Fighting Back against Islamophobia and Post-9/11 Nationalism
Dean Obeidallah, Maysoon Zayid, Hari Kondabolu, and Others
You cannot fear something you laugh at.
—Bassem Youssef, National Public Radio
On the eve of 9/11, lawyer turned comedian Dean Obeidallah recalls that he went to bed thinking he was white, or at least as white as his Italian neighbors. Growing up in New Jersey, he recalls that his father was the only one who did not have an Italian accent. To be sure, he was different, but the “Jersey kids” thought of them both as American. As far as they were concerned, Palestine—his father’s homeland—was in the southern part of the state and the Middle East was just a reference to Ohio. After 9/11, however, the mood changed, along with Dean’s race and national identity. In his words, “I go to bed September 10th white, wake up September 11th—I’m an Arab.” Now casual encounters seem to go hand in hand with remarks that range from naive to malicious. “Oh, You’re Arab,” someone would say, followed with a quick mention of how much they “love hummus” or some other reference to him as a bit “exotic . . . like kiwi . . . sweet, tasty, a little hairy.” Sometimes making even less sense, strangers might find his “Arab” background an uncanny coincidence because they “love Indian food.” However, others would not hesitate to ask him, “Why are your people so angry all the time?” or attempt a compliment: “But you look so nice.” Instead of a heritage history month, he complained, “What do we get—orange alert,” and without fail, we are always “randomly selected for extra screenings.” Tragically, he realized, “we are the new enemy. We’ve replaced the Soviet Union. And we are stuck here till somebody replaces us.”
Islamophobia is a convenient tool; Middle East studies scholar Stephen Sheehi describes it as “an ideological formation of U.S. Empire” in the post–Cold War era. Not an isolated phenomenon, Islamophobia is part of shifting but persistent patterns of racism in the United States that define who is and is not a citizen. After all, as Toni Morrison tragically reminds us, “In this country, American means white.” The motility of racial and ethnic identity has long been understood by social science scholars and professional comedians, ranging from David Roediger (in his landmark 1993 book Wages of Whiteness) to Dave Chappelle (for example, his 2004 television sketch “The Racial Draft”). These theorists and comedic practitioners of social change point out in their diverse ways that whiteness or degrees of whiteness as well as other racial and ethnic identities are not sheer physical or objective properties of individuals or groups but rather emerge through charged social histories, politicized spaces, and the demands of a capitalist economy. Hence, in an instant, the boy next door can be perceived as the racialized other. In this volatile world, dynamic political and economic forces alter social identities and facilitate shifts in boundaries through cultural symbols, myths, institutional practices, discourses, and habits. Affects also play a significant role in the perception of identities and seemingly impenetrable boundaries. Like other social forces, collective waves of fear and hate readily elude the Western construct of the individual, celebrated along with the rise of the nation-state for its autonomous agency and clear sense of boundaries.
In much the way that cultural anthropologist Nadine Nabor turns to the voices and ideas of Arab Americans as agents for “decolonizing methodologies” and “new forms of knowledge,” we now turn to a new generation of comedians challenging the post-9/11 milieu. This chapter applies affect theory to explain first how fear can racialize the other, and second how comic laughter can counter Islamophobia and other fears across social boundaries to energize progressive moments and movements, to create, in the words of comic Hari Kondabolu, a win–win situation.
The study of affect offers insights for understanding sweeping fears targeting a race, ethnicity, or religion. As a toxic vibe, fear of others readily spreads like a disease from individual to individual and across borders to define a larger political climate. Islamophobia and racism have profoundly shaped the history of nation-states and are without question central to U.S. politics. In the post-9/11 world, through enhanced airport security, orange alerts, hate crimes, land wars, collapsed states, and refugee and border crises, we are rigidly and fearfully redefining who counts as a real American as we carve away basic human rights and civil liberties. This wave of phobia precipitates not only decisions to go to war but also broad-based political and social movements like the birthers and their leader, Donald Trump, whose mission was to alert us to the terror of an alien in the White House. For the birthers, the post-9/11 climate of fear channels the diffuse anxiety prompted by Obama’s racial identity as the first African American president toward his imagined status as an outsider, someone with suspicious national and religious credentials. Thus, in this current topsy-turvy post-9/11 era, the extreme right has been able to shape a politics of perception that readily led to a fear of Barack Hussein Obama as our first Muslim president, thus permitting a takeover of the White House in 2016 with Donald Trump’s election. This election in turn further escalated an ongoing wave of anti-immigrant fervor that even turned young children into enemies of the state.
