- It is no accident that ideas like these should be put forth in a German journal. Germans are not as humorless as stereotypes would have it, but German nationalism was characterized historically, from its inception in the mid-18th century to the end of the Nazi catastrophe, by a particular anxiety toward laughter. Born of feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis the more powerful, politically unified nations France and England, German nationalism defined itself as the representative of a dour Kultur, rejecting humor as the province of superficial, blasphemous, indeed parasitic subculture. The personification of the latter was the poet Heinrich Heine, who described Prussian soldiers standing at attention as having swallowed the rods with which they were once beaten, and whose dying words were ‘God will forgive me – c’est son metier.”’ Heine also noted that ”When people start burning books, they end up burning people.” His warning went unheeded.
The image of the Jewish wisecracker, whose urbane wit threatens to undermine traditional values and destroy the native community, recurred throughout the annals of German anti-Semitism. It culminated, one could argue, in Hitler’s boast during his Reichstag speech of January 30, 1939 that ”the uproarious laughter has in the meantime remained stuck in German Jewry’s throat.”
Osama bin Laden shares Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Moreover, if we believe John Miller’s 1999 Esquire interview, neither bin Laden nor his followers have anything resembling a Western sense of humor. (Miller’s description of bin Laden’s incomprehension at an attempted ice-breaker – to the effect that, as an engineer, Osama should know how to build a decent driveway up to his cave – is itself high comedy.) As Germans know from historical experience, fanaticism, unease with modernity, a poor sense of humor, and ethnic hatred are intimately related.
Humor serves a number of purposes, not all of them classically liberal. It strengthens group allegiance and reinforces prejudices, creating communities of shared laughter while excluding and mocking others. The contributors to Merkur stress another of humor’s main facets – its role in encouraging and expressing dissent, self-criticism, and irony. With this thought in mind, Jochen Horisch criticizes the Islamic world for lacking even ”a rudimentary form of institutionalized self-criticism – just as there is no such thing as an Islamic culture of taboo-violating jokes.” Of course, it would be absurd to argue that Muslims have no capacity for something as universally human and instinctive as laughter. But the Islamic world at present, at least as far as an outsider can judge, places relatively little emphasis on critical humor. Whether this culture difference can be attributed, as Horisch argues, to the lack of an Islamic Reformation, which would have attuned religious beliefs to the complexities of modern society, is a question worth considering.
(from the Boston Globe)
A culture where irony lurks under every statement can easily degenerate into cynicism, but I can’t imagine even being able to communicate with someone from a culture where irony is unknown. When people don’t value humor, they don’t value individuals.
The link to the Reformation is insteresting and instructive: recall Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, where humor’s place in society lay at the foundation of a murder mystery that takes place around the time of the first whispers of the Protestant Reformation.
If we can laugh at ourselves and others we gain some perspective, and absolutist cultures have no place for perspective – we have a true enemy in humorlessness.
Though he doesn’t explicitly mention humor, in today’s WSJ James Q. Wilson offers a clear, concise and thorough history of separation of church and state and its centrality to modern government. He also goes into detail on the cultural histories of the West and Islam, and where they stand vis-a-vis each other:
- The wall between church and state, as Jefferson called it in a letter he wrote many years later, turned out to be controversial and porous, as Philip Hamburger’s masterful new book, “The Separation of Church and State,” shows. But it did guarantee that in time American politics would largely become a secular matter. And that is the essence of the issue. Politics made it necessary to establish free consciences in America, just as it had in England. This profound change in the relationship between governance and spirituality was greatly helped by John Locke’s writings in England and James Madison’s in America, but I suspect it would have occurred if neither of these men had ever lived.
There is no similar story to be told in the Middle Eastern parts of the Muslim world. With the exception of Turkey (and, for a while, Lebanon), every country there has been ruled either by a radical Islamic sect (as with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the mullahs in Iran) or by an autocrat who uses military power to enforce his authority in a nation that could not separate religion and politics or by a traditional tribal chieftain, for whom the distinction between church and state was meaningless. And the failure to make a theocracy work is evident in the vast popular resistance to the Taliban and the Iranian mullahs.
….many traditional Islamic scholars insist that only the sharia can govern men, even though it is impossible to manage a modern economy and sustain scientific development on the basis of principles set down in the seventh century. Bernard Lewis tells the story of a Muslim, Mirza Abu Talib, who traveled to England in the late 18th century. When he visited the House of Commons, he was astonished to discover that it debated and promulgated laws and set the penalties for criminals. He wrote back to his Muslim brethren that the English, not having accepted the divine law, had to make their own.
….Both the West and Islam face major challenges that emerge from their ruling principles. When the West reconciled religion and freedom, it did so by making the individual the focus of society, and the price it has paid has been individualism run rampant, in the form of weak marriages, high rates of crime, and alienated personalities. When Islam kept religion at the expense of freedom, it did so by making the individual subordinate to society, and the price it has paid has been autocratic governments, religious intolerance and little personal freedom.