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The Death of Comedy

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In March of this year, the vlogger Mark Meechan was convicted in a Scottish Court of violating the Communications Act 2003 for a video he had uploaded to YouTube in April 2016. The video, which Meechan claimed had been produced for comedic purpose (he claimed he wanted to annoy his girlfriend), featured a pug dog making Hitler salutes with its paw, responding to the command “gas the Jews” by tilting its head, and watching a Nazi rally at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The Scottish Court that convicted Meechan (who is much better known as ‘Count Dankula’) concluded that he had been motivated to produce the video by religious prejudice. Perhaps without realising it, by convicting Meechan, the Scottish legal system has illustrated the importance of free speech and the threat that political correctness poses to it.

Unfortunately, legally and politically incited attacks against both free speech and comedy are not limited to the United Kingdom. In Canada, politically correct inspired attempts to silence comedians have been instantiated into law. In one alarming case, the Quebec Human Rights Commission awarded Jeremy Gabriel, a disabled former child star, $35,000 in damages after he was ridiculed in a comedy routine by Mike Ward.

It is little wonder, then, that some comedians have seen cause for alarm. Some, like Chris Rock, now refuse to perform on college campuses because of the oversensitivity of some of the students. Others, like legendary Monty Python star John Cleese, have warned that comedians face an “Orwellian nightmare.”

Political correctness is the antithesis of comedy. It is not that comedians have been prevented from practising their craft, but that the pressures political correctness place on them makes it difficult to do so. The comedian feels himself pressured to self-censor himself because of the way words are categorised by their supposed offensive or inoffensiveness. And he finds himself fearful of having his words twisted and misinterpreted to mean something other than what he meant it to mean.

Much of the problem arises from a culture that has elevated politics to something approximating religion. And, like all zealots, the fanatics of this new religion have attempted to conform every aspect of society to their new faith. It is the job of the comedian to make me laugh. It is not his job, as some would have you believe, to play the role of political activist.

Unfortunately, that view is not one held by many on the radical left. In an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, Judith Lucy opined that people wanted to “hear people talk about politics or race.” And it seems that there are people who agree with Lucy. Comedy is not to be used to bring joy to people, but as a platform to espouse politics. Comedy has become a form of propaganda. And it is the liberal agenda that determines what is considered funny and what isn’t.

What the politically correct offer instead of genuinely funny comedy is comedy as a form of political activism. Comedy is to be used to spread progressive ideas and political correctness is to be used to silence that which opposes those ideas. Take, for example, Tim Allen’s sitcom Last Man Standing, which revolved around a conservative protagonist, which was cancelled by the American Broadcasting Company despite its popularity.

And nowhere can this trend of comedy as political activism can be seen more readily than in the current incarnations of late-night television. Legendary comics like Johnny Carson and David Letterman established late-night television as a form of entertainment that provided light-hearted entertainment before sending its audience off to bed. It was not afraid of offending people in order to do so, either. Today, however, this willingness to offend others seems only to be targeted towards those on the right of the political spectrum. It is as though the late-night comedian has decided to use his position to preach progressive politics to its audience rather than using their talent to make insightful and hilarious observations about the world around us. The result is that late-night host places commenting on political or social matters above entertaining his audience.

It is as though the late-night host has replaced humour for indignation. The “jokes” (in reality they are tirades) contain more than a modicum of vitriol and resentment. Samantha Bee referred to Ivanka Trump as a “feckless cunt”, Stephen Colbert accused President Trump of being Vladimir Putin’s “cock holster”, so on and so forth.

While it may seem alarming, it is precisely what happens when comedians see themselves as activists rather than entertainers. As Danna Young, Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Delaware, commented:

“When comics abandon humour and go with anger instead, they come just another ‘outrage’ host. Now, if that’s cool with them, great. But if they are looking to capitalise on the special sauce of humour, then they’ll need to take their anger and use it to inform their craft, but not have it become their craft.”