Here we begin to see how waves of collective affect draw their political force from the fact that they readily spread across masses of people. Affect theory provides clues to the possibilities and volatility of both ridicule and humor. Affect as the felt component of emotion may be informed by a lesser degree of reflection than a full-fledged emotion, yet it functions as an insistent motivator of behavior. Theorists distinguish affects from other aspects of emotional experiences in terms of two primary characteristics. First, affects are felt as visceral and thus as operating at a gut level of awareness. Second, affects are transpersonal. “Is there anyone who has not, at least once, walked into a room and ‘felt the atmosphere?’” asks philosopher Teresa Brennan as she opens her inquiry into “how one feels the others’ affects.” We inhabit atmospheres of mood and other kinds of diffuse feeling, perceiving them as dense clouds that are hard to define, that shift shape easily, that are difficult to find our way out of. Psychologist Daniel Stern distinguishes familiar affects and emotions such as fear, anger, or joy from vitality affects; vitality affects point to the manner in which an affect or emotion is felt—as in a rush of anger, a pulsing fear, or a fading happiness, or, more fundamentally, the basic feeling of being alive, and captures aspects of what Lorde calls life force. Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed focuses on how affects and emotions can carry cultural meanings and a volatile political charge. Islamophobia and racist or other culturally imbued fears exemplify a contagious, collective wave of energy that can point toward a troubling unpredictability at the core of political and social systems. While studies of mass hysteria and popular discourse assume that cooler heads (aka rational individuals with their logic) could and should regain control over those emotions that are deemed irrational, and that boundaries are healthy only when intact, our approach to affect studies poses individuals as nodes of biosocial networks larger than themselves. Thus, rather than suggesting that the individual can always prevent societal harm by gaining command and patrolling the borders of an autonomous self, we both recognize and embrace porous borders and the hope that affects such as laughter can exert a positive force that counters the fears that fail to respond to reason alone.
Comic entertainers bear serious social force. Egyptian stand-up Bassem Youssef, who at his peak in popularity during the Arab Spring had one fourth of the country’s population as a viewing audience, observes that the fear of a tyrant, whose power depends on “fake respect,” can be stripped away with satire. Questioned about why authoritarians find comedy so frightening in a 2017 NPR interview, he explains: “All of these dictators basically draw their legitimacy and their status from people fearing them. . . . You cannot fear something that you laugh at. That’s why they always crack down on comedians.” This is the kind of humor that prompts the producer of Axis of Evil Comedy Tour Jamil Abu-Wardeh to call for a “stand-up uprising.” The powers that be know that satire cannot be dismissed. Youssef was forced to leave his country for the United States after an impending court case and death threats. Now residing in the United States in the precarious position of a noncitizen, he continues to use humor to challenge the narratives and misinformation that too easily dominate the media. In the NPR interview, Youssef explains, “When I was watching people talking [about] the Middle East, they always talk about the power struggle, but they don’t tell you how people get to power, how people convince millions of citizens to vote against their own interests or to believe in conspiracy theories. And I think the media is a huge factor in that.” Of course, the media has long played an important role in games of power, but this role has recently been exponentially amplified and globalized via social platforms, which give both trolls and comics—those artists of affect—all the greater impact.
We thus turn to the comic stage for an antidote to the spread of raw emotions such as fear and hate, and their channeling into destructive forces such as Islamophobia and racism. For where political strategies of the educated elites that are directed toward reasoning with the racist fail and even risk producing backlash when perceived as condescending, humor and wit can transform negative energy and alter the social landscape through waves of cathartic laughter. “I think joking about stuff kind of, like, takes the tension out,” insists Youssef. “You know . . . satire comes from a great pain and suffering, and it’s very important to take what you’re facing and put it out in a light matter.” Laughter often functions as a source of release from the normal unpleasant stresses and anxieties of the social world.
But cathartic laughter is more than mere venting. Cathartic laughter can shift perceptions and alter social reality. For example, when 9/11 law enforcement had made “Arabs . . . the new blacks,” Obeidallah ironically invites his audiences to celebrate themselves in terms of the double entendre of blackness. “Sure, we are police targets,” but “oh my God, we’re cool,” so now “white kids in the suburbs” will “start act’n Arab with their friends, dressing Arab, wearing like traditional Arab headdress, tilted to the side to be cool, open shirt, gold chain, smelling like lamb.” This Arab American comic who was once white is now the new black. In a world where blackness is a persistent and tragic target as well as a fetish, he ironically affirms the Arab as the new cool. This comic’s reconfiguration of coolness emits affective vibes that offer the chance and hope of altering social realities.
Laughter, like fear, is a socially contagious affect. Such affects can impact a social climate, functioning like waves rather than like properties of discrete individuals. In the post-9/11 political theater of fear, comedians take center stage for political change. The border-crossing humor of such comedians comprising the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour not only jolts perspectives but also generates solidarity across identities that are now revealed to be fluid. Through laughter, white suburbanites may find their selves, having slipped through a wormhole of social space, side by side in gleeful celebration with the alleged enemy Arab. You can laugh at your enemies, but it is more difficult to laugh with someone without an incipient sense of camaraderie. Contagious laughter thus has some serious potential. Rather than acting as a salute to an elite style of political discourse, a deft combination of mockery and humor demonstrates how we might collectively dissipate fear, soothe raw nerves, and generate the laughter that weakens Islamophobic and racist postures.
