To share a culture, first share a joke
Freedom of speech is first among our constitutionally protected rights for good reason. A democratic people must be free to speak among its own members. More importantly, people must be free to laugh at themselves. It's not good when people and nations take themselves too seriously.
Unfortunately, freedom of speech is also one of the most fragile of rights. At all times and in all places, there have been those who feel that the common good requires that free speech be less than free.
Even where guaranteed, free speech must never rest because the speech police never rest. Power is gained and maintained by quelling dissent. This battle to impose hegemony on the masses is waged behind closed doors, far from prying eyes.
Like water from a faucet, the quality and quantity of information depends on who controls the media. Brains are washed, opinions changed, and cultures transformed slowly, imperceptibly, over time. Only when the flow of information becomes a trickle, or the effluent becomes odoriferous, do the masses take notice.
In her book The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, Elizabeth Sifton, daughter of Reinhold Niebuhr, author of "The Serenity Prayer," writes about a universal yearning for "stringency and moral clarity" in these "soupy and compromised times."
That we all must think twice before engaging in water-cooler flirtation or expressing an opinion about a hot-button social issue of the day speaks volumes about these "soupy and compromised times." Many brave souls who have dared to speak with "stringency and moral clarity" have suffered the wrath of today's Carrie Nations of linguistic virtue.
The upshot is that workplaces, college campuses, and the legacy media have become dull, predictable, humorless, Balkanized places.
The good news is that people are sick of the "soupy and compromised" effluent poisoning our country.
This populist upheaval is not a recent phenomenon. Some blame Donald Trump, but Trump is the product of the turmoil, not its cause.
Fifteen years ago, in his 2003 paean to small-town America, Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, writer Bill Kauffman recalls his hometown of Batavia, New York, and his Uncle Johnny's beloved homemade "dago red" wine. He lamented that "[w]e live in an age in which ethnic differences are not subject to discussion, or – God forbid – humor. Instead, we are ordered to 'celebrate our diversity,' which in practice means extracting every white-ethnic spice and tang until gruel is all that simmers in the American melting pot." "As for me and Batavia," Kauffman continues, "give us the dagos any day."
Millions sickened by the gruel have migrated to the internet, talk radio, and cable news for acerbic, cleansing, irreverent, ego-puncturing, self-effacing wit that is both funny and true.
This mass exodus to new media also explains why the self-proclaimed intelligentsia are hell-bent on regulating (ideally silencing) new media, especially the internet.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal about the dustup several years ago caused by Conan O'Brien's sidekick puppet Triumph the Insult Comic Dog's description of the inhabitants of Quebec as obnoxious, dull, and mostly gay, Canadian columnist Mark Steyn skewered Canadian members of Parliament for their predictable rent-a-quotes: "racist filth," "completely unacceptable," and such.
Steyn wrote that a dozen or so sensitive souls are offended by the "vicious hate mongering," and "the rest of us 30 million Canadians are now damned as humorless prigs."
Steyn countered that a mature, confident society would deal with such provocations with its own volley of bad jokes and cheap gags, not reflexive cries of racism and calls for hate crime investigations.
If people can't share a joke, they'll never share a culture.
H. L. Mencken, regarded by some as America's greatest columnist (and by others as coarse and insensitive), once described a Catholic supporter of Prohibition as a "Catholic with a Methodist liver." I'm Catholic, and that's funny.
If we ever hope to once again share a common culture, we will need more curmudgeons like Kauffman and Steyn (and, yes, an occasional Mencken) imbedded in newsrooms, boardrooms, and television studios across the land, not less.
Unfortunately, it's unlikely that the good folks at the New York Times are listening.