Bernie-loving, Warren-liking progressive though I claim to be, I can still get plenty of laughs at a conservative comic’s riffs.
The Clinton Foundation? It’s got shakier donors than a blood bank in a Greyhound station. The night the Dems lost the presidency? Campaign headquarters looked like a Snowflake Jonestown. Trump and Hillary? “I think his outer voice as crazy as it is, is an accurate depiction of his inner voice. And I don’t think Hillary’s inner voice and outer voice have ever had a cup of coffee together.”
That’s Dennis Miller, one time liberal, now professed conservative, doing his stand-up routine, “Fake News, Real Jokes.” And there’s more where that came from. Dennis’s new job? A life guard at his local college’s safe space—charged with saving students from drowning in their own bullshit.
Yeah, I laughed. It’s not Groucho or Rodney, but good enough for 2020.
Laughing at Dennis Miller? I presume that the diagnosis is obvious. I’m a closet conservative. My Bernie-loving stance is a form of protective coloration, suited to my university environment. When a reactionary joke comes along—one that would send Mr. or Mrs. Right Wing Big Hawk into guffaws—I’m there with them.
Jokes matter, a sense of humor matters: at least the psychologists tell us so. There is no better index of two people having compatible temperaments, Freud says, than laughing spontaneously at the same joke. It likely means that the two of you regard the world in a similar way. Notice too: when a sycophant wants to cozy up to you, he waits for you to crack a smile or break into laughter and joins you, half a nanosecond later. He knows what he’s doing, and you should too. In unforced mutual laughter there is amity, authentic accord.
So the indictment seems pretty clear. I go around day to day making the right progressive noises. But a joke or a witty remark scrapes the paint off the statue and we see it for what it is.
But isn’t everyone? Isn’t everyone who aspires to be a progressive—someone who cares for others, puts others before himself, takes a hit or two, financial or professional, for the betterment of the downtrodden—aren’t we all dissemblers and double-dealers all, at least some, of the time?
I think this kind of self-presevation is true for most everyone. Who would argue that nature does not gear us to pursue our own survival? More than surviving, we want to thrive. We want the best: the best for ourselves. How could we not? Every moment, we feel the borders that separate us from others. I am me and you are you: Unless it chances you and I are related and are bringing some of the same genetic material into the future. We are blood and blood is thicker than water, and pretty much any other liquid you can name. Me first, then those who are kith and kin. And then, if need be, if prosperity (mine) might allow, those others who bob at the peripheries of my vision. They’re fine, or OK—at least when the times are good. When the times are bad, I draw back into my shell and maybe take my best and closest in with me. It’s common sense, isn’t it?
Conservatism takes this truth seriously. If I am not for myself, who am I for? So asks the grand conservateur, and the not so grand as well. If not me, who? When someone quotes Emerson saying that we might as well act as though the people around us are real—for who knows maybe they are?—the true conservative drinks deep the spirit of the observation. We are real. Others? Well, let us see.
If this is the common human condition, then what is to be said about what diverges from it? The conservative knows. It is all posturing, posing, pretense. The recently minted phrase “virtue signaling” begins to cover the case. We wish, it’s thought, to appear virtuous—to care for others, more even (maybe) than we care for ourselves. It enhances our reputations. Makes us highly in demand—for who would not want to deal with a truly unselfish personage, who knew how to do unto others? Virtue signaling is an advertisement for the self, but don’t peer too closely behind the facade.
Thus the major indictment that the conservative visits on the liberal. It’s all hypocrisy. And what is more enjoyable than unmasking a hypocrite? Thus the effectiveness of reactionary humor. The progressive is sometimes prone to present a more virtuous face than one that would match his soul. He’s all about school integration—but let’s start with someone else’s school. He knows windmills serve the public good, but he doesn’t want to look across his well-tended greenery and beyond the feeder where the red-bellied woodpecker lingers, and see them grinding their steel grind. Not in my backyard, he cries, but silently. And calls his friend the town councilor to see about moving them. He has a sign on his lawn, in four languages, of which he understands one and a half, welcoming refugees from the world over. But if a sojourning family saw the welcome, and approached in the night, car loaded and over-loaded, with kids in tow? He’d eventually lose it and call the black and white with the cherry red flasher on top.
He’s an easy mark. He lives in a glass house, enjoys pitching rocks, and finds too often that others pitch them back—and then ker-bang. So Dennis Miller makes jokes about him and in some measure about me—and I laugh. I’m laughing with Miller—and I’m laughing in some measure at myself.
Can you make a jest of the reactionary? Not so easily. He’ll tell you, whether you want to hear it or not, that it’s every man for himself, and every woman, too. And according to him, the kids better learn to paddle on their own, or watch the canoe tip. He loves Horatio Alger and knows that even if he didn’t have dad’s money to get him started, he’d have made it into the smooth and easy with breath to spare. He eats beef, drinks ale, abjures vegetables, goes to sleep with his mind thrumming happily, and wakes up with John Philip Sousa playing in his chest.
How can you mock him? Call him brutal, he’ll say he’s tough. Call him greedy, he’ll say he’s prudent. Call him backwards, he’ll say he’s honest to his own human core. And he is. Or so at least I believe.
