Suzanne Fields
The human race has one really effective weapon, Mark Twain famously said, "and that's laughter." The weapon usually has a particularly sharp edge at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner, the glittery bash where Washington dresses up in its fanciest party duds and the jokes fly as fast as a hummingbird in pursuit of a sip of honeysuckle. Ever since Calvin Coolidge appeared at the dinner in 1924, presidents have showed up for a roasting. Sometimes they pour on the hot sauce themselves.

This year the president invited Steve Bridges, a clever and dead-on impersonator, to appear with him as his alter ego, to say what the president is really thinking when he offers the words canned by his speechwriters. So when George W. said, "I always look forward to these dinners," his doppelganger set the audience straight: "How come I can't have dinner with the 36 percent of the people who like me?" The president even got off one of the best lines in his own voice: "I'm feeling pretty chipper tonight — I survived the White House shake-up."

Perhaps nothing is as American as the robust humor that pokes fun at power, and this includes parodies of the president. The best parody, in fact, is nearly always of the president himself. It's the best illustration of what the First Amendment is all about. Humor deflates power like nothing else. In totalitarian countries, of course, such humor is subversive because it can be so lethal. A joke, as George Orwell observed, "can create a tiny revolution."

Communists have no sense of humor, in China, Cuba or North Korea any more than they did in the old Soviet Union. Tyrants and despots can't afford even a tiny revolution, and anyone who tries making jokes at a tyrant's expense is asking for a ticket to the gulag. "As the system [in the Soviet Union] became harsher, a distinct Communist sense of humor emerged — pithy, dark and surreal — but so did the legal machinery for repressing it," writes Ben Lewis in an article cleverly titled "Hammer and Tickle" in Prospect magazine. One historian who examined the files of Stalin's political prisoners found that 200,000 people were imprisoned for telling jokes, some merely to let off steam. Dissent became dangerous.

Humor reflects the best and the worst of a culture. Those without a sense of humor have no outlet for self-criticism. Humor assuages, and because it does, it threatens. The Muslim riots over the Danish cartoons showed just how tightly wound the radical Muslims are. The riots over the cartoons, caricaturing how terrorists have turned Mohammed into a weapon against innocents, only proved the point.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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