Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘comedy’


The news from Westminster and Holyrood inspires me to adapt a cartoon that I recall from a German newspaper from the days shortly after the opening of the Berlin wall:

Theresa May: We are one nation!

Nicola Sturgeon: We are too!

Maybe this doesn’t completely work in translation. In the original, of course, it was the East German demonstrators who really did shout “Wir sind ein Volk!”, and then the West Germans reply, “Wir auch!” That plays on the ambiguity in the German: “ein Volk” can mean “one people” or “one nation” or “a nation”.

Donald Trump gets into refugees

The Washington Post reports on Donald Trump’s objections to an agreement to take in 1250 mostly Middle Eastern refugees currently in Australian detention sites:

Trump was also skeptical because he did not see a specific advantage the United States would gain by honoring the deal, officials said.

He can’t conceive of a deal whose purpose is to benefit someone else. This reminds me of Monty Python’s Merchant Banker sketch. A humble fellow raising money for charity wanders into the office of a very wealthy and self-centred banker:

Mr Ford: Oh. I wondered whether you’d like to contribute to the orphan’s home. (he rattles the tin)

Banker: Well I don’t want to show my hand too early, but actually here at Slater Nazi we are quite keen to get into orphans, you know, developing market and all that…

Mr Ford: So er, how about a pound?

Banker: A pound. Yes, I see. Now this loan would be secured by the…

Mr Ford: It’s not a loan, sir.

Banker: What?

Mr Ford: It’s not a loan.

Banker: Ah… Look, I think I’d better run this over to our legal department. If you could possibly pop back on Friday…

Mr Ford: Well do you have to do that, couldn’t you just give me the pound?

Banker: Yes, but you see I don’t know what it’s for.

Mr Ford: It’s for the orphans.


Banker: Well, I’m awfully sorry I don’t understand. Can you just explain exactly what you want.

Mr Ford: Well, I want you to give me a pound, and then I go away and give it to the orphans.

Banker: Yes?

Mr Ford: Well, that’s it.

Banker: No, no, no, I don’t follow this at all, I mean, I don’t want to seem stupid but it looks to me as though I’m a pound down on the whole deal.

How to do it, according to Donald Trump

Last year I wrote a post about the kind of table-thumping simple-minded blather that you sometimes hear about public policy (what the Germans call Stammtischgerede), that reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about a children’s show “How to do it“, which explains to the audience in one two-minute episode

How to be a gynecologist… how to construct a box-girder bridge, … how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, and… how to rid the world of all known diseases.

When expressed by the male working classes the simple HTDI solutions that no one is willing to put into practice typically involves violence, stringing the appropriate people up, or use of nuclear weapons. It’s all vague blather, but needs just enough spurious detail to give it the verbal form of presenting a solution. I wrote in this post about the version of HTDI that tends to belch forth from mostly right-wing veterans of the business-lawyer-finance trenches, who like to think that their experience holding meetings and berating subordinates has been far more meaningful than actually doing anything

is the completely generic “I’d get the both sides into the room and tell them, c’mon guys, let’s roll up our sleeves and just get it done. We’re not leaving here until we’ve come up with a solution.”

I didn’t have a particular example to cite at the time, but of course Donald Trump has followed the script exactly. Speaking yesterday at a “National Security Forum”, Trump was pressed on his claim to have a secret plan for defeating ISIS. Despite having previously stated that he knows “more about ISIS than the generals do”, in a speech on Tuesday he said

We are going to convey my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS.

It’s no wonder some Republicans think President Obama is intentionally betraying the country. If he couldn’t even be bothered to instruct his top generals to come up with a plan. And the 30-day deadline is pure genius…

“I wish that I was a film comedian”

I’ve just been reading David C. Cassidy’s updated version of his Heisenberg biography, titled Beyond Uncertainty. He reports that in May 1925 Wolfgang Pauli, who was struggling together with Heisenberg to apply the new quantum theory to calculate the spectral lines of hydrogen, wrote in a letter

Physics is at the moment once again very wrong. For me, in any case, it is much too difficult, and I wish that I was a film comedian or something similar and had never heard of physics.

Here is a challenge for a young postmodernist film-maker: Produce the silent-film comedies that Wolfgang Pauli would have made, had he never heard of physics (or abandoned physics? Presumably they would have been different…)

Alternatively, a science fiction author could write about a universe governed by Charlie Chaplin’s quantum mechanics.

