Several readers continue the discussion:
Humor and satire skewer people and social groups. Liberals naturally skewer and mock the powerful, and are comfortable doing so (and more power to them!). Conservatives, who at least in their current incarnation serve exclusively to protect and defend the ultra-privileged, have no natural interest in mocking or satirizing them. To attempt to do so would come off as flat and insincere. Their interest is in skewering the powerless and weak. While this can be devastatingly funny, is also cruel and harmful and corrosive to democratic values and is socially unacceptable if done openly.
I think we saw a bit of conservative humor at the Tampa convention, incidentally. Funny little private joke, that – throwing peanuts at an African American. But as we can see from the public reaction, socially unacceptable. I’m sure they’d have rather kept the joke private, just like the countless examples of Obama watermelon email jokes shared among some conservatives.
Your comments and the Oakeshott quote had impressed upon me a thought which I'm amazed never occurred to me: that atheism is a conservative position.
Certainly not historically, or in the social sense, but epistemologically. I suppose I am liberal in much the same way that you are conservative, and my atheism can be read as a break from my general record of tolerance and open-mindedness. The sense of truth that humanity holds is perhaps an odd thing to hold so dearly as slippery as it is, but it is the one thing which should not defer to the utilitarian or be held up by teleological defenses.
To borrow (perhaps too much) from Oakeshott: the limited, rather than unbounded grasp of our knowledge is imperfect, but exceedingly sufficient when considering how delusory the latter is. And present laughter is preferable to utopian bliss or the novelty of the crass imaginings of heaven. To give answer to questions so profound and unknown to us is the sin religion commits in the name of truth. So to plagiarize again from Oakeshott I will be equal to my own fortune, for existence itself marks me as the recipient of innumerable lotteries, and cultivate joys as I know they exist and not plan for, expect, or covet when I am (when we all are) lucky to know any.
Maybe the book Josh Green reviews mentions the idea, but when it comes to the topic of politics and humor, I find the late comedian Bill Hicks' words extremely applicable: "Fundamentalism breeds a lack of irony." Sure, it's blurring the line, but considering how tied-together the modern US "conservative with Christian fundamentalism, it's still relevant.
A fundamentalist takes in information literally – the Bible is literal truth. The mindset is very Manichean – there is no nuance, no grey areas. Since so much grown-up humor is reliant on the use of satire, irony, analogy and the like, it's not hard to see why the hard-right has a hard time taking a joke and an even harder time coming up with good jokes. The right-wing rags that sometimes show up on my doorstep STILL have cartoons that poke fun at how fat/drunk Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton were. They can't get beyond an elementary-school understanding of humor because they're too hard-wired to look at something as fundamentally true or false that there is an utter failure to comprehend irony.
I've thought a lot about the obvious asymmetry in humor between the Right and Left in America, and I think a big part of the explanation is the ever increasing epistemic closure among American conservatives. The problem is that most American conservatives these days operate on a set of shared assumptions and beliefs, created and re-enforced by right-wing media outlets, that are increasingly foreign to anyone outside of that epistemically closed world. And humor, especially political humor, works by playing upon shared belief and assumptions. So the kind of humor that might play well to an audience of devoted readers of the National Review is going to be utterly lost on a normal audience.
To take an obvious example, it seems to be an unquestioned fact among conservative circles that Barack Obama is some kind of dim-witted moron who can read a teleprompter but is otherwise unintelligent and unaccomplished. But outside of the right-wing echo chamber, no one believes that. The rest of the world sees an obviously intelligent and articulate guy who was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review and a constitutional law professor. If anything, the typical person sees Obama as a bit professorial. So any joke premised on the assumption that Obama is a moron is going to be DOA to a normal audience.