In 1937, Boris Orman was working at a bakery in Russia when he shared a joke over tea with his colleague.
“Stalin was out swimming, but he began to drown. A peasant who was passing by jumped in and pulled him safely to shore,” the joke went, according to British writer Jonathan Waterlow. “Stalin asked the peasant what he would like as a reward. Realising whom he had saved, the peasant cried out: ‘Nothing! Just please don’t tell anyone I saved you!’”
The joke is hardly the funniest ever told, but Orman was nevertheless one of countless Russians in the Soviet Union who received a 10-year stint in a labor camp for uttering the jibe. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, got off a bit easier. He received a mere eight-year sentence in the Gulag after Soviet authorities intercepted a letter he wrote to a friend in 1945 that made a crack about Stalin and criticized the Soviet system.
One might be tempted to think the Soviets just had really bad senses of humor, but there’s a reason totalitarians and authoritarians seek to suppress jokes.
History shows humor is a tool that empowers. It can fortify humans during dark and deadly times, and it can destroy an idea just as effectively as reason, though it’s arguably most powerful when it’s combined with reason.
The most famous such example might be Jonathan Swift’s classic essay A Modest Proposal, a masterpiece of satire that exposed the impoverished conditions of the time by saying poor Irish families could alleviate their condition by selling their excess children to rich people for food.
Combining humor with pointed social commentary is a strategy employed by countless comedians—old and new—including Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, and Bill Burr.
Which brings me to Mike Judge.
Beavis and Butt-Head on White Privilege
Judge, a writer, animator, and director, is probably best known for Beavis and Butt-Head, an animated show that ran on MTV in the 1990s and was turned into a feature film, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, released in 1996.
Since then, Beavis and Butt-Head have mostly been retired, as Judge turned to numerous other projects, including Office Space (1999), Idiocracy (2006), and the HBO hit show Silicon Valley (2014-2019). But Beavis and Butt-head—a pair of metal head morons who snicker at childish things and make crass observations about “babes” and “scoring”—are back.
Earlier this month, a trailer of a new Beavis and Butt-head movie dropped, announcing a June 23 release date (available exclusively on Paramount+) and a plot as bad as one would expect.
Entertainment writer Christian Toto provides a synopsis:
Our “heroes” stumble their way to space camp after destroying their school’s science fair exhibit. The lads’ penchant for sexual metaphors lands them a gig on a real space shuttle, and that’s where the time-traveling plot kicks in.
The boys sabotage the mission and enter a black hole. The snafu catapults them from the ’90s to 2022, but their space commandeer (Andrea Savage) is hot on their trail. She’s now a governor with political ambition to burn, and the boys’ survival threatens her ascent.
This sounds silly—especially when the trailer shows Beavis and Butt-head rehashing the same crude jokes and acts they were 30 years earlier (“I am Cornholio; I need TP for my bunghole”)—but that is precisely what is making it attractive to audiences.
“This is one of the stupidest concepts for a Beavis and Butthead movie I can imagine,” one YouTube commenter said, “it's perfect.”
Not all the jokes are rehashed, however. A subsequent clip dropped, and it explores a theme that Beavis and Butt-head audiences in the 1990s never heard of: white privilege.
The clip shows Beavis and Butt-head in college, where they appear to walk into class late and are reprimanded by their professor.
“This is a classic case of white privilege,” the instructor explains. “And you both have it.”
The duo have no idea what white privilege is, but several members of their class are kind enough to explain it to them.
“So, white privilege is when people, particularly men, automatically assume they can take whatever they want,” one young woman explains.
“And they never have to worry about getting stopped by the police,” another chimes in.
“And they have the inside track for any jobs …”
You get the idea. The funniest part of the clip is that, unlike most people, Beavis and Butt-head are not offended or ashamed when they hear this. They are excited.
“Whoa,” Butt-head says. “And we have that?”
“You sure do,” the professor answers.
Naturally, Beavis and Butt-head decide to use this newly-discovered power, but things don’t go as planned.
Beavis and Butthead discover white privilege:— Zach Vorhies (@Perpetualmaniac) June 27, 2022
Why Beavis and Butt-head Are a Threat
For those less familiar with white privilege, it’s just one aspect of a larger intellectual movement known as Critical Race Theory (CRT). Writers at FEE and other prominent thinkers have explained at length why CRT is a dangerous and damaging philosophy, one that undermines individuality, fosters a victimhood mindset, and divides along racial lines instead of uniting us in our common humanity.
Making the philosophical case against CRT is important, but I don’t think I’ve seen a single scholarly article or lecture expose white privilege and its talking points as effectively as Mike Judge did in that two-minute Beavis and Butt-head clip.
Which brings me back to the power of humor.
Satire and humor still have the power to destroy ideas, perhaps more than ever. This is precisely why comedians like Dave Chappelle and sites like The Babylon Bee have become targets of the woke movement, which continues in its effort to suppress speech that violates its dogmas on race, gender, and class.
Fortunately, today’s commentators in America don’t face prison sentences like Boris Orman and Alexander Solzhenitsyn did when they make jokes criticizing the ascendant orthodoxy, but they still face risks.
Efforts to have Chappelle fired over his comedy show “The Closer,” which included the trans community among its many targets, failed. The Babylon Bee has been suspended by Twitter for referring to Health and Human Services Secretary Rachel Levine, a biological man who identifies as a woman, as a man, but the Bee is still publishing.
The actions against Chappelle, the Bee, and other creators have a clear chilling effect on expression, which is the entire point of cancel culture. Today’s elites, like those of the twentieth century, clearly recognize that humor has the power to undermine their ideas and power, which is why they work so hard to suppress it when it strays from the narrative.
Increasingly, however, creators refuse to be silenced. Beavis and Butt-head taking on white privilege is just the latest example.
With his two-minute takedown of CRT, Mike Judge didn’t just expose the absurdity of white privilege talking points; he won a victory for free expression and struck a blow to cancel culture.
This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.