Just joking

Following up some references related to Thomas Malthus recently, I discovered that Carlyle’s notorious appellation “dismal science” for economics (or “political economy”) was not a reference to the pessimistic world view of Malthus and his descendants. This sobriquet first appeared in an essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”, in which he criticised the emancipation of Black slaves in the West Indies, leaving the unfortunate Blacks to wallow in disgraceful idleness. Carlyle attacked political economy for undermining natural hierarchies, for

declaring that Negro and White are unrelated, loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject to no law but that of supply and demand according to the Dismal Science.

Here “dismal” is presumably not being used in the modern sense of “gloomy”, but in the older sense of “threatening” or “inauspicious”, as in Henry VI pt. 3:

Bring forth that fatal screech-owl to our house,
That nothing sung but death to us and ours:
Now death shall stop his dismal threatening sound,
And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak.

Carlyle lumps the Dismal Science together with other unfortunate modern political innovations, such as “ballot boxes”, “universal suffrages” and “Exeter-Hall Philanthropy”.

Here I’d like to call attention to Carlyle’s framing device. The essay is attributed to a fictitious author with the absurd name Dr. Phelin M’Quirk. It begins

THE following occasional discourse, delivered by we know not whom, and of date seemingly above a year back, may, perhaps, be welcome to here and there a speculative reader. It comes to us — no speaker named, no time or place assigned, no commentary of any sort given in the hand-writing of the so-called “Doctor,” properly “Absconded Reporter,” Dr. Phelin M’Quirk, whose singular powers of reporting, and also whose debts, extravagances, and sorrowful insidious finance-operations, now winded up by a sudden disappearance, to the grief of many poor trades-people, are making too much noise in the police offices at present! Of M’Quirk’s composition, we by no means suppose it to be; but from M’Quirk, as the last traceable source, it comes to us; offered, in fact, by his respectable, unfortunate landlady, desirous to make up part of her losses in this way.

Together with some self-mocking references to some offended members of the fictional audience leaving in a huff, this sets up the cover story, particularly beloved of British racists and misogynists, that “I’m just joking”. You insult people with a wink, simultaneously spreading poisonous sentiments and confirming your superior power by forcing them to smile while you insult them — if they don’t, they are dismissed as “humourless”. Most recently there was Tim Hunt, whose defenders say that his disgraceful remarks on women in science were some kind of protected speech because he followed them with “Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it.” “Now seriously” is the proof that he was just joking, so critics are joyless harridans.

Counting to zero

I was amused by the comments made by right-wing American TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, who referred to his time in the Falklands “war zone” because he reported on an unruly protest in Buenos Aires after the war ended. He supported his position by quoting a NY Times report that referred to a police officer firing five shots, without mentioning that the shots were fired “over the heads of fleeing protestors”.

Rich Meislin, the Times reporter who wrote the article, said on Facebook that as far as he knew no demonstrators were shot or killed by police that night. On Monday, Mr. O’Reilly said he was just reading clips from the piece during the Media Buzz interview and that official reports on casualties there were difficult to obtain.

One could imagine that in a dispute over the exact number of protesters shot or killed you might say that the official reports were “difficult to obtain”. It seems like an odd defence when people are claiming that the exact number was zero, since, of course, in that case there would be no reports on casualties to obtain. “I do remember that there was tension between the authorities and the crowd,” [CBS correspondent Charles Gomez] said, but added that he “did not see any bloodshed.”

Humans have a separate system for unconsciously apprehending the numbers of items under about four, called subitizing, that is distinct from the conscious process of counting. The idea of “counting” one or two items seems ridiculous, and counting zero items exaggerates the comic effect. I was reminded of a scene in the second volume Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, The Restaurant at the end of the Universe. Ford Prefect and his friends have accidentally stowed away on a space ship programmed to crash into the local sun (as part of the light show for a rock concert). Zaphod Beeblebrox yells “Ford, how many escape capsules are there?”

“None,” said Ford.

Zaphod gibbered.

“Did you count them?” he yelled.

“Twice,” said Ford.

 Update: In another interview O’Reilly continued to conflate the Falklands War with the unruly demonstration in Buenos Aires:

“A lot of people died,” said O’Reilly, nodding his head. “You bet.”

“On both sides, both the British and the Argentines,” Browne said, appearing to reference the broader war rather than the protests.