Who Can’t Take a Joke? Islamophobia and the First Black President
To understand the intersection of Islamophobia, racism, and affect, we offer as a case study the first African American president, who well understood the power of humor. Anxiety set off by the 2008 election of President Obama incited questions about his citizenship and loyalty, to such an extent that these false accusations overshadowed and recast pressing demands for health care as antibusiness and thus an anti-American plot. The white nationalist birther movement seemed to only gain momentum as Republican hopefuls began in the spring of 2011 to throw their hats into the ring for the next presidential election, until the dramatic Navy SEAL assassination of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. A single (but as it turned out complicated) event transformed the political discourse and the national mood. In this case, a surprisingly successful covert military operation (contrasting with Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs debacle and Carter’s failed rescue attempt of the Iran hostages) was nicely timed with the release of Obama’s long-form Hawaiian birth certificate as well as the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in which Obama did his own bit of stand-up, giving a comic slap in the face to the birther movement and its leader, Donald Trump. Obama’s all-knowing laughter at Seth Meyer’s uncanny joke in which the Saturday Night Live comedian suggested bin Laden was hiding in plain sight aired side by side for the next few days with images of celebratory crowds and details of America’s military ingenuity. These images combined to instantaneously alter the collective mood of the nation, which in turn transformed the national identity of President Obama making him one of us, not them, thus securing his reelection.
Amid this euphoria, Michael Eric Dyson critically pondered Obama’s transformation. Why did it take “killing the Muslim” to make Obama American? “Why couldn’t he have been American,” as Dyson points out, “when he was at Harvard? Why couldn’t he have been American when he was the smartest guy in the room?” One could turn cynically to the haunting words of ironist and Black Power icon Malcolm X, who (in what we now typically think of as a Richard Pryor–style of rhetorical response) suggested that “Nigger” is “what white racists call black Ph.D.’s.” And indeed, in this case, the killing of the enemy may well have propelled another vicious wave of anti-Muslim fervor not fully realized until the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign, which witnessed just how ridicule can backfire and fuel a shifting politics of resentment and victimhood.
Laughter and ridicule are a wild card in a high-stakes poker game that has most recently led to a joker becoming a president. At that 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Seth Meyers’s quip—“Donald Trump has been saying that he will run for president as a Republican, which is surprising since I just assumed he was running as a joke”—has been blamed for spurring the campaign of a brand that didn’t strike many as presidential material. “Obviously you didn’t see Trump’s expression,” notes Meet the Press host Chuck Todd in a 2016 interview with Meyers. “There’s actually been reporting and speculation that said that the ridicule he received that night gave him more drive to prove everybody wrong and run”—a suggestion Meyers attempts to deny. Yet regardless of impetus or motive, the spurned Trump reshuffled the deck. While playing to an undercurrent of fearmongering but also a sense of vindication from those who thought, along with Trump, that they were the butt of the joke, he did his own stand-up on the campaign trail. Now, as president, he is the joker’s revenge.
Ridicule is a dangerous weapon to brandish. It rallies the troops. Its infectious force can even cross illicit boundaries. Yet in crossing some boundaries, it reinforces others, generating the anger and fueling backlash among those who feel—by some inchoate mix of ISIS, Muslims, and liberal elites in the Washington Beltway—under attack. No doubt ridicule depends on the indispensable enemy. The problem we see is that once this nuclear option has been released, you can’t yield its power to the other side—but you can try to alter its course.
In part this hostile climate reflects a divisive ridicule that offers its own kind of logic. The logic of the bombastic right evades the contradictions of late capitalism by offering a simpler kind of math that provokes anger and resentment at easily identified targets such as immigrants. Obama’s one–two punch on that memorable April 2011 weekend of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was able to volley the volatile cocktail of mockery and anger back toward the xenophobe. Recall Obama’s cheeky suggestion that Donald Trump could now move onto more important issues, like “did we fake the moon landing” and “where are Biggie and Tupac?” Simultaneously Obama mocks the fear underlying the birther accusation of his imagined alien origins with a short “my official birth video” that turns out to be an opening clip from the Disney musical The Lion King (1994). This clip, from a film that Obama describes as a “children’s cartoon,” celebrates the birth of a lion cub in Africa. Getting bin Laden, public enemy number one, of course, was ultimately what elevated the mood of the country and transformed the political discourse, but his jabbing remarks against childish fears trumped up by the birther’s self-appointed leader, mediated through a modest degree of self-deprecating humor, transferred energy from a wave of fear toward the celebration of victory over a real enemy and a real American president. Yet such serendipitous waves of glee, along with the borders between in-groups and out-groups, can change overnight.
Obama balances mockery with self-deprecating humor to mitigate the trope of the angry black man; so do Muslim Americans and other targets of Islamophobia as they take command of the comic stage. President Trump’s political style turns on making jokes at other’s expense, but it’s well documented that he can’t take what he dishes out. This is a luxury that Muslim Americans cannot afford. In making a documentary for Slate, Ayma Ismail tackles the stereotype that “Muslims Can’t Take a Joke” and insinuates that this is part of the reason so many Americans are afraid of Muslims. After all, what happens when you mock Islam? A quick glance at popular culture, both left and right, suggests violence—think Charlie Hebdo. “Who are the people you can’t make jokes about?” rhetorically asks John Cleese of Monty Python fame. Without hesitation, satirist Bill Maher quips, “Muslims! You know it’s a religion of peace. There are pieces of you there, there’s a piece of you over there.” Ismail knows that “comedy routines like these have created a broader narrative of all Muslims, that Islam is antithetical to Western life. Partly because it smothers free speech with violence. They say that satirists, artists, and comedians are some of the most vulnerable.” While it is easy to hear jokes about Muslims, such as Maher’s, Ismail’s quest was to find jokes from Muslims. At New York City’s Comic Strip Club, he interviews comedians Maysoon Zayid and Dean Obeidallah, cofounders of the Muslim Funny Fest, created in 2015. Zayid and Obeidallah make it clear that Muslims, unlike Trump, know how to use humor not just to ridicule the enemy but also to generate positive good.