But another truth follows. There are ways to go beyond the basic life of the self and reasons to do it. The life of the self is lonely, cold, and small. It shrinks the spirit and compresses the mind. There is no true connection with others, no home beyond your own small hearth. You live among, but not with, your fellows. Every person not related to you through blood or tactical hope is nothing but an impediment. Walking down the street you see obstructions, enemies, and potential enemies. You’re a stranger in your own land.
The first way to expand our sympathies is intellectually. We read and talk and ponder and live our lives, and come to the conclusion that we don’t want to wage our own version of the war of each against all. It’s better when we can try to find potential friendships around us. We show up at a neighborhood potluck not expecting much and suddenly we have a new friend in the making, maybe a whole family of potential friends, much unlike us though they seem to be. Our teachers tell us that we have far more in common than we might think. We laugh and cry, fall in love, grow older, grow wiser or more foolish, have children, seek God, or at least an infusion of grace from time to time. We are all humans, after all. And if we don’t owe each other unconditional love, we can at least offer respect, and a helping hand and open heart when the time is right. And then we can expect as much in return.
This is the intellectual awakening of the human spirit of community and kindness. It occurs in the heart and head, but it starts in the head. It can be learned at school and from families and friends who care that we don’t stumble about forever in isolated purgatories of our own making.
It can be learned, but it can also be forgotten. The information that we are all connected and need each other’s respect and (at times) aid can disappear when times get hard. When I have enough and more, you are welcome to a mid-sized dollop. But when the cold blast comes for me, I’m inclined to close my door and firm the latches. And I can justify it all, to myself and to anyone who will listen.
The emotions have no trouble getting around the intellect. And in time, the intellect will become what it is in many sad human cases: a self-justification machine. We can, it sometimes seems, use the debating skills developed since the days when we had to argue for the last piece of cake to justify whatever selfish scheme we have going. The mind becomes a lawyer, the desires—the self-centered desires—are the clients, and the intellect goes to work. These people just came here! Why do they have rights to schools and medical care and a pension when I—well, I may have enough, but I could use just a little, really just a pinch, more. The progressive turns and attacks the unsightly windmills; pulls his kids from the multi-racial mass at school; he even yanks that welcoming sign from his lawn just to be sure. And the reactionary joker has a field day. Cue Dennis Miller to tell us that Clinton Foundation may not be quite the virtuous operation it claims to be; that Democrats may have overdone the drama a bit on the night Hillary lost; and that Trump is Trump through and through, while there is, one guesses, a canyon-sized gap between Hillary’s inner life and what she presents to the world. The progressive has every reason to find such jokes funny—they are teaching him something about himself that he has to learn and learn again.
There’s another route to solidarity beside the intellectual one. Practical education is not the exclusive, and maybe not the best route to affirming solidarity with others. We also have access to life through spirit. We don’t calculate and quantify: We don’t spend our times reflecting with Plato and Rawls on the one true theory of justice. Rather we realize—and often do so all at once—that we are not separate beings bumping through space, but that we are all one. We have one being that we share in common, and this being runs deep in us. The various ideologies of individualism do all that’s possible to obscure it. And even intellectual approaches to humane life often separate us from this avenue of redemption.
Sometimes through meditation and teachings, but sometimes in an inexplicable flash, we quickly see that up until this point, we have had it wrong. We are not separate beings. We are not contending armies of one. Rather, we are part of a whole—a whole Self that encompasses all that breaths and lives. This is the gist of what Aldous Huxley has called the Perennial Philosophy. At its core is a realization, as simple as it is profound: That Too I Am. We see the world and know that every living part of it is ourselves. We are in everything that exists and it is in us. This is the philosophy of the Buddha and of the Hindu texts that preceded him. It’s implicit in the teachings of Jesus, which came on to contend with the competitive and self-asserting ways of life in the Roman world.
It’s to be found in Walt Whitman, too, with his love for all human beings regardless of caste and consequence. No one should ever be abased to anyone else, says Walt, for we are all human beings and share life equally: “He who degrades another degrades me.” And his sense of the mutual affection and mutual dignity at the heart of democracy resonates with the great works of the east and with the figure of Jesus, whom Walt respected as the first true egalitarian.
Many, if not most of us, have had this simple experience of unanimity with all life: That Too I Am. And many people go out and act on it. You probably won’t find best-selling books or adulatory profiles written about them. But if you listen and watch, you will encounter them and their deeds. They are there comforting the sick; they’re present at the funeral helping the children to stay calm; when food’s needed by those in need, they supply it. They usually don’t go around saying That Too I Am. Or All That Lives Is Holy. That can sound like bragging and such people do not like to brag. They simply go quietly about their generous work, and they do so not because it is so virtuous or commendable, but because it is natural. It is in our nature to care for and about each other. It’s everything, but it’s also no big deal.
I think this form of connection—this form of progressivism—is likely to be more enduring than the kind that we can learn in school, and involves more head than heart. Once the heart has taken up a position, the intellect does not find it easy to force it out. (Try talking a friend out of being in love.) People who know that we are all one body and one soul don’t quit the perception easily.
But they do quit it. They get burned out, they get tired, personal exigencies call them away. Compassion—felt connection with others—is not a permanent solution, at least not always. But I dare to think that those who have had their golden moment of awareness, when they knew that they were not alone in the world, but part of a vast and overall benevolent life, never forget that perception. They never forget that awakening, even if they tumble back again into everyday modes of being. They recall that for a little while at least, they were free.