Court Fools

Basketball, Drawing-Room Life, and the Function of the Fool

drawing room

Witty people are a very important part of modern life, and they are very popular. They replace truth, seriousness and profundity with a quip that makes people laugh. The idea of their spiritual life is the elegant drawing-room, its fatuous and brilliant conversation, its measured applause and the veiled smile of its habitués. They reduce all life to the clever mediocrity of drawing-room life: a lot of words, amiable scepticism, and a light sprinkle of melancholy sentimentalism. The wit has become even more important through the latest incarnation of drawing-room life, namely the offices of the bourgeois newspapers. Here the wit has enlarged the circle of his audience and has made everything a source of humour—politics, war, pain, life and death—thereby winning much applause and earning a pile of money[1].

The 2017 NBA All-Star Game was shit. I’m by no means the first person to make such an observation, but I nevertheless feel that a thorough investigation into the All-Star Game as an institution is warranted, and that its descent into self-parody can tell us something about the destructive potential of jokes.

As the above clip from the 1996 game in San Antonio demonstrates, defence was not always a faux pas at the All-Star Game. The annoyance with which Marv Albert declares Grant Hill’s dunk “too easy” is telling: such lapses were not the norm, and they were certainly not to be encouraged. Steve Jones is even able to joke that some sort of conspiracy exists between Hill and Shawn Kemp, a joke that can only work if the audience knows that these are in fact competitive players, that they are of course taking this game quite seriously. An earlier remark by Jones—“you’re seeing a team from the West not playing much defence, looking to score a lot of points”—likewise indicates that prioritising scoring over defence was simply one of a number of legitimate strategies that a team might adopt, not a prescribed play style.

Much has changed in the 21 intervening years. What was once a wink-wink, unwritten-but-slyly-acknowledged aspect of the All-Star Game has become its raison d’être. While the All-Star Game is still officially a real basketball game, the “you let me have one, and I’ll let you have one” arrangement has been formalised and is now taken for granted by all involved. That an actual basketball game might occur is recognised to be a slim hope by the television announcers (“a game will break out—a real game,” a despondent Marv Albert unconvincingly reassured his audience in 2013). The running gag that the All-Star Game is not really a game at all but simply an excuse to see a lot of cool dunks has been turned on its head; to suggest that the players might expend any effort at all on defence is to elicit laughter today. Thanks to the ceaseless chattering of Marv Albert and his accomplices, both participants and audience have stumbled into a sort of joke-induced hyperreality, unable to apprehend what the All-Star Game really is any more, let alone what it ought to be.

The result of all this is that the NBA’s modern stars are, in the words of Aram Goudsouzian, “boiled down to commercial symbols, icons of the global marketplace.” They do not play exciting basketball; they perform exciting basketball by rote (thereby stripping it of excitement).

Here we see the power of jokes at work. Jokes are not trivial at all; they are deeply serious. Jokes influence reality. They can disarm and make an audience receptive to otherwise unpalatable ideas[2]. Jokes also reveal intent:

A joke can also be an expression of power. There are those who would have us believe that maintaining a detached, sardonic demeanour and joking about very serious contemporary issues is a sophisticated and wise mode of engaging with the world. This sort of approach is often confused with good adversarial journalism. As Tom Mills observed of Jeremy Paxman, his “bumptious posturing” has a great deal more to do with the glib, self-congratulatory Oxbridge debating society culture of which he is a product than with any desire to speak truth to power.

This was a milieu with which Malcolm X became closely acquainted in December 1964. Invited to participate in a debate at the Oxford Union by its president Eric Anthony Abrahams, Malcolm, who took the debate[3] quite seriously,  was subjected to a barrage of smirking, sneering, and hectoring from his unbearably smug opponents (for whom nothing whatsoever was at stake). The event sounded more like a stand-up comedy gig than a serious debate, an audience of cretinous aristocrats-in-training erupting in hoots of laugher after every clever inside joke or humble-brag (a remark about the “great colonial experience” of a Tory peer elicited merry laughter from these contemptuous jackals).

By their serious remarks, the chief antagonists Humphrey Berkeley and Lord Stonham portrayed themselves as very reasonable and progressive people indeed who were of course opposed to any kind of racism or apartheid. It was their humorous remarks that betrayed their true character—their ridiculing Malcolm X for adopting a pseudonym and joking about the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of British politics. During the open forum, a speaker whose identity isn’t clear delivered a sort of horseshoe manifesto, stressing the importance of “justice for the oppressed, and justice for the oppressor too[4]!”

