sean Rutledge

grass-sod-laying-college-stationI had a landscaping gig for awhile when I was in my late teens and early twenties. The pay was shit but the work was strangely satisfying and the boss was super cool. His name was Mike and he knew we all partied far too much. He didn’t mind if you showed up for work hungover once in awhile, so long as you were upfront and honest about it. If you came to Mike at the beginning of your shift and said you were hungover he’d keep you away from the heavy machinery for the day, and give you some ridiculously easy task, like rolling out sods of grass. But even this proved too much to bear for one dazed and confused dude. Guy actually rolled out an entire front lawn’s worth of grass sod brown-side up. Poor guy still hasn’t lived it down. It became a running joke. The stuff of legend. A constant refrain. After detailing the day’s work, Mike would invariably conclude with: “Now, remember, guys: Green. Side. Up.”

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

BEWARE OF THE BOA CONSTRIPPER!

xqbdr“You never forget the first time you crack up your old man.” That’s what Baltimore Jimmy said. And he was right, though he forgot to mention that your old man never forgets it either. It was last summer, late July, and we were in a large nature park on the West Island (that shall remain nameless). The rain was pouring down like crazy so we sought refuge in the park’s chalet. Whilst we were in there one of the park’s naturalists, an unctuous Québécois man in his mid-50s, desperately sought to insinuate himself into our group’s conversation.

After failing miserably a number of times, the naturalist finally managed to pique my 11-year-old son’s interest: he told Tristan that he had once had a large collection of snakes. He asked Tristan if he’d like to see a picture of his pet boa constrictor. Apparently he had pictures of the snake saved on his phone. Tristan went over, looked at the image, recoiled, and returned to our table promptly: “Daddy,” he said, “you should really go and look at that weird man’s picture.” Now my interest was piqued.

I went over and asked the naturalist if I could see the picture of his pet snake. He was happy to comply with my request. The picture was of a much younger him. At least twenty years younger and heavily muscled—and we’re talking steroid-pumped gym-rat muscled. What’s more, he was tanned to a horrid orange color, oiled up, and sporting nothing but a little white speedo . . . and a pet snake. But, truth be told, the snake wasn’t that big (maybe four feet long). The dude took up most of the frame. So it really wasn’t a picture of snake; it was a picture of a mostly naked dude with a snake.

As we were leaving the park, Tristan said to me (with flawless delivery): “Daddy, this nature park should come with a warning.” “What kind of a warning?”—I asked, puzzled. “BEWARE OF THE BOA CONSTRIPPER!”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Things That We Learned This Week Are “Not a Panacea”

The Dissection of a Frog named Louis CK

Watching an academic explain how a gifted entertainer connects with a crowd is like watching a 40-year-old virgin teach Sex Ed. If poetry explained is banal, charisma explained is absurd.

Fullscreen capture 2015-05-17 65934 PM

Though I find the thought of dissecting a frog repulsive, I’m willing to concede that dissection has made significant contributions to the science of herpetology. That being said, it’s important for every budding biologist to bear in mind that the frog corpse you’re staring down at in your Bio Lab is no substitute for the real thing. A dead frog isn’t a frog. So if you really want to get to know these fascinating 250-million-year-old amphibians, get out of that stuffy lab and into the fragrant swamp in the middle of Île-Bizard, where you can listen to the sweet song of the spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer), marvel at the Cirque-de-Soleil acrobatics of the grey tree frog (Hyla versicolor), and watch bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) as big as kittens chase after dragonflies as big as crochet hooks.

Like the frogs of Île-Bizard, Louis CK cannot be reduced by a scalpel-wielding PhD. So, before attempting a quixotic dissection of his work, I think it’s important for theory-tainted know-it-alls (like me) to bear in mind that a critique of Louis CK’s comedy is no substitute for the real thing. Just as a dead frog isn’t a frog, an analysis of Louis CK isn’t Louis CK. The man is a comic genius. And that’s an unavoidable fact, like gravity or global warming, which we need to acknowledge before we brandish the blade. Louis CK makes millions laugh, and he does so with effortless Castiglione cool—viz., he makes it look easy. Of course nothing could be further from the truth: being really funny is really hard.

