Pepper-Spray Cop and the Humor of Despair

Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams thinks very highly of the “Pepper-Spray Cop” internet meme, which in its various forms spoofs UC Davis police officer John Pike. Last Wednesday, Pike was captured on video, pepper-spraying a row of demonstrators, who were sitting with limbs interlocked to protest the removal of their tents. Now, thanks to Photoshop and the muse, Pike gets up to all sorts of monkeyshines. Visitors to one Tumblr account, for example, can catch him blasting Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, and the naked luncher in Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe. Williams proclaims it a “geeky triumph,” proof that “If you want to vanquish the enemy, render him absurd.”

But a little later on, Williams gets confused and turns her declaration of victory on its head: “We don’t laugh at the Pikes of the world because we are not incensed at their abuses of power or because we don’t take their actions seriously,” she writes. “We do it because we take them very seriously, indeed. But without billy clubs and guns and tear gas, sometimes, laughter is the only weapon we’ve got.”

The humor of the powerless goes by the name gallows humor. Any joke in that tradition hinges on the inevitability of disappointment and misery. It is not without its fortifying effects. Freud (whose quote, I admit, I’m lifting from Wikipedia), wrote: “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.” In other words, gallows humor shows the bad guys that they can kill you but not eat you. Or your cigar. Or whatever.

Johnny Cash’s novelty hit, “Twenty-Five Minutes to Go,” is an example of gallows humor set on an actual gallows. Indeed, a gallows is the perfect place for it. Knowing Johnny Cash, there’s probably a damn good reason the guy in the song is about to be married off to the ropemaker’s daughter. His fate represents no wrong, and demands no redress. If showing off his ego strength on the way will make him feel better, then he might as well go for it. Society can afford to indulge him that far; in fact, in those days when hangings at Tyburn drew mobs, a “good death” ensured everyone went home feeling a little better.

In Born to Kvetch, Michael Wex explains the art of the klole, or Yiddish malediction, which worked by turning a listener’s own morbid imagination against him. My pick from this genre is: “May you grow strong and healthy…and always have to ask what the weather’s like outside.” Since what’s confining the victim can’t be a physical problem, only three possibilities remain: 1) he’s been pinched by the Okhrana and banged up in the dread Fortress of Ss. Peter and Paul; 2) he’s gone barking mad; or 3) first one, then t’other. Orthodox Jews of the 19th century believed irritations like tsarist tyranny and schizophrenia were the Messiah’s to correct. In the meantime, why not laugh at them, especially if you could make the joke at someone else’s expense?

But this here is America, not Anatevka. We’re not fiddlers on the roof, nor were the kids at Davis train-robbing gunslingers. Historically, we Americans have believed that when police officers use excessive force against people who are annoying but harmless, then someone damn well ought to do something. Some folks already have. My admiration goes to whoever placed Lieutenant Pike and UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza on administrative leave, as well as the general assembly that voted to stage a university-wide strike. These are the kinds of gestures that make the abuse of power into a bad career move.

When Thomas Hoepker released a photo of five Brooklynites sitting by the waterfront and watching the Twin Towers smolder, New York Times columnist Frank Rich read into their attitude a self-destructive casualness. His reading turned out, very quickly, to have been a misreading. Some of the people who appeared in the photo identified themselves and declared for the record they’d been as stressed out as anyone else, whether or not they happened to look it. I won’t make that mistake about the “Pepper-Spray Cop” meme-smiths: they’re obviously acting from a sincere and well-founded outrage. Besides, the Photoshopped images are a hoot.

But I do wonder whether Americans are coming to share Williams’ sense that “laughter is the only weapon we’ve got.” In his travel essay, “Thirty-Six Hours in Managua,” P.J. O’Rourke writes mournfully that Nicaraguans under the Sandinista government were losing “that loud, rude, cynical Latin American laugh.” Instead, they were adopting the dry “humor of perfect resignation” he’d found beyond the Iron Curtain. O’Rourke cites as an example the guide who showed him a burned-out factory and explained that it now belonged to the workers.

These days, with the economy in tatters and the middle class an endangered species, something seems broken. OWS activism is a product of desperation, and just beyond desperation lies despair. Rather than laughing at the absurdity of a cop pepper-spraying, say, Seurat’s picnickers, are we actually armoring ourselves in expectation of a world where such an event might not be so absurd at all?