But what is going to happen to the Black Muslims? […]. Will it not mean…that the, er, there would be, perhaps, a black Ku Klux Klan of extremists who, in alleged defence of their liberty, would repeat in reverse the vicious extremes o-o-of white oppressors? […]. Extremes…will not provide a solution, will not provide true liberty or freedom. […]. Moderation is not synonymous with cowardice!

Lebert Bethune, who had accompanied Malcolm to the debate, later remarked that the “flippant, drawing-room comedy manner” of the speakers had angered Malcolm. Are contemporary pundits and podcasters, in their ironic detachment and affected vulgarity, really any better? Who do they think they are, and what are they trying to accomplish? Let us consider the most idealised view of such people, the romantic myth of the court jester:

Later in this same talk, Alan Watts goes on to describe the fool as “an analogue of the Sage[5].” Is it possible that these comedians, from celebrity left clowns to edgy internet ironists, perceive themselves as wise and daring, dispensing enlightenment by bravely subverting social norms and cleverly behaving like credulous imbeciles?[6] Or is it possible that all such people are merely climbers, eagerly peddling ruling class propaganda under the guise of humour while earning a pile of money?


The prohibited impulse may be tolerated if there is no doubt that the final aim is its elimination—this is the case with jokes or fun, the miserable parody of fulfilment. As a despised and despising characteristic, the mimetic function is enjoyed craftily. Anyone who seeks out “bad” smells, in order to destroy them, may imitate sniffing to his heart’s content, taking unrationalised pleasure in the experience. The civilised man “disinfects” the forbidden impulse by his unconditional identification with the authority which has prohibited it; in this way the action is made acceptable. If he goes beyond the permitted bounds, laughter ensues[7].

It is not the case that all jokes are bad, or that political satire is inherently dangerous. As Lenin said of art and literature, “partisan literature and art will be truly free, because it will further the freedom of millions of people.” By the same token, jokes in the service of communism may further the freedom of millions of people, while jokes which promote imperialism will lead to the immiseration of millions.

Exciting basketball cannot be simulated. Exciting basketball is so precisely because it is spontaneous and unscripted. Any attempt to make a formal obligation of fun and exciting basketball will inevitably produce the sort of facile basketball exhibitionism we have become accustomed to seeing at the All-Star Game. Good basketball is produced through struggle between offensive players and defensive players. Likewise, good jokes are not the product of a practiced and reflexive cynicism; they are the fruit of struggle—class struggle.

soviet 66ers small


[1] This is a Gramsci quote.

[2] According to Kierkegaard, when an audience does not want to hear a speaker’s message, the speaker needs to communicate in an indirect fashion, and the queen of indirectness is irony. The CIA is adept at utilising humour for its Hollywood propaganda, at using comedy as a Trojan Horse. Often it isn’t very subtle.

[3] The motion for the debate was a statement made by the US right-winger Barry Goldwater when he accepted the Republican nomination for the presidential election: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Despite Malcolm X’s brilliant and persuasive speech, the motion was defeated 449 to 225. What a surprise!

[4] In other words, are there civil liberties for the fascists? As Stephen Gowans put it,

Moralist positions on human rights are not only beside the point; they’re nonsensical, inasmuch as they assume rights are absolute and that antagonisms between the rights of oppressor classes and nations and the classes and nations they oppress can be mediated. In the real world, it is not possible to build a socialist society if the capitalist class is allowed the freedom to organize to restore its power. It is not possible for a government of national liberation to achieve its country’s independence if it grants political and civil liberties to all, including agents of the oppressor nation who seek to restore that nation’s formerly privileged position.

The battlefield of human rights isn’t one in which the object of Left forces should be the securing of absolute rights for all (for there is no such thing as liberty and democracy for all) but the securing of the rights of oppressed classes and nations at the expense of those of their enemies. The right of the sheep to be free from predation comes at the expense of the wolf’s right to eat the sheep. The question is never whether you’re for human rights or not. The question is always whose rights are you for?

[5] That this myth of the jester as wise and subversive gadfly probably isn’t true doesn’t really matter. Wise fools may not have existed, but the idea that there existed wise fools does exist, and it is pervasive.

[6] I know a stand-up comedian personally, and he is absolutely insufferable. This is definitely how he sees himself.

[7] This one’s Adorno and Horkheimer.