Poking fun has been in the arsenal of political activists for thousands of years. Everybody from Napoleon to the Emperor Augustus has punished humorists and comedians for making fun of them, whether in print, on the stage or in art. But the situation is different when it becomes not a person you're battling, but an ideology. And it also changes depending on just how powerful that ideology is.
Humor is powerful, ideologically, in that it works to expose and exploit ridiculousness. It's difficult to take people seriously when seen through the lens of nonsense, and it's hoped that ridicule can dissuade recruits and encourage some humiliated critical thinking among those in the targeted group itself. Most of the recent news about humor's potential power to crack down on rising (and terrifying) white supremacists across America focusses on the example of one particular German town, Wunsiedel, which has become a shrine of sorts to Nazism. Residents have combatted neo-Nazi groups' marches by treating them like a race, mounting ridiculous banners, and "sponsoring" their participation with donations to anti-extremist organizations. It's a technique that's been used in the United States before — in a viral clip from 2015, a tuba player accompanied a far-right march while playing circus music. However, humor has an older association with white supremacy in the United States — and it was wielded, oddly enough, by Superman.
The Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s was still a visible force in U.S. politics. While its glory days of power in the 1920s had ended — historians believe that high-profile corruption scandals and the failure of Prohibition contributed to lower recruitment — it remained widespread. But its recruitment in the days of World War II and beyond was slowed by the actions of Stetson Kennedy, a man with Klan ancestors who infiltrated the hate gruop in the 1940s. Kennedy took notes about all the preposterous internal operations of the Klan, from its passwords to its ridiculous titles ("Grand Dragons," for one, and a rulebook called the "Kloran"), and passed them onto one of the most powerful radio shows in America: The Adventures Of Superman.
Superman had battled all kinds of villains, particularly during the World War, but in 1946, the show was primed to find a domestic villain, and the KKK, with Kennedy's information, fit the bill. In "Clan Of The Fiery Cross," Superman and his various allies, including Daily Planet boss Perry White, battled thinly-disguised Klansmen and subjected them to tongue-lashings and real fighting. It was a strong moral message, but the end result was disastrous for the KKK: national exposure of their most ridiculous rituals and inner workings, with a healthy dose of comedic tomfoolery. Embarrassment ran riot. In 1947, the New Republic reported that the episodes had had a very negative effect on Klan recruitment.
The use of humor to weaken and ridicule seemingly-powerful hate ideologies worldwide isn't confined to the United States, either. When British fascists became a more popular force in the U.K. in the period between the two World Wars, satirists like P.G. Wodehouse made it their mission to satirize them everywhere they went. Wodehouse's contribution was a direct parody of their (utterly foul) leader Oswald Moseley, whom he lampooned in a character called Roderick Spode. Spode was a Hitlerian blow-hard of the highest order, founder of the "black shorts," and prone to making stupid speeches. When experts discussed the rise in anti-ISIS humor videos in 2015, most of which showed ISIS fighters as Monty Python-level incompetent buffoons, they used Spode as a reference point.
But before we all go out to buy clown wigs, spread a few memes of Tiki torches and decide it's a job well done, we need to ask: Is humor the best tool to combat the disease of white supremacy in the United States? Or could it possibly make it worse?