Like the medieval Catholic Church at its best, Louis CK has something for pretty much everyone. His comedy isn’t one-size-fits-all. Quite to the contrary, he appeals to diverse groups of people precisely because his message is complex. Everyone in the room is laughing, but they’re laughing for profoundly different reasons. I realized this for the first time after watching Live at the Beacon Theater (2011) with a room full of friends. Some were laughing at him, and some were laughing with him. Still others believed that they were in the presence of a modern-day Diogenes, a radically honest man who tells the unvarnished truth, come what will. It’s this last group that worries me—not, I hasten to add, because there’s anything wrong with telling the truth, but because there’s something wrong with thinking that your truth is The Truth.

In Plato’s Symposium we learn that many of the ancient Greeks thought philosophy was impossible without privacy and alcohol. So long as people are sober, they won’t tell you how they really feel, what they really think. Hence the phrase: in vino veritas. Likewise, when people are in a public place, they invariably say that which is politically correct, that which is appropriate. They don’t tell you the truth about how they see things. For these reasons, and others, philosophical discussions happened in ancient Athens only among friends, behind closed doors, and after a fair amount of drinking. The veritas that comes out because of the vino isn’t necessarily The Truth, but at least it’s a good starting point from which to begin moving dialectically towards the truth.

We all have a tendency to believe that our experience is somehow universal. This is a human, all-too-human tendency. That said, people with a great deal of privilege—people like me (i.e., white men of a certain class)—seem to get a double-portion of this tendency. Louis CK’s comedy is a case in point. Part of what makes it so effective is a complicated cocktail of awareness to privilege and blindness to privilege. He sees his own privilege with astounding accuracy, and yet—at one and the same time—he speaks about his inner life as a dad and a husband with a naïve presumptuousness which is—in and of itself—a hallmark of privilege.

The assumption behind much of Louis CK’s comedy—sometimes stated, sometimes implied—is that his own experience with parenthood and heterosexual marriage is normative. His message to men is more or less as follows: Come on guys, we’re among friends now, quit the bullshit. The chicks aren’t listening now, so stop trying to be politically correct. You know, and I know, that you’re feeling and thinking and doing exactly the same things I’m thinking and feeling and doing.

Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy has always relied heavily upon this technique. For instance, in Raw (1987), he asks all of the men in the audience “that are loyal to their women” to clap. Though it seems like a perfectly innocent question, we soon realize that it was posed in bad faith. A moment or two after the crowd bursts into applause, Murphy interrupts them loudly, shouting: “Stop! You lying motherfuckers, stop. Stop, stop, stop. Kiss my ass. Fuck, there ain’t no such thing as a loyal man, you lying motherfuckers. Stop it. Yeah, the only reason you’re clapping is because your woman’s sitting next to you right now when I asked you. . . . Get the fuck out. . . . All men fuck other women. We are low by nature and have to do it. . . . All men do it. We have to do it. . . . It is a man thing. . . . It is a dick thing. Do not try to understand it. You have to have a dick to understand this.”

Were some of the men in Eddie Murphy’s audience lying? Sure. Were all of them lying? I highly doubt it. Be that as it may, what’s key to note here is that Murphy categorically refuses to entertain some entirely plausible possibilities, such as the existence of loyal men, and the existence of women who truly get men (“You have to have a dick to understand this.”). It’s also interesting to note that Murphy is making some pretty categorical claims about what it means to be a man (“All men do it. We have to do it. . . . It is a man thing.”). Regardless, I call bullshit. Why? Because I know plenty of guys who don’t fit into Murphy’s straitjacket, just as I know plenty of guys who don’t fit into Louis CK’s straitjacket.

I know plenty of guys who love fatherhood and find married life delightful. Sure, they have bad days, even bad weeks—but, on balance, they really enjoy the life of the householder. What’s more, I know plenty of grown men who aren’t tormented—as Louis CK and Eddie Murphy seem to be—by a never-ending torrent of pornographic thoughts. I know plenty of grown men who really don’t picture every woman they know naked, who really don’t fantasize about fucking every woman they know.