One of the comedians featured at the Muslim Funny Fest made his network debut in 2017 on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Ramy Youssef introduced himself as a Muslim “like from the news. Have you guys seen our show? . . . Fox News or any of the news, really. They are all about us.” Youssef admits, “I get why people are afraid of Muslims. Even if I watch for too long, I’m like, whoa, am I going to do something?” American news coverage “make[s] it seem inevitable. I feel like no matter what I do I’m just going to turn thirty and get a Hogwarts letter from ISIS.” With a studio audience roaring with laughter, he explains, “There is just going to be a dude at my house with a beard and owl [announcing], ‘You’re a terrorist, Ramy. You’ve been one the whole time. And we start in September.’” Thinking out loud as a Harry Potter fan, Youssef exclaims “OK, cool. Do I get a wand?” Because “I would join ISIS if they gave me a wand. Like a wand is way cooler than democracies.”
Such stand-ups use the magic of their gentle mockery and humor to shift perspectives and to redefine what is cool; comic transformations turn on the liquidity of affects and their impact on fluid identities. Perhaps one sign of affects’ volatility appears in how far we have come from the solidarity that New Yorkers experienced after the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. In his study of empathy, psychologist Frans de Waal observes that “New Yorkers of all races” pulled together in the face of an external threat: “The postattack feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’ had fostered unity in the city.” The waves of hostility over building a mosque on the site of ground zero, first proposed in 2009, indicate the ease with which the prevailing winds of a social climate can alter direction and transform into their very opposites.
In many ways, our post-9/11 world has seen a collective mood shift in multiple directions, from a fragile and tentative moment of global empathy that had French president Jacques Chirac proclaiming “We are all Americans” to what Stephen Colbert would in 2010 term “Fear for All,” a phrase that signals the emotional trials and tribulations of a neoliberal free-for-all in which out-groups serve as punching bags in an extreme right-wing victimology sweepstakes. Mass anxieties directed toward out-groups thus become an impetus for emotionally closed borders. With the unrelenting toxic political climate, we are reminded that a comedian’s work is never done.
As a mainstream counter to the fearmongering of the post-9/11 era, Daily Show host Jon Stewart, together with Colbert, orchestrated their 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. In a sly skit on The Colbert Report, Colbert, in the persona of an extreme right-wing news pundit and now-toppled pig, Bill O’Reilly, launches his own pretend campaign, “Keep Fear Alive.” Giving his television audience a “refresher course in the five basic fear groups,” and with “no blast shield between us, not even a sneeze guard,” Colbert confronts a laundry list of phobias through their stereotypical labels. Thus, the editor of Out Magazine, the vice president of the United Farm Workers’ Union, the Bear Project leader from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a researcher in artificial intelligence, and the executive director of New York University’s Islamic Center become known simply as “Gay Guy,” “Mexican Guy,” “the Grizzly Coddler,” “Could Be a Robot” and “Muslim Guy,” respectively.
When NYU’s Islamic Center director, Imam Khalid Latif, attempts to sidestep the Muslim Guy trope and reeducate the Colbert persona with a dose of logic, the sketch reveals the limits of a straight cognitive approach for addressing collective fears. “We can’t kind of brand an entire community through the actions of a few,” contends Latif, but Colbert simply points out, “I think we have. . . . I think actions have proven you wrong.” For Latif, “There’s an element of flawed logic to that statement.” Colbert snaps back: “But it’s logic.” Though Latif points out that “it’s flawed logic,” Colbert gets another laugh when he retorts, “But it’s better than no logic.” Colbert, donning the mask of the Islamophobe, draws the conclusion that he is the victim. Yes, Latif admits, but with a twist. “You’re losing out the most,” Latif continues, “but I don’t think you know why you’re the victim.” Throughout the sketch, Colbert mocks the tools of logic and reason, those preferred weapons of the educated elite. “I know that what you call equality is an attack on me. If you get more rights, I have fewer rights. That’s just math.” Colbert can do the math. He understands the equation as well as any logician who, much as any strategizing politician, sets the variables of fear to fit his own needs.
The underlying lesson is deeper yet. Although modern Americans claim to distinguish themselves from less culturally advanced others through a core sense of individual responsibility, and although they readily project “tribal” forms of justice onto other allegedly primitive groups, in fact, these sovereign subjects are caught up in migrating waves of affect that they may be largely unaware of. This American “fear for all” simultaneously locates and derides the logic of a national malaise, and with it the limits of reason and logic for getting to the bottom of our angst, all while bringing into sharp focus the relevance of the comic for precipitating alternative waves of affect for political culture.
Our interest here is in the catalytic role of ridicule and humor for the conversion of fear into joyful solidarity through the propagation and contagion of underlying affects. Comedy, however, is not a panacea. Racist jokes and other popular sources of ridicule can amplify social climates of prejudice and fear. Meanwhile, audiences are self-selecting, leaving comics preaching to the choir. Those who do not share the comic’s perspective may find the humor offensive and fuel for their own outrage, or they may miss the irony entirely. But it is also true that ridicule and humor can rally the troops while dissipating phobias and fostering a more inclusive and hospitable climate. For susceptible audiences, the contagion of laughter loosens the hold of stereotypes and, as producer of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour Jamil Abu-Wardeh insists, creates community through cross-border laughs. As such, these laughs soften boundaries and identities while also diverting tanks and tyrants, as made clear in Youssef’s nicely titled 2016 documentary, Tickling Giants.
