I have mixed feelings about this Atlantic piece by Emma Green on the Babylon Bee. On the one hand, the premise of the piece feels a bit like a set up, as if Green is asking the site’s editor, Kyle Mann, to defend himself against accusations that aren’t really made clear. Why did you tell this joke? What did you mean by this cartoon? The whole thing feels a bit like an inquisition.
On the other hand, Mann is more than able to hold his own in the exchange. None of the accusations aimed at him really seem to land. What does come across, mostly, is the humorlessness of Green or, if you want to be generous, the unnamed people whose critical opinions about the Babylon Bee she is trying to reflect in the interview. And so you get exchanges like this one that become a bit funny in themselves.
Green: You guys wrote an article in January 2020 that was shared roughly 3 million times, claiming that Democrats called for the American flag to be flown at half-staff when the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in an American strike.
What makes this funny? I know that’s the worst question to ask somebody who writes jokes.
Mann: It’s funny because General Soleimani died and then they called for flags to be flown at half-mast. Get it?
Green: But that’s what I’m saying. Besides just saying the joke again, what makes it funny?
Mann: Do you want me to explain the joke to you? Because the joke is that General Soleimani died and Democrats were sad.
If you don’t know why that’s funny, then you’re not the audience for the joke. The funniest part is that it got fact-checked because it was so believable that Democrats would do that. That’s a real honor.
I’m not sure what Green is looking for here. It’s not a very complicated joke. It plays on the idea that Democrats, who spent years creating and defending the Iran deal, sometimes seem a little to friendly toward a theocracy that supports terror around the globe and has weekly chants of “Death to America.” It wouldn’t be hard to find Democrats making similar jokes about GOP support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s death. In fact, here was comedian Michelle Wolf’s response to Trump’s criticism of her White House Correspondents’ Dinner performance:
Trump celebrated the end of a long tradition of having a comedian perform at the event by saying the convention was broken because “Michelle Wolf bombed so badly last year.”
In response, Wolf wrote: “I bet you’d be on my side if I had killed a journalist. #BeBest,” appearing to use the slogan for first lady Melania Trump’s anti-bullying campaign.
Wolf is mocking President Trump. The Babylon Bee was mocking Democrats including Barack Obama. What’s odd is to have Green demanding an explanation for something that seems pretty self-explanatory. But Green keeps pushing for explanations of the jokes or maybe the reasons for making the jokes:
Green: You were saying before that you think part of what makes jokes work is that they tend to hold a seed of truth. Do you think the mentality you’re describing is actually true to progressives in America?
Mann: Absolutely. Obviously, not everybody on the left thinks like that. What satire does is it takes this extreme position and exaggerates and stretches it to the point of absurdity. There are crazy racists on the far right. And there are crazy racists on the far left. To find the humor, you have to play on those fringes. If we said, “Well, there’s some nuance here …” you’re not making a joke anymore. Now you’re just writing a think piece.
And then she gets even more serious by asking if mocking the woke is what Jesus would do. Her assumption here is that jokes shouldn’t punch down and woke people are too vulnerable to be mocked. But here again, Mann has a pretty solid response:
Green: How do you check in with yourself about whether the work that you’re doing is Christ-like?
Mann: C. S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man that we can’t keep on seeing through things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. There are things worthy of mockery, but there are also things not worthy of mockery. We’re trying to deconstruct things to get people to see something else.
Why don’t we make fun of Trump all the time? Why don’t we make fun of Biden all the time? Why don’t we make fun of the American political system all the time? It’s because there’s no hope there. Ultimately, I think that’s why the left gets so upset when you make fun of progressive beliefs. The left believes they’re going to create utopia on Earth through their politics. They believe that in some way, politics will save them.
And here is where I think Green really doesn’t seem prepared for this interview. A good interviewer shouldn’t just reflect the criticisms and concerns of one (clearly partisan) group, i.e. progressives who hate the Babylon Bee. A good interviewer should be open to exploring other views and positions as well. There’s a whole bunch of writing out there about the ways in which wokeness operates like a substitute religion. It has even been called The Great Awokening in reference to the Great Awakening religious revival of the 18th century. I don’t know if Green is familiar with any of this material, which has been around for at least 3-4 years at this point, but this would have been a good moment to point some of it out and maybe discuss the ways in which wokeness seems less like a group of vulnerable people and more like a cult based on pious pabulum.
Instead the conversation just ends there after a long string of accusations and insinuations that maybe Jesus wouldn’t approve of the Babylon Bee. That’s a shame because all of the material for a pretty good counterargument is there even if the Atlantic seems to have missed it.