Liberalism’s last laugh: The fate of democracy could well depend on what makes us smile. (Lee Siegel, 2/21/24, New Statesman)

Surely Sunstein is aware of liberalism’s dour reputation? Liberalism’s current comedic tribunes, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and the recently resurrected Jon Stewart, are far better at scolding and taunting than making actual jokes. In fact, Donald Trump’s most consequential contribution to popular culture is to offer a punchline, the mere utterance of which – “Trump” – requires no joke to precede it.

I wonder what the great liberal philosopher Judith Shklar would have made of comedy today. She wrote in 1982 that our “abiding cruelty is as evident in the horrors of civil war as it is in the pleasures of laughter” and observed that most people “enjoy a good laugh at the expense of victims”. In the current crop of late-night comedians’ jokeless taunting she might well have detected a strong echo of Trump’s own belittling laughter.

Shklar’s powerful notion of “putting cruelty first” is at the heart of cancel culture. Or as the American philosopher Richard Rorty parsed Shklar’s phrase: “Liberals are the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do.” Rorty himself attempted to appropriate irony for humane purposes by formulating the concept of “liberal irony”, in which people are aware of the moral tension between shifting personal and historical circumstances and a universal commitment to humanity. It’s a uselessly beautiful idea. But it’s definitely not funny.

It is unlikely that Sunstein is thinking about Shklar or Rorty in his gesture of defiance in the face of anti-laughter forces. But he is pushing back against the effect that an obsession with social justice has had on comedy, which is precisely to judge comedy by its capacity to be cruel. He is thinking about the outrage directed at the comedian Dave Chappelle’s offensive remarks about trans people, and at countless similar barbs made by other comedians in the spirit, or the performance, of mordant humour. Laughter is the sound of freedom and joy, Sunstein wants to say. And liberals, true liberals, who are not in thrall to woke excesses, do not repress freedom and joy.

The utopianism of the Left/Right deprives them of access to humor.