Liesl Schillinger is a New York-based journalist and translator, and the author of Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century. She teaches in the Journalism+Design Program at the New School. (May 2018)
Lately, I’ve been thinking about Arthur Koestler, as politics, which is to say, this presidency, has turned a spotlight, a searchlight even, on humor and on humorists. Humor is not innocent, Koestler knew; its roots lie in “aggression and apprehension.” Aristotle thought laughter was linked to “ugliness and debasement”; Descartes that it “was a manifestation of joy mixed with surprise or hatred.” It was not surprising given the insult implicit in laughter, Koestler suggests, that powerful men would seek to thwart those who inspired others to laugh at their expense. “Under the tyrannies of Hitler in Germany and of Stalin in the Soviet Union, humour was driven underground,” he writes. “Dictators fear laughter more than bombs.”
Teaching a course on “Facts/Alternative Facts: Media in America from Tocqueville to Trump,” I created an exercise I called “Tweeting Nietzsche.” It would be our touchstone throughout the term, a reminder that to speak of facts is to speak of language—Nietzsche’s “mobile army of metaphor, metonym, and anthropomorphism”—and that journalists who intend to write factually in today’s hostile climate for news media must learn how to deploy that mobile army effectively. I wish I’d had a trumpet to sound the charge.