Are these guys an unrepresentative sample of Dude Nation? Perhaps. But I doubt it. Because I’ve got male friends from all walks of life: from the ultra-conservative to the ultra-liberal. Are these guys lying to me? Perhaps. But I doubt it. Because I’m always sure to bring up these sorts of questions in the wee hours of the morning, at the end of a long night, when we’re all fairly drunk (or high), speaking in confidence among friends, and inclined towards the kind of brutal honesty that makes these conversations so memorable.

These guys aren’t laughing with Louis CK; they’re laughing at him. To my mind, the great genius of Louis CK is that he shows us how much of a living hell it must be to be a teenage boy stuck in a grown man’s life. That being said, the fact that so many husbands and fathers sympathize with Louis CK should give us pause. It ought to make us think long and hard about how we raise our sons in this culture.

Are we raising a generation of brave knights that will defend the weak, stand up to the strong, and believe—in their heart of hearts—that to whom much is given, much is required? Or are we raising a generation of whiny half-men who go through life resenting their wives, their children, their ageing parents, the poor, the weak, the needy, and anyone else who dares to make legitimate demands upon them?

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Why Comedy is Better than Philosophy

“Where ideas compete freely, the prettiest win.”—Aaron Haspel, Everything (2015)

Fullscreen capture 2015-05-17 65934 PMIn Shaping the Future (2005), Horst Hutter describes the philosopher as a kind of cultural physician who administers medicine to sick people living in a sick society. The medicine is good for you but it tastes bad. Really bad. So the cultural physician’s primary task is to find creative ways to compel you to consume the cure. Since Socrates, philosophers have, for the most part, sought to compel us solely with rational argument, with reason. Nietzsche saw the folly in this strategy. Reason alone will never slay the dragons of delusion that guard the exit to Plato’s Cave. It’s unequal to the task.

If philosophy is to even have a fighting chance, it has to call upon the persuasive powers of poetry, the mesmerizing magic of music, and the elemental energy of the emotions; it has to get used to relying upon rhythm, rhyme, and rhetoric; and it has to learn how to sing with the saints and prophesy with the prophets. In short, if philosophy is to even have a fighting chance in the war against ignorance, it must become beautiful, because, as the philosopher Aaron Haspel wryly observes: “Where ideas compete freely, the prettiest win.”

But Socrates was famously ugly. And there’s an ugliness to even the most beautiful philosophy which repulses most people. That’s why philosophy will never move the masses the way religion does. It’s always going to be a road less traveled. If the life and death of Socrates proves anything, it’s that philosophy is an acquired taste—viz., people don’t naturally enjoy having their assumptions challenged. All to the contrary, most people get really mad when you ask them to justify their beliefs. And yet overcoming this defensiveness is the cultural physician’s primary task.

The major obstacle on the road to wisdom is not stupidity, lack of intelligence, or ignorance, but rather an unwillingness to question that which we love and care about. Nietzsche saw this with unusual clarity. For instance, in Ecce Homo (1888), he writes: “How much truth does a spirit endure, how much truth does it dare? More and more that became for me the genuine measure of value. Error (belief in the ideal) is not blindness, error is cowardice.” Philosophers would have you believe that their rugged royal road is the only way around this cowardice. But there’s another way, a shortcut which steers clear of philosophy altogether. It’s a path paved with laughter. And its name is comedy.

Socrates believed philosophy was all about telling the truth and confronting your own ignorance. At its best, comedy does just this, but it does so far more gently than philosophy, and for this very reason, comedy will always be a far better consciousness-raising tool. Comedy is far more of a threat to the powerful than philosophy, as it can get through to people who are never going to hear the harsh criticism of a Socrates. When comedians like Louis CK start playing the part of cultural physician, they can get lots of otherwise resistant people to consume the cure because it’s sugar-coated with humor.

If I were to write an updated version of Machiavelli’s Prince, it would include the following advice to the tyrants of this world: laugh at the philosopher, fear the comedian.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Louis CK’s treatment of the touchy subject of white privilege is a case in point:

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