As anyone who has experienced the urge to yield to uncontrollable waves of laughter or widespread panic and fear might suppose, human beings are less the sovereign individuals—masters of ourselves—than we often like to make out to be. It is just such waves of affect as laughter and fear that theorists who study social networks set out to explore. “Superorganisms,” as described by various social network theories, can regulate the affect and physical function of nodes—aka people—through a process generally mysterious yet also partly measurable. Consider studies suggesting that one’s friends and even one’s friends’ friends—including people we do not know—can affect any number of dimensions of our lives, from health conditions to levels of happiness. Two researchers have found that if a person’s friend, a friend’s friend, or a friend’s friend’s friend’s weight alters, then that person’s weight is likely to alter in the same direction. Similarly, the prevalent mood among an association of friends is more likely to impact our mood than is a change in our individual financial situation in what researchers postulate as three degrees of influence.
Affects can spread like a physical contagion across thousands of miles via waves of energy transmission. Whole epidemics of panic, fear, and even laughter can unfurl through these invisible waves. The Arab Spring not only fanned out across North Africa but also across ethnic and continental boundaries to spur on protests in Spain and Greece, then across the Atlantic to the labor protests against union bashing in states like Wisconsin. Subsequently, the fear and hatred promoted by authoritarian regimes have also spread. Youssef observes: “When racism arrives, it doesn’t discriminate. It really goes and spreads the hate, and it will affect everybody.” Network theories of affect predict that these massive waves of influence can occur without any personal acquaintance with other nodes (people) in the network, and without anything like what we would ordinarily call personal agency or responsibility for the norms or behavior that people imitate and propagate to others. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler portray these ripple effects as “a kind of synchrony in time and space . . . that resembles the flocking of birds or schooling of fish.” Psychological states, like physical diseases, emerge regardless of individual exertion simply because we inhabit a social milieu that harbors them.
Who and what is responsible for racism and other panics when they sweep across the masses? Needless to say, these researchers are as perplexed as any of us would be with what becomes of the modern concept of moral responsibility. Modern moral theory (Kant’s ethics of duty and Mill’s utilitarianism) attributes responsibility to individuals without regard to the porous and social creatures that we are. But how do we blame individuals for behavior when we function as nodes of networks traversed by cascades of affect? Do we reinvoke the tragic ethos of ancient Greece with their so-called tribal justice, those for whom a foul air and a symbolic scapegoat carry the toxins of damage and harm? Recall that ancient Greek dramas consign the source of communal malaise to a figure like Oedipus, then purge the toxins by exiling its symbolic source. Modern-day honor killings—and even the West’s own racist purges—play on similar tribal logics of punishment.
Second-generation Indian American comic Hari Kondabolu offers a mocking example of tribal justice, Western style, in his 2018 Netflix special, Warn Your Relatives. “Hate crimes and racial violence are like the original terrorism in this country, but there is such a high bar to prove something is a hate crime. . . . Did they say a racial slur? Can you prove its intent? Was there a video recording or was there a white witness—you know, an eye whiteness? Was whiteness present at the time?” Kondabolu mockingly inquires. “Terrorism, on the other hand, has a very low bar.” For example, if you hear an explosion and “there’s a falafel place” nearby, then it must be “terrorism”! Of course, Kondabolu reminds the audience, if “a white dude did the shooting, that’s mental health issues. That’s completely different.” In other words, our modern racism also functions as a twisted tribal logic.
In a search for alternatives to the age-old tribal responses to perceived social problems, yet recognizing the inadequacy of modern moral theory, with its excessive reliance on individual agency, social scientists suggest a therapeutic approach. This approach entails that social policy “target [for treatment] the hubs of the network, namely those at the center of the network or those with the most contact.” Foucault exposes these normalizing techniques of modern bureaucracies as horrifying for queers and anyone else thought to be deviant. Perhaps neither tragic rituals of scapegoating nor therapeutic models of discipline and punish (to borrow the Foucauldian locution) rest easily with those of us who are equally wary of forms of tribal justice and modern bureaucratic techniques of determining who is normal and who is not. Instead of combating massive waves of negative affect via tragic scapegoating or bureaucratic expertise, we turn to laughter and comedy for the promise of a more salutary medium of social change. Laughter provides a break in the stream through which the affective tides are unsettled and opened to shifts and alternative directions.
We do not by any means suggest that all comedy is the same. Even attempts to be progressive often turn out simply to be salutes to normality. Amid the controversy surrounding the building of a central New York Islamic Culture Center, and in an earnest attempt to confront anti-Muslim bigotry, television host Katie Couric suggested in December 2010 a “Muslim version of The Cosby Show.” According to Couric, “The Cosby Show did so much to change attitudes about African Americans in this country, and I think sometimes people are afraid of what they don’t understand.” Presumably this style of good-humored, middle-class ethnic sitcom would ease tensions and represent people as all basically just the same. While Couric rightly points toward the significant role that humor can play in shifting the political winds, her remarks only highlight the assimilationalism (or whitening) that Bill Cosby’s brand of middle-class humor (that is, before he was outed as serial rapist) encourages, and thus a form of political transformation that doesn’t challenge and in fact may contribute to the race- and class-based hierarchies of neoliberalism. Cosby and Couric at best offer a holiday or temporary reprieve from social angst, not the comic punch needed to transform social norms and the climates that sustain them.
