I begin a video scene of a Nazi propaganda film. Students analyze the motifs (coming from the sky, illumination, a sense of religious foundation), the peer pressure, the testimonials, the loaded language and the symbolism. Yet, in the fourth minute, as the crowd begins their Heil Hitler chants, a student whispers phrases in his best German accent.
“Let’s be honest, haven’t you ever forgotten to wear deodorant?”
“Oh, that’s a lot of raised hands. I’m glad I’m not alone. I’ll just . . . we’ll I’ll sort of raise my arm half-way like this. Is that better?”
“Who here has ever laughed so hard they farted? Me, too. It happens. It’s totally natural. Let’s embrace it.”
“How many of you thought I accidentally smeared my face with a little chocolate bar. Yes, right there. It’s okay. You can raise your hands. It’s a mustache. Really it is.”
When I finally turn to look at him, he stops. I don’t correct him, though, and I wondered afterward if I should have encouraged him to continue.
Despite his silly mustache and his strange mannerisms, Hitler took himself seriously. In fact, in all the Nazi propaganda, it seems the biggest missing element is a sense of humor. He never seemed to open a speech with a few one-liners, but instead chosen a passionate oratory style that often incited anger more than chuckles. Maybe he could have used a pie in the face. After all, isn’t it the nation that invented schadenfreude?
I can’t prove this, but I have a feeling that Hitler would be more incensed at being laughed at than in being portrayed as a villain. As a villain, he instills fear (and rightfully so) but when history portrays his dictatorship as a farce, the response is a lasting sense of mockery. I’m not suggesting that we don’t view him as morally wrong. The guy was evil, for sure. And I would never support laughing at the Holocaust or at war atrocities. But I also believe there is a point in laughing at him. Hitler was an absurd man who never should have been taken serious. If more people had mocked him rather than feared him, I doubt he would have captivated the heart of the German citizenry.
There is lasting social change when something becomes laughable. The temperance movement failed, not because of the rise in crime or the increase in drunkenness, but because it became laughable to support temperance. Meanwhile, the legalization of pot, which once seemed laughable now seems a bit more serious. When something is truly mocked and satirized and turned into a joke, it has an effect that moral arguments simply cannot achieve.
It’s for this reason that the greatest obstacle to political extremism in the United States is not healthy debate (which I still endorse) or even rational discourse. Instead, it’s guys like Colbert and Stewart who have taken some great shots at the insanity on both sides, not by pointing out logical holes, but by showing how laughable they are. Similarly, it wasn’t the pundits who ruined Sarah Palin’s popularity ratings so much as it was Tina Fey’s dead-on impersonation.
I’m wondering in education reform if the answer isn’t so much engaging in logical debate as much as it is approaching “no nonsense” reforms with a bit of nonsense. Laugh a little. Create some satire. Mock a chancellor who poses on a national magazine with a broomstick (was it a Nimbus 3000?) because ultimately that is how absurd arguments are exposed.