The nation that laughed at itself stupid

To the silk looms and chamber pots in Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields. Severs was a Californian whose anger with the 20th century drove him to turn a London address into a portal to the 18th and 19th centuries. A fictional Huguenot family expelled from Catholic France is heard but not seen as you tour their “home” in all its historical detail. One room is dedicated to portraits of Queen Victoria and union flags: refugee patriotism.

These are layers of unsmiling reverence: that of the Huguenots for British liberty, that of the Severs for Britain’s past. These are misfits who take the country more seriously than themselves.

But then, as we see, how hard is that? What Britain will live through for years is not Boris Johnson won a landslide in December 2019. (Until then, the alternative was worse.) It was the rise of such an obvious polecat in the last three decades. If we were lucky we could move on. In fact, it was the natural result of the humor that the nation loves best about itself. A democracy giggled into the crisis. A man who once agreed to support the attack on a journalist was allowed to joke all the way to the top. It happened on panel shows. It happened in print. Politics is always secondary to culture, and the greatest encumbrance of British culture is its nihilistic seriousness.

A weird nation isn’t all that bad. A tragicomic one. Martin Amis said that embracing frivolity is Britain’s way of dealing with post-imperial decline. If we can’t rule the world – we’ve decided subconsciously – let’s treat it as a joke. And so resentment against the American usurpers became a mockery of their lack of humor. Coping tactics are more subtle than territorial revenge (Russia) or cultural protectionism (France). But it’s not harmless. One cost is the glut of stand-up comedians. Another, to be meta for a moment, is Amis himself, who might have been a deeper writer and less of a cartoonist had he been raised somewhere else.

These are purely aesthetic losses. But there is also a bourgeois one. One can smuggle some terrible ideas into the public square under the guise of cheerfulness. I remember the social pressure of speaking about Johnson with ethical concerns — not being such a nitpicker. It was wildest not among libertines, but among the sort of domesticated bourgeois for whom he represented thrill-seekers.

Look, I’ve lived in Washington: I understand the weight of seriousness. And humor, as Chaplin knew, is the scourge of the tyrant. No voter with a sense of the absurd would obey a mustache-twirling idiot in epaulettes. But humor can land you with a different way of national ruin. Mediterranean income per capita in northern European weather is Britain’s plausible future. It has several authors, but one of them is the laughing cavalier: Johnson, Nigel Farage, every pub joker who waved aside the economics of Brexit as a nerd concern. The beauty of humor is that it allows you to avoid difficult subjects. The tragedy of humor is that it allows one to avoid difficult subjects.

You’re too colorblind to notice, of course, but the coup against Johnson was, to some extent, a desi thing. Rishi Sunak’s parents are from India via East Africa. Sajid Javid is from Pakistan. Suella Braverman, the first declared leader, is another with roots in the subcontinent. Given the sample size, nothing happens here but coincidence. I am not suggesting that only an outsider can pay his solemn honor to a country.

Still, I’m familiar with the attitudes that permeate a certain type of immigrant household. The unironic reverence for the new country. Equating Britain with respectability. The paranoid unpretentiousness. (I still don’t spend enough money at work to be considered a freeloader.) The confusion and disappointment when the natives turn out to be more sardonic about these things.

I don’t know about the Huguenots of 18 Folgate Street or about Sunak, but for some immigrants the only shock in adjusting to this otherwise user-friendly country is the reward for disrespect, the fear of sincerity. It’s adorable. But also many dangerous habits.

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Adam Bradshaw

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