Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

The Power and Peril of the Ridiculous

For better and worse, Americans have no sense of the ridiculous.

Years ago, a Spanish oncologist paid me to come to his office twice a week for English conversation classes. That was the cover story, anyway. Every Monday and Wednesday, I'd show up at his office in the biggest hospital in the city at 10 am sharp. He'd welcome me warmly, lock the door behind us, crack the window next to his desk, and light up a cigarette. Then we'd chat for an hour, normally in Spanish. 

It was pretty clear that he had no interest in learning English. At his age and professional position (mid-60s, chief of the department), English wouldn't have made any difference to his career, in any case. But "English classes" gave him a respectable reason to take an hour-long break twice a week and sneak a smoke on the oncology ward. 

Our conversations wandered all over the place, but we often spoke about American culture, which he found both fascinating and absurd. Dr. Moreno was a huge fan of Groucho Marx, so much so that he'd come to look and move like Groucho -- unintentionally, I'm sure. He loved rock and roll, jazz, and even had an appreciation for funk music. I remember him telling me how much he loved "Sly and the Stoned Family."

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But what brings Dr. Moreno to mind today is a story about Senator James Mountain Inhofe, who flew to Copenhagen just to hold a micro press conference to declare that climate change is a hoax. The one and only reporter in attendance apparently told Senator Inhofe, "You are ridiculous." Having spent a total of three hours in Europe, the ridiculous senator then flew back to Washington, D.C., CO2 emissions be damned.

In one of our conversations, Dr. Moreno told me that over many years of thinking about American culture, he'd concluded that America's greatest strength, and greatest weakness, was that "Americans lack the sense of the ridiculous."

He's right. If we were intimidated by the fear of looking absurd, we'd have no Jimmi Hendrix, no David Byrne, no James Brown, and certainly no Little Richard. Buckminster Fuller would have done his homework and shut the hell up. Janis Joplin and Mama Cass would have sung back-up vocals, Julia Child would have kept her horsy voice quiet, and nobody would think of calling their son James Mountain. Sailing straight into the winds of consensus belief is very American, the ultimate source of our vitality and genius.

But it's also the source of our insanity and horrible destructiveness. We celebrate the exceptions, those few rebels who made it, but we ignore those who were inspired to follow but faltered, left broken and forgotten along the way. We celebrate the diseases cured by American know-how, but try to forget our serial killers and the poisons we've spread around the planet. We're proud of the sacks of rice sent to starving Africans, but ignore the land mines and radioactive bullets we've left littered all over.

"Americans have no sense of the ridiculous," Dr. Moreno said. Then he smiled his Groucho smile and lit up another smoke. Who was I to argue?

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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