Only The Free Can Laugh
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods. “
― Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lays of Ancient Rome
With the Russian Invasion of Ukraine as the backdrop to Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, I can finally articulate a sense of unreality about the world’s response to Ukraine that has baffled and mesmerized me. While the world news is full of war atrocities, the social media’s response has been mostly humor. The artist and sophomoric humorist trying to make sense of the tragedy has been waging a war of memes. Tractors have become apex predators. Putin has become a weak fool. Sunflower has become a bright curse. Ukraine’s heroic struggle for survival and its catharsis of turning horror, despair, and shock into laughter has been picked up by social media, late-night hosts, and the digital world. It is a byproduct of their message, but it has become a subterranean force that units democracies.
By contrast, the autocratic states’ responses have been predictable. Russia and China outlawed the use of ‘war’ to control their people’s perception of reality. A Chinese citizen streaming from Ukraine that contradicts the state’s propaganda is called traitors by their fellow Chinese and allowed to be vilified by China. The mainlanders believe in what their government says but not their fellow’s real on-hand report in Ukraine. This is the same reality the Ukranian children faced when calling their parents in Russia. When the Chinese Communist took over, writers and poets who told the truth were among the first group of people to be executed by the Communist.
Looking at these two different reactions has been an interesting background when I look at the Chris Rock and Will Smith’s slapping incidents. This illustrates the nature of humor.
Humor is a socially licensed asymmetrical weapon for the powerless to attack the power. Its purpose is to deflate the pomposity of the privileged and the social admiration of the masses. In America, where class difference is not supposed to exist, humor spotlight it and invites us to laugh at its pretense. This is why totalitarian state outlaws humor because it is the natural solvent of authority by fear and awe. Even in medieval times, clowns are licensed to make fun of the powerful. The powerful is supposed to forebear is because the imbalance of everything they have. Those who are powerful but have no tolerance for being made fun of is consider a poor sport. Today we love celebrity roast, even when vulgar. It is a contrived ritual and affirms the dignity the powerless spit and step on. This is why hazing rituals are condemned because it is those with the power within the hierarchy degrading those who do not have power. It is the ritual of slave owners forcing the slaves to fight for their amusement. When the powerful uses humor, they show they’re an asshole aspiring to also being a douche.
At the Oscar, an event of the media elite celebrating themselves for being elite, Will Smith slapping Chris Rock drew mixed reaction from people. The best commentary is that Will is Wrong doesn't make Chris Wrong. How banal an observation. It failed to understand we recognize the humor is a weapon, and we realized it is the powerful attacking the powerful for attacking the powerful. There is no moral dimension in why Chris was slapped. It was the powerful, expressing its displeasure. If Rebel Wilson told the joke instead of Chris Rock, Will Smith would not have flexed his power in public, and if he had, the condemnation would have been swift, total, and devastating.. It wasn’t the joke. It was Will and Chris’s private beef, being smoked in public.
This incidence helped me understand what admiration for Ukrainian’s action and Ukrainians’ plea to the world has been so powerful. Putting aside the obvious moral high ground, the Ukranian people responded to the invasion with humanity and humor. and rightfully winning the heart and mind of the world. The Ukrainians could have used images of misery, death, and destruction, reinforcing those of the media, but the world would have turned off atrocities like a bad re-run. By choosing humor and dignity, Ukrainians have kept the world’s attention and interest, using the proper weapon of humor as an attack against the power, besides bullet, drones, and missiles. Its most non-military weapons have been the brutality of war wrapped in the casing of humor. The choice of humors shapes the context of the invasion better than wailing and suffering. By not putting the suffering upfront, the humor opens our heart and mind, and lets the horror of war blossom on their own.
While the humor provides morale booster for their own troops, it subliminally communicates their courage and their mature understanding of war. The signal of nobility, of sufferance, and not outright attacking the Russian people, but focus on the power figure of Putin, has drawn universal support and large number of international fighters. It has become the symbol of a secular crusade, serious business of survival and warfare without the ethical ambiguity. because the humor has powerfully done what art does best, creating an emotional worldview that logic has to fall in line behind.
By choosing laughter as the response to falling bombs and an enemy on its mechanize violation of a society, the Ukranian psyche has been sharpened into a noble voice of humor that comments on the horror of power, without devolving into the base human reaction of wailing. In their every day, life and death struggle against massacre, they choose to keep their humanity; performing “Don’t Worry be Happy” at road blocks, beautiful violin moaning of their nation’s anthems before bedtime, patriotic graffiti on walls that have yet to be destroyed by Russian artillery. In the battle against invader that has cross into their door, they choose to have dignity, civilization, and tell the world, we are stealing Russian tanks with tractors, our grandmothers are telling Russian soldiers their body will fertilize sunflowers for our children,.
Ukraine calls for volunteers and soldiers around the world fly to Europe to fight the Russians on their own dime and put down their own death as a security deposit. Russia invades a country it had promised to protect, with conscripts, Syrian mercenaries, and its allies forces silence on their own people. It is free people resisting the invasion of slaves and mercenaries. It is Glory to Ukraine, and Glory to Freedom. Slaves die in fear and regret, having been dead inside even before the end has come. Only the truly free can choose to laugh in the face of death. How can a man die better than to die a free man, cursing tyranny with laughter at the end?