We barely had a moment to digest the horror of the incident at UC-Davis, where police pepper-sprayed nonviolent student protesters associated with the Occupy Movement, before the image of the offending policeman (Lt. John Pike) was transformed into an internet meme. Pike's image was photoshopped into some of the great works of Western art, including those pictured to the left (clockwise: Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, and Rockwell's Freedom from Want), which were then disseminated at fiber-optic speed on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and countless blogs. In fact, there's a whole site dedicated to this meme now, called Pepper Spraying Cop. The events at UC-Davis were tragic, to be sure. So how did the Pepper Spraying Cop become funny?
At first, many of the mash-ups appeared to be implicitly meta-criticizing Lieutenant Pike's action. The brashness and brute force of Pike's assault is amplified in the Seurat image, where the pastoral calm of the painting's subjects is violently disrupted by Pike spraying the seated woman with the parasol. (Incidentally, Seurat's is also a painting about class mixing--Sunday afternoons were the only time the lower classes had leisure time, and they would go to Grand Jatte to relax, mingling with the upper classes.) Similarly, the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of Pike's actions are highlighted in the Delacriox and Trumbull images, where Pike's pepper-spray can is positioned to aim its assault directly at "liberty" and "independence." And Pike's complicity with (and protection of) the wrongs of the 1% is dramatized in the Rockwell image, where the introduction of Pike's figure essentially negates the "freedom from want" represented therein.
Like all memes, though, the Pepper Spraying Cop took on a life of its own and began to be inserted into images that lacked a metacommentary like those above. (Pike spraying a baby seal, Pike spraying the kid from The Shining, Pike spraying Beyoncé and Harry Potter and Tim Tebow, even Pike spraying God.) These latter iterations were funny, to be sure, and so were the earlier images. But "funny" comes in many flavors, and it's difficult to determine in what way these images are amusing. Are they ironic? Are they satirical? More importantly, is it okay to be amused by them? How soon after tragedy is too soon to transform it into farce?
As a member of the Stewart/Colbert generation, I often wonder how fit I am to decide these questions anymore. For at least the last decade, my "news" has been deconstructed and reconstructed as satire, irony or farce on a daily basis. Back in 2001, I remember there being a palpable hesitancy around making jokes about the events of 9/11 for a long while. The question 'how soon is too soon?' weighed heavily on everyone, not just comedians, not just political pundits, not just bloggers. That reticence seems to have waned, if not completely disappeared, in the intervening years. Another example: Within 48 hours of the Sandusky/Penn State scandal, I heard the following joke:
Q: If a woman who has sex with younger men is called a 'cougar,' what do you call a man who has sex with younger men?
A: A Nittany Lion
It's brilliant as a joke, of course, despite the horrible events upon which it depends to be funny. And the Pepper Spraying Cop is brilliant as a meme, despite the events upon which it depends to be funny. But what to do with the requisite desensitization that is necessary for both jokes to "work"?
Philosopher Cynthia Willett (Emory University) addressed some of these questions in her recent text Irony in the Age of Empire: Comic Perspectives on Democracy and Freedom, where she argues that we ought to embrace the way in which comedy, satire and irony can be not only critical, but emancipatory. Now, for most people of my generation/education/political persuarsion, the idea that comedy has some political purchase is nothing new. In fact, for many of us, the only thing standing between our day-to-day existence and total despair is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Most of my friends have themselves adopted this sharp (or, negatively stated, acerbic), quick (sloppy), biting (mean), and astute (cynical) sense of humor, which often turns an everyday conversation over beers with them into an exercise in pugilistic hilarity. Some people (namely, my father) find this generational characteristic a little off-putting--we're too loud, too mean, too enamoured with our own disillusion and, yes, a little too honest to make for good (read: polite) company. I actually respect his criticism to a degree, as I myself (like almost everyone I know) have certainly gone home and plucked the barbs out of my own ego after having been lambasted by friends... all in good fun, of course. But it is what it is. These are my people.
What Willet's work has made me think more about, however, is how much can actually be accomplished by such comedic criticism. Every night I watch Jon Stewart and I wonder: how in the world can things continue to go on like they are with this kind of truth out there? Of course, I know that the targets of Stewart's and Colbert's not-so-subtle criticisms probably don't watch their shows, or grossly misunderstand the jokes, but one would think the fact that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are such a central part of the social milieu would have some cash-out value. One would think that shows like Stewart's and Colbert's (and jokes like the PSU one above, and memes like the Pepper Spraying Cop), at the very least, can reduce the number of lies that are allowed to go uncontested in public discourse.
When I taught Media Ethics, I would show the clip of Jon Stewart's visit to the FOX exercise-in-ridiculousness show Crossfire. If you haven't seen it, you can watch it here. (And even if you have seen it, watch it again!) Stewart's dilemma in that conversation is the one that I imagine is the most insurmountable for the comedian who actually wants to effect political change-- how do I get people to take me seriously? But every time I see the clip again, I am reminded that it is one of the most brilliant, and most inspiring, moments of political confrontation that I have seen. It's such a perfect little concentration of all that is wrong with political discourse in our country right now... namely, that there is no "discourse." The Right caricatures and then lambasts the Left seriously, and the Left caricatures and lambasts the Right comedically. We all know who's been winning that battle for the last several years-- the question is, who's going to win the war?
For my part, I think that we have to keep the distance between our tragedies and our farcical representations of them-- like the Pepper Spraying Cop meme-- as minimal as possible. The joke must be biting and more than a bit sour so that we do not forget that it's only funny because it's not funny, after all.