Published: Sept. 18, 2015

Original article can be found at The Denver Post  
Originally published on September 18, 2015 By Patty Limerick 

Is our nation approaching an ungovernable state, paralyzed by polarization and pettiness? 

Is there an out-of-the-box remedy we should try? How about a friendly amendment to the Declaration of Independence? 

Originalists and devotees of the Founders, don’t panic! We won’t change a syllable in those timeless words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

But the current conditions of our civic life call for an addition: We hold this truth to be self-evident: that this republic will be in jeopardy, and its ideals will lose force, if its citizens do not protect and maintain their senses of humor. 

While it is hard to imagine the pursuit of happiness getting very far without humor in the picture, the value of mobilizing the power of humor is even more consequential in the arena of political alliances and compromises. When it is in full operating order, humor erodes arrogance and self-righteousness. It mocks over-confidence and inflexibility. Even when bitter and crabby people try to use humor as a weapon in their causes, it slips out of their grasp and reveals, in equal measure, their narrowness and their goofiness. 

And, most important for the restoration and revitalization of democracy, humor — in the words of a an important contemporary thinker — is “a way of saying that life is paradoxical. Humor contains contradictions; it does not resolve them but revels in them.” 

The author of that beautiful summation of humor’s value is Bob Mankoff, a gifted cartoonist who is also the cartoon editor for The New Yorker. At 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 14 in Eaton Humanities 1B50 on the University of Boulder campus, Mankoff will give a speech, free and open to the public, called “The History of Humor and the Humor of History.” While I will not use that occasion to solicit signatures on a petition supporting my amendment to the Declaration of Independence, I know I will find comfort from listening, in the company of many allies, to a talk that confirms the wisdom of my proposal. 

As knowledgeable readers will have recognized, in seeking a place for humor in the roster of this nation’s guiding ideals, I am guided by blatant self-interest. In the middle of graduate school, my irrepressible sense of humor nearly ended my career. A committee of professors rejected my dissertation prospectus (essentially the visa that allows you to travel the full distance to the Ph.D.) as “too humorously written.” The professors held out a sliver of hope that I would recognize the seriousness of scholarly work, and resubmit a prospectus with the merriment scrupulously removed. 

While this reprimand did not seem very funny at the time, humor came to my rescue: after months in a muddle, I solved the problem by writing a parody well-stocked with academic jargon, thereby gaining the approval of that stern professorial committee. 

And then, within a few more years, my character trait of finding something funny in nearly every subject turned out to be the key to the kingdom of academic success. The rejection of my dissertation prospectus underwent a magical transformation in memory and became one of life’s peak moments of comedy. 

Can humor play a similar role in rescuing our civic life from its current state of gridlock and stalemate? The fact that some people will laugh at the very idea should only add to its power! 

“Humorists are serious,” writer and scholar Mark Van Doren once said. “They are the only people who are.”