Why did the anarchist cross the road?

By Howard J. Ehrlich

How many anarchists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Five. One to screw it in and four to screw up.

Almost 25 years ago when my friends and I assembled what was then the first contemporary anthology of anarchist writing in the U.S., we were able to pack it with leaflets, flyers, graphics, visual puns, witty poetry, detournements, clever antiauthoritarian ruses and humorous articles. Don’t get me wrong: it was still a serious anthology, but, as a famous anarchist was reputed to have said, “If I can’t crack jokes, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

In 1996, when I published a revised edition, it was deadly serious. In both editions, we tried to include only materials which had been published in the previous ten years. The differences in the periods truly surprised me, but I think that both editions accurately reflected the times in which people were engaged: 1968 to 1978 as compared to 1985 to 1995. Unfortunately, the times don’t seem to be changing.

What has gotten lost, but only temporarily I hope, is that political humor is serious business.

How many George Bushes does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Bush: I resent that question. I’ve answered that before, and I think the media are keeping this thing alive. I think the American people are tired of light bulb jokes.

How many economists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None. If the light bulb needed changing, market forces would have already caused it to happen.

How many election canvassers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None. They just go around telling everyone that it is time for change, but the only way this can come about is if everyone votes for New Lightbulb.

Political humor is one form of political education. Like all effective political education, it should point out defects in the current system, analyze them and stimulate ways of acting that will help bring about a new and better system. Not all instances of humor lend themselves to political use. Much humor is designed merely to amuse people or to establish a relationship between the jokester and her or his audience. But political humor is insurrectionary, and often takes an insurrectionary form. It delegitimizes its subject – so it must be mocking, outrageous, ridiculous, even angry.

How many libertarians does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None. If he wants to sit in the dark, it’s his business.

How many Trotskyists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

One to look for someone to screw it in and 25 to chant, “Fight the Darkness.”

How many Marxists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None, the seeds of change are within the light bulb itself.

Parody, caricature, and satire are all forms of humor that can be used politically. Caricatures of well-known people, parodies that imitate and subvert well-known writings or art pieces, and satiric attacks on institutions and ideologies – all use laughter as a means of raising people’s consciousness. Through exaggeration, understatement, sarcasm, insult and incongruity, people can be moved to critically examine the object of attack, reject it, build something new. Political parody and satire are sometimes subtle, seldom gentle, and often savage.

Most radical political humor attacks social convention and social institutions and, most definitely, the repressive acts of the state. Some of it assaults other radical groups or practices which it sees as inadequate or wrong. This kind of humor ridicules excesses in language or points to hypocrisy. It deflates schizoid jargon and flatulent rhetoric, attacks smug or pretentious talk, and lampoons the politically incorrect, including the very idea of political correctness. The aim of political humor is not to make people cynical or alienated, but to signify better means of doing things.

How many pacifists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None, they just start a “coping with darkness” support group.

How many cops does it take to screw in a light bulb?

[Pause] I get it. This is one of those lightbulb jokes, right?

Whatever their targets, political satire, parody, and caricature are important forms of persuasion. At their best, they interrupt and shake up old thoughtways facilitating our being able to see things in a fresh new way. They make us examine the unexamined. They narrow the distance between us and the critique presented in ways that a speech or essay might not.

The ethical standards for political humor must be high. Since its purpose is to bring down old institutions, it cannot reinforce existing social pathologies. It should not be used against groups subordinated by the state or any other currently fashionable targets of humor-coated hostility. Humor should not be a way to maintain oppressive relationships. Like all political education, humor should help build a set of beliefs that lead to effective radical action.

And, it should be funny, too.

How many environmentalists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None. We don’t know yet what effect all this artificial light will have on the future of humankind.

How many dadaists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

To get to the other side.

How many of me does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Three. One to change it, one to make a joke about it, and one to spend the next three months going around telling it to everyone.

Howard J. Ehrlich is the editor of the semiannual magazine Social Anarchism. This column has its origins in a radio broadcast produced by the Great Atlantic Radio Conspiracy.

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