“Nine hundred deaths on the Island,” O’Reilly said. “And we don’t know how many in Buenos Aires.”

We don’t know how many. The number is generally reckoned to be around… zero.

Spitting on the corpse

The great political cartoonist Joe Sacco has written a thoughtful — and thought-provoking — cartoon-essay about “the limits of satire” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I can’t disagree with a lot of what he says, but I find his choice to say some of them now weirdly offensive, in exactly the way that much of Charlie Hebdo was offensive, and so undermining the point that he seems to be making.

Sacco writes, over a background of a hillside covered with crosses made of fountain pens — the cartoonist’s Calvary?

Though tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now believed to be dangerous, it has never struck me as anything other than a vapid way to use the pen.

Implied is that everyone must agree that CH has been tweaking the noses of Muslims. That is, making pointless and puerile attacks that publicly shame people who are socially weak. One could claim that, but I think many people would disagree. I do, and I believe that most of the Charlie Hebdo staff would. Which suggests that this might not be the best time to criticise them, when some have just been murdered, and the rest are in shock, and unable to defend themselves.

Why do so many people, most of whom I’m sure never commented on Charlie Hebdo before, feel incapable of publicly saying, “It’s a terrible crime, and a threat to everyone’s sense of security and freedom of expression,” without needing to pair it immediately with a disclaimer “I never liked them, and I object to their approach to journalism and cartooning and politics and life in general.” Can’t it wait, at least until the survivors are back on their feet? No one goes to a funeral and feels obliged to say to the widow, “Yes, heart attacks are terrible, but he really was a shitty colleague, I found him dull, and he always smelled kind of bad.”

Sacco then proceeds to some intentionally offensive drawings of his own: One of a black man with a banana falling out of a tree, the other of a “Jew counting his money in the entrails of the working class.” He then asks, “And if you can take the ‘joke’ now, would it have been as funny in 1933?” Imagine that at Sacco’s death (after, one hopes, a long and happy life) people pull out these images and reprint them with comments like “Talented cartoonist. Shame he was such a racist and antisemite.” This would be terribly unfair, because it ignores the context in which it was written. But Sacco seems to be arguing that the only context that matters is the political context, in which Muslims are an oppressed minority in Europe, and relatively powerless in world affairs. It’s a complex problem, and I can’t fault Sacco for having his say on it, but it arouses in me a sense of unfairness when people

My personal reaction? The sort of comedy that CH engages in, like the underground comics tradition in the US that started in the 1960s — and still being pursued by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and others — has never been exactly to my taste, but I have never felt any urge to dissociate myself from it. The job of caricature is to reduce humans to their common bodily level, and show how ridiculous we all are, the highest and the lowest. It can serve the purposes of racist marginalisation, and it can serve important democratic principles. If Mohammed is caricatured, is he a representative of the oppressed Muslims in the Paris banlieu, or is he another big boss, needing to be taken down a peg? It’s a subtle argument, but I admire those willing to risk crossing the line, in order to explore where the line is, or if there should be any line at all.

An observation: Twice in the past few days Andrew Sullivan has reprinted reader comments or tweets that showed an outrageous CH cover, with a comment of the sort, “Yes, no one should have murdered them. But can’t we agree that they’re obviously a pack of racists? Just look at this outrageous example.” And each one of these posts got updated with a comment from a reader who actually knew the political context, and could point out that the cartoon was not racist in intent, but was illustrating an argument over the position of racial minorities in France. For example, a caricature of Justice minister Christiane Taubira (a black woman) as an ape was a response to racist comments by the right wing, including throwing bananas at her.

Is it a positive thing to concretise the racism of others in an unforgettable image? I think so, but it’s debatable. It’s a debate worth having, which is why I admire the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and their ilk.

David Cameron’s other operation

Headline in the Guardian:

David Cameron: I will not resign if Scotland votes for independence

It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about hapless gangsters, the Piranha brothers:

they began to operate what they called ‘The Operation’. They would select a victim and then threaten to beat him up if he paid the so-called protection money. Four months later they started another operation which the called ‘The Other Operation’. In this racket they selected another victim and threatened not to beat him up if he didn’t pay them. One month later they hit upon ‘The Other Other Operation’. In this the victim was threatened that if he didn’t pay them, they would beat him up. This for the Piranha brothers was the turning point.

If Cameron really wants to preserve the union, he needs to switch to the other other operation, promising that he will resign if Scotland votes to stay in the UK.

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