Such sugar-coated sitcom humor doesn’t cure racism—certainly not when race is mixed with the politics of class that neoliberalism so viciously fuels. Neoliberalism may hold open the promise of a pass for those model minorities who attain the education, skills, and cultural demeanor that are viewed as meriting high status and income levels like the Cosby family, but it exacerbates problems for the working class even as it perpetuates racial stereotypes across class differences. Wherever older forms of biological racism might seem to wane, neoliberal racism kicks in. These race- and class-based inequities require a sharper form of comedy—not the sentimental humor of the sitcom but rather the edgy ridicule targeting late capitalism’s phobic panics and racism. Of course, we don’t want to dismiss entirely the Couric concept. After all, Iranian American comedian Maz Jobrani effectively draws on sentimental humor, even if he does so tongue in cheek. He calls out to an imagined white audience, “We’re not Arab. . . . We are white, so stop shooting” as he slyly and playfully shifts his identity away from the villainous Iranian to claim a more soothing Persian heritage. “I am not dangerous. . . . I am Persian like the cat,” and “colorful” and “handwoven” like the rug.
While the Axis of Evil comedians offer an alternative to the sentimental humor of the mainstream sitcom, their self-deprecatory humor adds to a range of tones and a nuanced strategy that includes the abrasive and aggressive humor that characterize “the wit of retaliation and the comedy of revenge.” Recall after the John F. Kennedy assassination Malcolm X’s jibe at white America: “The chickens are coming home to roost.” Kondabolu highlights a revenge element in his updated revision of satirist Jonathan Swift’s 1729 “Modest Proposal” that the Irish might solve their problem of hunger by selling their children as food for the wealthy. Kondabolu suggests that instead we eat the rich—more specifically, that we eat their organs. But of course, out of recognition of their humanity, he jests, “We will force feed them organic grains . . . then we would have them walk around their very large estates—they would be free-range.” His over-the-top proposal, however, aims not for revenge but for a starting point in a negotiation process, the final aim of which is health care with a public option. Revenge humor in this case is not used simply to turn the tables on the rich. It is part of a strategy of humor that reaches for more potential allies in a bid for a greater good.
Still, the abrasive element is necessary for challenging variants of the neoliberalism that pervade all aspects of American life that sentimental humor alone would allow to stand unchallenged. Sheehi explains that the global ambitions of U.S. politics require Islamophobia to rationalize domination of Mideastern oil reserves and the necessary invasions and loss of life that this domination entails. He finds this Islamophobia across the political spectrum, from conservatives to liberals, reaching even into the Obama administration. Hence, we are not surprised that Kondabolu is even skeptical of how white liberals would handle a hate crime: does that mean that “they call an ambulance after the hate crime”? Or does a liberal hate crime mean, “I am going to be hit over the head with a bottle of kombucha.” In another liberal setting, a Seattle coffee shop, he decides to confront a guy who makes a racially insensitive remark; this time Kondabolu leaves the racist feeling bad but himself feeling good, which he gleefully declares a “win–win situation.” He remains skeptical of the onlookers in the coffee shop who “do what white liberals tend to do when there is a confrontation: they put their heads down and pretend like nothing is happening,” or afterward say, “Don’t worry, Hari . . . I’ll give you a hug.” Sentimentality is not enough. Yet he also avails himself of a measure of self-deprecatory humor that reaches out for allies and does indeed point toward a win–win.
Pakistani American comedian Kumail Nanjiani also knows how to generate a win–win. He explains during an SNL monologue, “Just because you’re racist doesn’t mean you have to be ignorant. An informed racist is a better racist.” He heard a guy rant on that “all Muslims are sexist—the Koran says women can’t drive.” Nanjiani responds, “Yeah, pretty sure the Koran never said that. Because if the Koran had said that women can’t drive cars 1,400 years ago, I would be a mosque right now, and so would you, because that would mean the Koran predicted cars.” After Nanjiani’s film The Big Sick appeared in 2017, “his Twitter feed became a nightmare” because a lot of people demanded that he “go back to India,” a place he has never been. This is what led Nanjiani to sarcastically pronounce, “The problem with most racism . . . it’s the inaccuracy. That’s what bugs me. Do the research. Put in the work. You will see the benefits.” He then further explains to his audience: “If someone yells at me, ‘Go back to India,’ I’d be like, that guy’s an idiot. But if someone was like, ‘Go back to Pakistan, which was part of India until 1947 and is now home to the world’s oldest salt mine,’ I’d be like, that guy seems to know what he’s talking about. I’ll pack my bags.” Like the comedians of revenge, these humorists expose hypocrisy and other social vices; but by sprinkling ridicule with self-deprecatory humor, they defuse anxiety and generate a counterwave of joy and solidarity.
