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At a Time Like This We Need more Truth Tellers Like Michelle Wolf

Henry VIII is rightly remembered by posterity as a vain, intemperate, narcissistic, and mercurial man who had no compunctions about assaulting the rule of law and reforming the instrument of state into a device for his own familial gain while advancing personal vendettas. Even in an era whose politics were defined by monarchism, his reign was distinguished by assault on the traditional separation of powers coupled with increasing economic disparities and attacks against the publicly enjoyed commons. With a reputation for intemperate rage and violently condemning those who had been allies only shortly before, the Tudor king was equally dangerous to friend and foe alike. Consider his favored court jester, the celebrated Will Sommers, who though he was supposedly one of the few able to make the fickle monarch laugh could still incur the ruler’s wrath for the simple crime of telling the truth. In a letter dated July 25th 1535, Eustace Chapuys, King Charles V’s envoy to the Tudor court, wrote home to Spain that “the other day [Henry] nearly murdered his own fool… because he happened to speak well in his presence of the Queen and Princess, and called the concubine ‘ribaude’ and her daughter ‘bastard.’ ” Chapuys duly informs us that Somers was banished from the court, hiding in the household of an aristocratic ally until Henry’s rage subsided. Somers got off relatively easily; today one imagines that the intemperate ruler would simply tweet his rage at the jester. 

This week we find ourselves in a similar yet distinctly twenty-first-century ritual of wringing our hands and clucking our tongues over perceived “vulgarity” and “obscenity” from one of our own truth-tellers who spoke a bit too bluntly for the pearl-clutching sensibilities of the occasionally polite class. This past Saturday comedian Michelle Wolf, a correspondent and writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, was asked (for what I assume is the last time) to host the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and she presented close to half an hour of ribald, vulgar, hilarious prophetic truth-telling, which predictably proved to be too much to the hypocritical supporters of Trump and disappointingly proved impolitic to the supposedly liberal members of the press whom she equally castigated for their failure at holding the administration accountable for its lies and casual cruelty. 

Referencing the president’s bragging about sexual assaults he has committed, she said that “Trump isn’t here, if you haven’t noticed. He’s not here. And I know, I know, I would drag him here myself. But it turns out the president of the United States is the one p—y you’re not allowed to grab.” Puncturing the naivety which presents Ivanka Trump as some sort of partisan for more humane policy in the administration, Wolf quipped: “She was supposed to be an advocate for women, but it turns out she’s about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons. She’s done nothing to satisfy women. So, I guess, like father, like daughter.” And in what has been the cause du jour of right-wingers who constantly mock progressive “snowflakes,” Wolf “triggered” her audience in what was anything but a conservative “safe space” by saying of press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders that “she burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like, maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies.” 

Wolf’s performance will be remembered as more consequential than Stephen Colbert’s similarly iconoclastic act at the 2006 press correspondent’s dinner where he excoriated President George W. Bush to his face, because in telling profound and obvious truths which the media has often been too milquetoast to state themselves she not only condemned the atrociousness of the Trump administration, but the timidity of the people in the press who are supposed to keep our government honest. Calling out both the Democrats for their political incompetence and the national press for their fecklessness, Wolf was the best type of comedian, skewering with equal opportunity. Right-wing Trump defenders acted predictably, chastising the performance as inappropriate, claiming that Wolf had mocked Huckabee-Sanders’s physical appearance (she hadn’t) while conveniently overlooking the daily barrage of obscenities, vulgarities, and cruelties which emanate seemingly hourly from the bully pulpit of the most powerful man on Earth. 

To perseverate on Republican hypocrisy is at this point not just a losing proposition, it has become boring as well. Better just to ignore the faux outrage of Sean Spicer and Michael Huckabee. More disappointing, but similarly predictable, was the reaction of some in the press, who would perhaps benefit more by reflecting on the manner in which failing to investigate Trump’s possibly illegal financial deals and known mafia connections while disseminating Russian propaganda in the form of hacked emails were integral to the election of the man who now so mercilessly attacks them. Instead we get Jake Sherman at Politico piously telling us that “Being mean isn’t funny. It’s mean” (a false dichotomy if ever I read one), NBC’s Andrea Mitchell demanding that Wolf “apologize,” and New York Timesreporter Maggie Haberman celebrating Huckabee-Sanders’s supposed coolness under fire, as if the real issue hasn’t always been the press secretary’s relentless attacks on not just the press, but the very idea of truth (whether she can appear calm or not). 

