Understanding the World and Enjoying a Good Laugh

Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left

Ben Burgis

Zer0 Books, 2021, $16.95 paperback

Life is nuanced, complex, contradictory, and hard to understand. A decent living wage, socialized healthcare for everyone, racial and gender equality, and workplace democracy matter—and so does having a good laugh. Moreover, getting people to care about and understand what democratic socialism is, and working for it, means keeping a sharp focus; it means “staying on message.”

In his new book, Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left, Ben Burgis wants the Left to stay on message. He’s not saying that personal choice of pronouns or avoiding “triggering” words don’t matter. He does not argue for being politically correct or for ignoring political correctness. He argues, quite cogently, for focusing on what matters most, for paying serious attention to priorities. And, as his previous book (Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left, 2019) demonstrated, he knows how to argue.

Much of what Burgis presses in Canceling… can be summed up in one memorable sentence: “[P]oring through a standup special or any other work of art for moral and political flaws is usually a silly exercise that only serves to re-enforce the worst image of the left in the minds of the undecided.” 

Burgis likes Dave Chappelle, and he uses Chappelle’s work to illustrate his theme. In one riff, Chappelle tells the audience that they’ll have to guess who it is:

“Duh…hey…der…if you do anything wrong in your life and I find out about it, I’m going to try to take everything away from you. And I don’t care when I find out. It could be today, tomorrow, 15, 20 years from now, if I find out, you’re fucking finished.”

After the crowd shouts out a few guesses, he tells them, “That’s right. That’s you! That’s what the audience sounds like to me.”

Writer Barbara Ehrenreich came under fire for a now-infamous tweet about decluttering expert Marie Kondo. Burgis defends Ehrenreich eloquently, pointing out that she has been “an anti-empire activist since the presidency of Richard Nixon, who “served for a long time as an Honorary Co-Chair of the DSA.” He explains that anyone familiar with her work would understand her intent. Most tellingly he demonstrates that piling on about Ehrenreich’s tweet, even if it had been narrowly accurate to do so, would have been misguided, foolish, and dangerous.

As this book makes clear, much too often, we on the Left sound like people determined to take everything away from what we really ought to care about, to make some ephemeral moral or political point. Or just to ruin a joke.

Because he has broad and deep knowledge of socialism, history, humor, and logic, Burgis manages to educate us about Joseph Stalin, Jeff Bezos, the French Revolution, Nathan Robinson, “tankies,” Natalie Wynn, Mark Fisher, and much more—all without his readers having to break a metaphorical sweat. His writing is that lucid, and he makes reading his words that much of a joy.

Ben Burgis is, in this book and in life, a happy warrior (not at all pro-war—but a cheerful, upbeat, ardent socialist activist)—what the late Christopher Hitchens considered, positively, a “knee-jerk” leftist—meaning a consistent or predictable leftist. Burgis is a scholar, a philosopher, a professor, and a writer—a frequent contributor to Jacobin and other socialist publications and podcasts. 

My wife and I had the pleasure recently of hearing Burgis give a talk based on his book to the Atlanta Freethought Society. We had been members and supporters of the Democratic Socialists of America but had let our membership lapse because we perceived a loss of focus by DSA. Hearing Burgis and reading Canceling has persuaded us that we should rejoin. And not merely because DSA is the only strong organizational alternative available (though it is); or because criticism that makes it better can only come from the inside (though that’s true, too), but because humor and human decency are necessary but not sufficient. Collective, effective, organized work is necessary. Ben Burgis is the coach we need, and reading Canceling Comedians While the World Burns is a great start for anyone who wants DSA and the movement not just to be admirable and virtuous but to change the world.