Hypocrisy and Critique
Derisive stereotypes and racial jokes function in a politics of domination by either pressuring out-groups to assimilate or scapegoating them altogether. In contrast, progressive humor combats the dominant culture through something like the kind of “immanent critique” that Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson attribute to twentieth-century traditions of critical theory. The key task of the critical theorist has been to expose the contradictions in hegemonic capitalism. Capitalism claims to free workers from feudal social hierarchies when in fact it reentrenches them in unfree class-based systems of unfair labor practices. Satire and other edgy forms of humor can reveal the contradictions that afflict a society, but comedy does not rely on a strictly cognitive approach to expose and untie the knots in a system. Instead, humor turns on a more affectively engaged modality of critique, exposing not just contradictions but also hypocrisy.
Indeed, attacking hypocrisies of dominant groups may be the key strategy for comedians of immanent critique, given that their aim is partly characterized by the assertion of their own relevance and belonging. Ever undermining ethnic hierarchies in America, Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, born in Mumbai, reminds us of the hypocrisy of our immigrant country as he mockingly quips, “It wasn’t easy for our European immigrant ancestors.” After all, “They had a long arduous journey just to get here, and then they had to go out and kill a continent’s worth of squatters, while still suffering from boat lag.” In fact, he continues, “I think these new immigrants have it easy. Give me a choice between wiping out a nation of indigenous peoples and busing tables, it’s no contest—better tips!” Mandvi points out the injustice of the in-group defining itself in this case as hardworking against an out-group as lazy when in fact that out-group’s hard work renders it a perfect candidate for the characteristics that often define the American identity. For if hardworking defines the allegedly Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethic of U.S. cultural identity, as the conservative thinker Samuel Huntington and his followers continue to insist, then these comedian critical theorists prompt us to ask once again who the real Americans are.
Hard work may be Americans’ mantra and freedom our stated philosophy, but Mandvi uncovers instead a neoliberal calculus of who counts as American: “I’m brown but I’m from India,” and thus, in his words, “I’m tech support slash cardiologist brown . . . not dishwasher slash Los Angeles parking attendant brown” as he mockingly suggests that more points have been assigned to immigrants who speak English or have technical skills. A perplexed Jon Stewart, playing it straight, responds by reminding us of our theoretically democratic principles: “But it is the antithesis of our founding. . . . What happened to the motto, the old motto, ‘Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free’?” Mandvi suggests that Stewart needs to get up to speed: “That was the old slogan,” but America has rebranded its immigration policy. Echoing the then current United Parcel Service tagline, he proposes as the new slogan for national policy, “What can brown do for you?” Of course, the notion of “What can brown do for you?” is not new but reflects a long history of global migration and industrialization in the United States that necessitates cheap labor but also a collective response.
Collective Laughter and Movement Leaders
Solidarity across social divisions and the social movements that sustain this solidarity might be assisted by recalling the malleability of race and ethnicity—something comics do especially well. The Irish, Italians, Jews, and Catholics have all been the new black, which is always at the bottom in our white supremist country, where the first immigration law in 1790 permitted only alien “free whites” to become citizens. In the context of discussing our current malaise over immigration, Colbert flashes up on a screen a perfect quote to uncover the long history of racism in this country. Colbert observes it was Republican Senator Mitch McConnell who said, “[With all these unwanted Mexicans, America will] become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous . . . [that they] will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.” Colbert offers his ironic correction as the punch line. “I’m sorry,” he says, “that was not Mitch McConnell last week. That was Benjamin Franklin in 1751. And he wasn’t talking about Mexicans. He was talking about Germans.”
There is, of course, a history of some immigrants striving to become white, but we can also find episodes of solidarity based not on striving for whiteness but rather on challenging the whiteness on which so much racism and social exclusion depends. As Vijay Prashad explains, the way forward is not through assimilation, which is after all just a ploy for white supremacy now in its neoliberal stage, nor in a reactive resurrection of boundaries to fortify some cultural nationalism. Prashad notes, “In U.S. history the Irish, Italians, Jews, and—in small steps with some hesitations on the part of white America—Asians and Latinos have all tried to barter their varied cultural worlds for the privileges of whiteness.” But he observes as well more hopeful signs in “the interactions of the Black Panther Party with the Red Guard and the Brown Berets in the mid-twentieth century; and finally, the multiethnic working-class gathering in the new century.” For these ethnic groups, the choice has been clear: either the “vertical assimilation” up a ladder that leads toward “bright whiteness,” or solidarity forged among those pushed back down.
Alliances combating the recurrent exploitation of racialized labor depend on the fluidity of social identities. Such interactions may be among the most valuable achievements of that ironist who mixes the heat and the vision of egalitarian political movements with the savvy techniques of the comic stage. Scholars have unearthed a rich tradition of infrapolitics that links African American humor with radical reimagination. Historian Manning Marable powerfully complicates our understanding of Malcolm X as not only an agent of revenge but also an agent of visionary solidarity: “What made him truly original was that he presented himself as the embodiment of the two central figures of African American folk culture, simultaneously the hustler/trickster and the preacher/minister. Janus-faced, the trickster is unpredictable, capable of outrageous transgressions; the minister saves souls, redeems shattered lives and promises a new world.” Malcolm X is not the only example of an ironist or satirist turned movement leader and visionary in the civil rights period. Historian Steven Estes mentions that Black Panther cofounder Bobby Seal got his start doing comedy, among other odd jobs. Given this continuity between black activism and subversive comedy, we ought not be surprised by the observation that Richard Pryor, whose comedy “spoke the unspeakable . . . about white people and their racism,” was given “his private tutorial under the direction of [Panther cofounder] Huey Newton.”