In what is the most worrying rebuke that Wolf received, and evidence for the continuing authoritarian creep in our politics, Margaret Talev, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association apologized for Wolf’s stand-up, saying that their goal was to “offer a unifying vision… not to divide people.” And here I thought the purpose of the press was to tell the truth? At least one can remember that as impolite as Will Somers may have been, he told the truth too. 

NBC news correspondent Kelly O’Donnell tweeted that the “spirit of the event” is supposed to be “jokes that singe but don’t burn.” What is currently being debated are two radically different models of what comedy is supposed to do when confronted with injustice and power, and the brilliance of Wolf’s performance was that her comfortable audience was expecting to be lightly singed while she rather offered a flame-thrower.

Comparing Wolf in particular, and political comedians more generally, to Renaissance court jesters like Somers is inexact. I should emphasize that such a comparison is not done to disparage contemporary satirists. Rather it’s to acknowledge the central place that comedy has always had in the discourse of saying uncomfortable truths that others are prohibited from uttering. 

Theorists have debated the social utility of such rhetoric, none more so than the great early twentieth-century Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who in his Rabelais and His World (first translated into English in 1968) offered a theory of representations of the grotesque, and what he called the “carnivalesque.” Bakhtin analyzed instances of carnival in medieval and Renaissance literature, understanding the annual pre-Lenten festival as an instance in which humor, mockery, subversion, satire, and irony were used to critique existing social structures. Practices like crowning an “Abbot of Unreason” and “Lord of Misrule” who presided over the ceremonies allowed European peasantry the open, yet safe, mocking of their rulers. A democratic and collective version of the function of the jesters, for such events provided a biting means of resistance, which in its literary forms exhibited “exceptional radicalism, ruthlessness, and freedom” (no “unifying visions” to be found). Bakhtin explains that this genre of critique was a “boundless world of humorous forms and manifestation [which] opposed the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture,” and our most biting contemporary political comedians like Wolf are in this stead. 

Hovering over Bakhtin’s project was the question of whether the carnivalesque served as an actual means of radical resistance, or merely as a type of social pressure valve to release anxieties and anger? In other words, was the purpose of such comedy to “burn,” or to merely “singe?” Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in their indispensable The Politics and Poetics of Transgression analyze Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, asking whether the “ ‘licensed release’ of carnival is not simply a form of social control of the low by the high and therefore serves the interests of that very official culture which it apparently opposes.” Whatever the function of such spectacle was in early modern Europe, for the organizers of the WHCA dinner humor clearly serves to gently needle those who oppress, which explains all the consternation over Wolf simply saying what a majority of Americans are thinking. 

The advocates of toothless comedy (and thus toothless critique) castigate Wolf precisely because she told the truth, and because she rejected the “polite” and “civil” strictures demanded by the organization which invited her. In the process the reaction to her performance exemplifies precisely her point about the anemic cowardice of much of the mainstream press, as their angry reaction to her demonstrates, especially as they are comparatively gentle to those at fault in the fleecing of American democracy. 

Stallybrass and White explain that the carnivalesque is a “potent, populist, critical inversion of all official words and hierarchies” and that such rhetoric must be understood “as a mode of understanding, a positivity, a cultural analytic.” That being the case, Wolf’s great contribution at this moment is in demonstrating how afraid of uncomfortable truths we’ve become, and how the right, for all of its bellyaching about “free speech” and “political correctness,” remains the entrenched, powerful, status quo it’s always been, pretensions on the “alt-right” to being “counter-cultural” aside. 

Hopefully one result of her act would be the welcome dissolution of the annual event itself, a scandalous and embarrassing embodiment of the chumminess between the fourth estate and those who they’re expected to hold accountable.  Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi astutely described the event as being a “mutual admiration society, in which pols and pundits dressed in black tie stroke each other to the edge of ecstasy over champagne and fillet mignon,” arguing that while there are few positives in the horror that has been the Trump administration “the end of black tie lovefests and the charade of buddy-buddy press-pol relations might be one.” In an uncharacteristic act of accidentally saying something accurate, Trump tweeted that it was time to “Put Dinner to rest [sic],” and in that I agree with both him and Taibbi. Wolf’s comedic brilliance was embodying Bakhtin’s contention that “Laughter has a deep philosophical meaning… [one of the] essential forms of the truth concerning the world as a whole.” The truth that she demonstrated was that in times of unparalleled crisis what’s needed is not a gentle singe, but a roaring fire.