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  • Jennifer

    Yes it is possible that there is something a bit sinister going on here, perhaps, we are being teased into not taking it seriously enough as the American ether becomes increasingly totalitarian.

    But my gut response on this one was: GENIUS. Because look–it completely deflates the power of the cop and makes him ridiculous. This cop is ruined. He is Pepper Spray Cop Guy forever. And the actual tactic of pepper spraying? Forever rendered limp noodled lameness. I even imagine a cop taking out a can of pepper spray now and the crowd immediately laughing (though from what I hear the feel of it is no joke).

    My second thought was–my gosh–OWS should get off the street and take to photoshop. A humorous meme has more impact than an old fashioned sit-in–it sort of makes the actual protests look like Flintstones tactics.

    It also made me remember Kim Jon Il singing So Ronery in Team America. On the one hand–are we diminishing the actual danger from a tyrant like Kim, laughing at something like a kid laughing at their dad five seconds before they get knocked across the room? For me, though, the whole issue about Team America here is the absolute ELATION at the fact we are free to do something so outrageous with impunity. Tyrannical megalomania is reduced to an anatomically correct marionette that tells Hans Blix he’s “breakin’ his b—s.” In the face of totalitarianism, we have the strongest and most helium filled anti-totalitarian impulse. It sort of wins the day, a thought experiment that lasts microseconds, you pepper spray innocent people? Yeah buddy, you’re a freaking MEME. A thought process that may not even be fully conscious but triggers the laughter before you even know why.

    Who’s got the power now?

    [Ridiculousness is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe this is an urban myth, but I've heard that American troops forced Saddam Hussein to watch those segments from South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut where he and Satan are lovers. It occurred to me that Saddam could very well have said, "You see, you Americans? I am great man! Even in American cartoon I dominate Shaitan, sexually and emotionally, and make him cry! Ha! Haha! Hahahahaha!"

    Now, I doubt Pike takes any comparable satisfaction in seeing himself become a meme. But to the viewer, is Pike even Pike? Quite the contrary; the artists have turned him into a larger-than-life icon of brute force. (The sunglasses and helmet help.) To me, those images seemed to say: even in the rarefied world of art and culture, The Man can ruin your day. -- admin]

  • Jennifer

    To me: The Man is an Ass Hat and We Are Smarter and Better and Free to Say It.

    But I think this might be a Rorschach. ;)

  • Jennifer

    And if you want to know if this is Pike? Ask Mrs. Pike. Is she mortified? :)

  • jkm

    ” . . . even in the rarefied world of art and culture, The Man can ruin your day.” I think that even should be an especially. Judging from the tone of most anti-Occupy comments, there are many, many Americans who would take Pike’s place in a Davis minute, if it gave them an opportunity to demonstrate physically their burning contempt for the non-productive / socialist / elitist / weedsmoking / pointy-headed intellectual / effete / hippie / creATive class, those artists. The meme then becomes (as memes do) even more multisemiotic. Are these images expressing outrage at the intrusion of power into the innocence of art, or glee at the comeuppance? Or both? Yes.

    But now you have me channeling Derrida. And that way lies despair, for reals.

    [Tell me, quickly: What can I say to get you channeling Norman Vincent Peale? It is Thanksgiving, after all. -- admin]

  • Jennifer

    Dr. Norman Vincent Peale tells us how to feel

    Name that musical…

  • Rocco

    The UC Davis student protesters had refused a lawful order to remove their camping equipment and tents. The students sat down and linked their arms together engaging in what is known as “Active Resistance” as described in the UC Police, Use of Force Policy. (Scroll to definitions). So no, these were not peaceful protesters, they were actively resisting the lawful orders of the police officers who were instructed by the Chancellor to remove these students from the quad. What was the alternative, batons, tasers, pretty please? I think these officers used a lot of restraint dealing with these students who refused to comply with lawful orders.

    And check out the archives that show the hatred these students have shown toward the police dating back to November, 2009

  • Holly in Nebraska

    Someone said once, “I used to be disgusted. Now I’m just amused.” Resignation? But then I think I agree with Freud somewhat. There’s something about humor that gives us some power over suffering, I think.

    I have a vague memory of an NPR piece after the Bosnian war. The man being interviewed was talking about living in the harsh circumstances of wartime, including a severe lack of food. He said a joke that was going around involved a couple of men standing in line for food. The man in front farts. The man next to him only asks, “I wonder where he got the beans?”