PSA: Laughing At The Alt-Right Isn’t Enough To Get Rid Of Them

by JR Thorpe
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In the aftermath of the white supremacist march in Charlottesville that ended in one death and 19 injuries, and with news that similar groups are planning to demonstrate in other U.S. cities, America has started to ask: how can you fight white supremacy in a way that works? Responses have been rapid and often contradictory. Some have advocated meeting fire with fire, while others have talked about empathy, peaceful demonstrations, and a refusal to be drawn into shouting matches. It's the same argument that's held every time terrorist or extremist elements infiltrate the news cycle. But recently, some people have suggested that a truly effective way to fight white supremacy is through humor.

The power of humor in politics isn't new. Witty politicians ensure a legacy; The Wit & Wisdom Of Winston Churchill, a compendium of the British Prime Minister's famous one-liners, remains hugely popular in the U.K. years after its release. And everybody from Benjamin Franklin (sometimes called "America's first humorist") to Barack Obama has used a well-placed quip to score a point off their opponents. But the phenomenon of laughing at fascism has come galloping back into the public consciousness this week, with everybody from the New York Times to HuffPost devoting lengthy think pieces to the idea. To look at whether it's a good idea, though, you need to look at the history of humor's combative relationship with white supremacists — and what it reveals is more complex than a New Yorker illustration about white sheets.

Humor's History As A Nazi-Fighting Tool

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?

But Today, Humor Isn't Enough

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Making fun of the imagery of extremism is, to be frank, easy. Everything from Hitler's strut to Mussolini's height is effortless fodder for comedians, as is the image of white dudes wandering around shouting "Help, help, I'm being repressed." And yet when you look at what humor has to offer America's current cultural landscape, it may not be enough.

Humor's power decreases relative to the power of its opposing political forces. P.G. Wodehouse didn't stop fascism, and was in fact later criticized for collaborating with the Germans on wartime broadcasts in WWII. The Superman episodes may have embarrassed the KKK temporarily, but the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s brought many more men and women into the fold, with hugely violent results. And ISIS simply keeps producing people willing to drive into crowds in European cities, as with the terror attack Barcelona this week. Meanwhile, American white supremacists have their "architect" in the White House. It is a deadly serious situation.

That doesn't mean that white supremacists shouldn't be targets of jokes: the humiliating power of humor can still be useful. But it can only be one part of an arsenal of action. Tina Fey, with her "sheet-caking" movement on Weekend Update, (humorously) encouraged viewers to stay home, eat cake and stay out of trouble. Though the bit offered comic relief for weary watchers, the truth is that it's not possible for engaged citizens who believe in a progressive America to sit still and watch as people advocating open hatred come to town. The big risk of humor is that it creates complacency. In repressive regimes like Stalin's Russia, where subversive humor was one of the only option available for resistance, it took on great weight. America right now has many other options, too, and neglecting them isn't good enough.

It's important to note that the approach of the citizens of Wunsiedel, the German town that has become a Nazi pilgrimage site, doesn't just make fun of the marching extremists in its midst; it also actively works to give resources to the other side. If you want to fight white supremacy in America, you can do much more than share funny memes: you can advocate for better teaching of American history in schools, give your money and support to businesses owned by people of color, donate to or volunteer for organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, call your local representatives to ask for bans on hate speech in marches, run for office, and go out and protest peacefully (yes, it does change things). Poke fun, and then go out and back it up with action.