Fortunately, there is a litany of comedians who refuse to conform their comedy to the morays of political correctness and progressive politics. Numerous comedians have denigrated political correctness as the “elevation of sensitivity over truth” (Bill Maher) and “America’s newest form of intolerance” (George Carlin). Jerry Seinfeld, a man whose comedy routines are considered among the least offensive in comedy, referred to political correctness as “creepy” on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Bill Burr accused social justice warriors of being bullies. Likewise, Ricky Gervais has tweeted “if you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things you find ‘grossly offensive’, you don’t believe in free speech.”

And all of this is not to say that political correctness has destroyed genuinely funny comedy, either. Netflix has spent a great deal of money producing comedy specials that are, in many cases, far for inoffensive. Ricky Gervais comedy special Humanity has featured jokes about rape, cancer, transgenderism, AIDS, and the Holocaust.

Comedy has been threatened by both progressive politics and political correctness. Mark Meechan may have found himself running afoul of the politically correct left, but as long as their people who stand committed to free speech and comedians prepared to make offensive jokes, the laughter will continue.

THE PROTESTANT WORK ETHIC

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This is our weekly theological article.

If there is any philosophical or moral principle that can be credited with the prosperity of the Western capitalist societies it would have to be the Protestant work ethic. This ethic asserts that a person’s success in this life is a visible sign of their salvation in the next. As a result, the Protestant work ethic encourages hard work, self-reliance, literacy, diligence, frugality, and the reinvestment profits.

Prior to the Reformation, not much spiritual stock was placed on labour. The Roman Catholic Church placed more value on monastic prayer than on manual labour. Much would change when the German monk, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. Luther railed against the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences as a way of avoiding purgatorial punishment. Luther asserted faith over work believing that a person could be set right with God through faith alone. It was Luther’s opinion that an individual should remain in the vocation God had called them to and should work to earn an income, rather than the accumulation of wealth. This belief stood in stark contrast to the Catholic Church’s philosophy that relief from eternal torment came from Godly rewards for good works. By contrast, the second great Protestant, John Calvin (1509 – 1564), believed that faith and hard work were inextricably linked. Calvin’s theory came from his revolutionary idea of predestination, which asserted that only certain people were called into grace and salvation. It is from this that the Protestant work ethic is borne.

As a consequence, many Protestants worked hard to prove to themselves that they had been preselected for a seat in heaven. A result of this extreme predilection towards hard-work was an increase in economic prosperity.

The French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), believed that capitalism was built on a system that encouraged a strong work ethic and delayed gratification. Similarly, the German sociologist, Max Weber (1864 – 1920), argued in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) that America’s success boiled down to the Protestant work ethic. It was asserted as the key idea that would encourage individuals to move up the social ladder and achieve economic independence. Weber noted that Protestants – particularly Calvinists, were largely responsible for early twentieth-century business success.

The Protest work ethic is credited with the United States’ economic and political rise in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859), wrote in Democracy in America (1835):

“I see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on its shore. They will to their descendants the most appropriate habits, ideas, and mores to make a republic.”

A study in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology found that nations with a majority Protestant population enjoyed higher rates of employment. The economist, Horst Feldman, analysed data from eighty countries and found that countries with majority Protestant populations – America, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – had employment rates six-percent higher than countries where other religious beliefs were practised. (Furthermore, the female employment rate in Protestant countries is eleven-percent higher). Feldman explained how the legacy of Protestantism led to increased prosperity:

“In the early days, Protestantism promoted the virtue of hard and diligent work among its adherents, who judged one another by conformity to this standard. Originally, an intense devotion to one’s work was meant to assure oneself that one was predestined for salvation. Although the belief in predestination did not last more than a generation or two after the Reformation, the ethic of work continued.”

The Protestant work ethic is one of those Christian ideas that have helped create Western capitalist democracies in all their glory. It is yet another example of the influence that Christianity has had on the modern world.