The political importance of having fun: why protests should be enjoyable

Fun is vulgar, immediate, democratic – and it defies the earnest powers that set out quite deliberately to make people miserable

I was at the women’s march in London on 21 January. On the walk from Grosvenor to Trafalgar Square, people brandished their home-printed placards: WE SHALL OVERCOMB; FREE MELANIA. A friend had made one jointly with her toddler that declared in glitter: PEPPA PIG FOR PRESIDENT!

I’ve been on plenty of marches but never one in which such diverse political groups came together, split and mingled, preserving their individuality without contention – I thought of Audre Lorde’s injunction that we should “recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences” – and none in which the sentiment was so much fun. It was only people who weren’t there who suggested that political action was incompatible with having fun; as if we weren’t miserable enough – and that had to be proved through performance. For the first time in weeks, I was cheered by the atmosphere of encouragement, kindness, determination.

Fun is a double-edged sword. While I marched, I thought of the women who couldn’t be there: the ones in insecure jobs; in low-pay service roles providing fun for others on weekends in shops, bars and restaurants; the women doing unpaid care work, making life fun for children, for the elderly, meaning they don’t have the freedom or the cash to get to a march. Although to lambast the imperfect representation at political protests is so often to deny the circumstances that make them necessary: yes, we were privileged to be there. But privilege alone is no guarantee of enjoyment. Later that day, the US-based British writer Hari Kunzru tweeted a photo that showed the Trumps gazing glumly into some official banquet: “End the patriarchy,” he wrote, “because – well just look at it, it isn’t even any fun.”

End the patriarchy because - well just look at it, it isn't even any fun #WomensMarch

— Hari Kunzru (@harikunzru) January 21, 2017

Fun, as Angela Carter noted in her 1977 essay Fun Fairs, is cheap. It has nothing to do with privilege. It is vulgar, immediate, democratic, DIY. Fun is punk. It costs as much as – what? A piece of cardboard on a stick? A tube of glitter? A few felt pens? Happiness is social, calm, established. It relies on society getting it right, providing us with stability, freedom. When society begins to limit or remove these provisions, in the meantime, in-between-time, ain’t we got fun?

The poverty-stricken tune of that name is a sharp little Brecht’n’ Weillish austerity melody, based on a repeat musical phrase that could be churned out of any street hurdy-gurdy. But it is redeemed by the lyrics: interchangeable, updateable to fit the zeitgeist. First popular in the 1920s, the song had a resurgence as a swing hit at another period of radical instability in which a brave sense of irony was required, the 1940s – until baby-boomer versions foregrounded the lyric intro that contextualises the singers’ poverty as cheerful new parents, the song’s political teeth finally pulled.

In the interwar years of the 20th century – a period our times now increasingly resemble – in The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote about the song’s popularity: “There was a turbulent feeling in the air. To that time belongs the song with the memorable refrain:

There’s nothing sure but
The rich get richer and the poor get children;
In the mean time,
In between time,
Ain’t we got fun?

Ain’t We Got Fun?

“People had not yet settled down to a lifetime of unemployment mitigated by endless cups of tea,” Orwell wrote.“They still vaguely expected the utopia for which they had fought.”

Yes, fun is a stopgap, a make-do. It is not echt. “A bit of fun,” is particularly British phrase that relates to the French concept jouissance as Dairylea does to Camembert. Fun is for the poor, and as such, it is ripe for our use in fighting a government that, by identifying Britishness with keep-calm-and-carry-on austerity, is making us morally, culturally, and materially poorer. By jettisoning the conditions necessary for happiness via decently funded healthcare, education, and culture, what they have left us with is fun, and we had better have fun while we can.

Make no mistake, in the US and the UK, fun is being deliberately targeted. Benjamin Wittes, of the US Lawfare blog, wrote that Trump’s recent foray into “the symbolic politics of bashing Islam … is not a document that will cause hardship and misery because of regrettable incidental impacts on people injured in the pursuit of a public good. It will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do.”

Plato writes in The Republic that the guardians of the state should avoid laughter, “for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction”. Philosophers and psychologists have attributed fun to to a combination of aggression and play. There is no doubt we need to channel both right now, and should not deny the link between then. It is impossible to be angry and happy; it is possible to be angry and have fun.

But fun is not only a consequence of resistance; fun is a mode that draws us to resist.

Plato did not dismiss humour from his Republic, but decided that fun was incompatible with his idea of full citizenship: “that such representations be left to slaves or hired aliens,” – like the nannies and strippers, the waitresses and carers, the women least able to march last month. Fun is an unsteady citizen, a perpetual migrant, a border-crosser, a barrier-breaker hardly ever welcomed by the establishment that must nevertheless acknowledge its necessity. To have fun – which, Plato implies, involves cultural transgression, transmission – is to acknowledge that we are not bounded by national or class identity. To pay particular attention to fun is to begin to consider the way fun is produced, to think how it might be made differently. Having a laugh can smash down walls. Sometimes resistance can be fun.


Joanna Walsh

The GuardianTramp

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