More recently, humor has also reemerged, along with Latinx- and Mexican American–led campaigns for human rights. One powerful example dates to May 1, 2006, when over a million protesters took to the streets in opposition to anti-immigrant fervor intent on criminalizing undocumented workers and militarizing the border. The protests centered on a playfully serious boycott inspired by a 2004 mockumentory, A Day Without a Mexican, and featured signs such as one that read, “Jose called today! Make your own taco.” Under the Trump administration, these protests have gained new sense of urgency, as threats of building a wall and permitting countless deportations have become a reality, not just a campaign threat.
Anti-immigrant fervor turns on an old trope of what it means to be American that prizes hard work. The mockery that aims to shed light on injustice has been misdirected toward some of the hardest workers in America—an irony that gained popular and congressional attention thanks to the comic techniques of satire. The inability to see the vital importance of immigrant labor prompted the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) to play a similar game with the master’s tools, or at least with definitions of who is lazy (an all-too-familiar racial slur) and who is hardworking, and hence what it means to be a real (deserving, entitled) American. More specifically, the UFW initiated the “Take Our Jobs” campaign in summer 2010, and in so doing, UFW president Arturo Rodriguez foregrounded the plight of Mexican agricultural workers, revealing the hypocrisy of immigration policies with a website that encourages unemployed American citizens to take the job of undocumented workers. Indeed, the UFW website makes getting a job just an easy click away, but there is a catch. As Rodriguez points out, the work is hard and physically demanding—and hence no one who does the work is white.
Gut-wrenching ironies risk losing their charge when they are theorized as mere cognitive incongruities. Too much is at stake. The job description on the UFW website demands working outdoors in often above ninety-degree heat, being fit enough to lift fifty-plus pounds, and mastering various tools of the trade, which meant that on July 8, 2010, at the time of Rodriguez’s appearance on The Colbert Report, only three U.S. citizens had taken on this minimum wage/piece rate opportunity. Colbert committed himself to becoming the fourth citizen to sign up for the “Take Our Jobs” challenge while insisting that there must be air-conditioning. The irony of undermining basic human rights for a population that processes our poultry and harvests our crops, thus feeding our nation, and that is a tribute to the dignity of labor evokes more than a chuckle. To begin to alter the anti-immigrant waves of hate and fear demands some comic relief, but also some sharp redirection. Colbert’s slapstick efforts as an agricultural laborer resulted in his fall 2011 congressional testimony, bringing yet more attention to the ironies of what it means to be a hardworking American.
Against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election, artists and playwrights have also invoked comic irony to challenge an intense wave of anti-immigrant backlash. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical, Hamilton, plays on the contradictions of America’s ambiguous history as a nation of immigrants. In 2016, Miranda released the Hamilton Mixtapes, with powerful musical tracks including “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)”: “I got 1 job, 2 job 3 when I need them / I got 5 roommates in this one studio, but I never really see them,” sings K’Naan. “And we all came to America trying to get a lap dance from Lady Freedom / But now Lady Liberty is acting like Hilary Banks with a prenup.” Similarly, Lalo Alcaraz, a prolific Chicano artist and creator of the first nationally syndicated, politically charged Latinx comic strip, La Cucaracha, began circulating on social media a cartoon with the caption, “Mexico built the Trump wall for free.” However, the map is redrawn by the clever cartoonist to keep out the real thieves. It shifts the boundaries between the two nations decisively north, returning to Mexico those territories of the Southwestern states stolen from it after the 1846–48 U.S. invasion.
Responsibility across Borders
It is remarkable how hard borders and identities are perceived to be when one is looking at people who are not considered to be sufficiently white. In response to the Islamophobia of the post-9/11 era, Obeidallah, who “went to bed white and woke up Arab,” suggests, “White is not a skin color, it’s status. It’s the way you’re treated in society.” The difference between Arab, Muslim, Persian, Mideastern, and South Asian, all too readily lumped together, and white is that “white people never suffer as a group when a few people do something bad in their group,” like “NASCAR,” “Paris Hilton,” and “country music.” Whiteness typically turns on a concept of individual responsibility, in contrast to the so-called primitive logic of tribal justice attributed to alien cultures. But as Obeidallah’s jibe suggests, in fact white people often invoke the very logic that they aim to distance themselves from when they blame an entire group for the actions of a few. The solidarity we seek does not require that flawed logic yield to good logic, if by good logic we mean keeping our categories and identities free from confusion. Americans have long thought that their “civilizing mission” is to bring a modern culture of individual responsibility to so-called primitives, with their irrational emotions, but they too are moved by affects; they too blame and punish others on the basis of their group identity. However, during a never-ending post-9/11 crisis, humor offers the contagious laughter that can diminish collective fear and anxiety. In so doing, it demonstrates the power of affect to spread across porous borders, rendering identities, along with actions and attitudes, fluid and primed for a solidarity that building a wall can never stop.