Comedy: the new tool for collectivists?

John Stewart. Bill Maher. Stephen Colbert.

It would be useless to attempt to deny the comedic prowess of these entertainers. They’re smart, quick and razor sharp in their satire. But could there be an ugly utility behind the beauty of their wit?

This occurred to me as I was watching Real Time with Bill Maher last week on HBO. Maher moved so effortlessly, it seemed, from one insult to the next – never giving me (or his audience, not that they would have wanted it) a moment to consider the complex reality behind his jokes.

Depth of observation is not a new topic, and one that I’m not here to discuss. My real fear here is that comedians like Stewart, Maher and Colbert have become powerful tools for the new collectivists in this country.

Their comedy has become a weapon for the war on individual liberty.

When I was growing up in the ’80s, the comedy seemed a little more supportive to the idea of individual liberty. Soviet Russia was both a punchline and a strong supporter of firing squads. The evils of collectivist ideology, and its consequences, were very real to us. And if I had to guess, I imagine that the US State Department was pretty happy to have Smirnoff (stage name) generate some pretty good Yankee Doodle propaganda.

But John Stewart, and his ilk, are something quite different. To these performers, liberty seems to be a punchline in a tea bagger joke – a flexible idea that extends to their right to lampoon and light up, but one that dissipates quickly when considered in the context of a free market. Their view of the role of society, and of individual’s submissiveness to it, is something that would have been rejected wholesale just 30 years ago.

Sure, there were plenty of social critics. Richard Pryor on racism. George Carlin on religion. But their routines never seemed to marginalize the entire Enlightenment-thought foundation of America. If anything, they seemed to extend the ideas of liberties to brave new places, natural consequences of a foundational belief in freedom.

Now, the very voices that used to call for the reform of government are calling for its growth, and largely distracted from the fact that their own messiah has lied to them about every liberty-oriented promise he made, from drug policy to war mongering (his affinity for such being the only reason he moved to allow gays in the military). The iconoclasts have joined the Washington crowd, declaring that the only way to fight oppression is to build taller government buildings and deeper government bureaucracies. And the young folks, people who are now the same age that I was in the 80s, are lapping up every word, nestled inside late night’s stand-up routines.

We went from satire being a tool for extending liberty to it being co-opted by those hellbent on subverting it for their own, collectivist agenda.

What a country.

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Why “The Shawshank Redemption” has something to teach atheists

What do I do now?

If you’ve read the book and/or watched the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, you no doubt recall the tragic character named Brooks. [spoiler alert] Wonderfully portrayed by actor James Whitmore, the character is, in my opinion, the most endearing of the story. In the darkest of places, he finds joy in life. In the cruelest of prisons, he finds comfort in routine. And in his eventual freedom, he meets his tragic, unexpected end.

I never really understood why this film, and this character in particular, moved me so much. Certainly it was affecting me in both a literal and figurative/archetypal level. But I never recognized the powerful metaphor of Brooks, until now. While reading one of the many stories online about a young man in the American Bible Belt “coming out” as an atheist, I made the connection.

Forget Brooks’ age. Forget his gender. Forget the literal setting. Brooks is a metaphor of a person imprisoned by his circumstance. He lives in “prison,” as all wondering theists do, and fears leaving its familiar setting. He has friends there. He knows the rules there. They tell him when he can and can’t do everything. In this structure, social network and “protection from the outside,” he is trapped – even as he loves and feeds the little bird of freedom that visits him from time to time.

This is story of every secret atheist and doubting theist in the world. They are trapped in a prison of their own custom, both internally and externally. To leave this prison is to leave everyone (and everything) they’ve ever known, abusive as it may be, behind them. And when the gates slam behind the new atheist, they know there’s no going back; not to their beliefs, and often, not to their family and friends.

This realization has made me think of theists in an entirely new way. Hate the game, but not the player.

Should we belittle the very people we hope to help?

I admit it. It’s tempting to make fun of theism. Some people, like Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher do it so well. But it’s a very thin line that separates the critical assesment of ideas versus the mockery of individuals and their struggles with shaking off those ideas.  Taunting them, while they stand inside their prisons, looking out at the world though bars of fear, is a mean, petty, insensitive thing to do.

Much of what people have done in the name of religion will forever stain our history books. I am certainly not apologizing for any of it. But if I am to help theists embrace the rational foundation of their humanity, to step into the sometimes harsh light of day, I need to remember to be more considerate of those who may be struggling to escape from a very dark place.