I just discovered that German Fathers’ Day (today) is identical with the national religious holiday Christi Himmelfahrt, or Feast of the Ascension. Thus is the recognition of fathers identified with the single most famous example in Western culture of a man abandoning his family to finish his work. And he was going to join up with his own “true” father, who (as he had just remarked) had already abandoned him.
For repetition is a mighty power in the domain of humor. If frequently used, nearly any precisely worded and unchanging formula will eventually compel laughter if it be gravely and earnestly repeated, at intervals, five or six times.
— Mark Twain, Autobiography
The Guardian has yet another report on the radical anti-family policies of the UK Home Office. This time it is an elderly Iranian couple with three generations of descendants in Britain, who have lived in the UK since the 1970s, who are now to be deported. This despite the fact that they are ill and wholly dependent on their children for care, and despite the fact that they currently care for an autistic grandchild. The Home Office takes the official view that the grandchild would not be affected, because
It is noted that you own the house you reside in Edinburgh, therefore you could choose to allow your daughter and grandson to live there on your return to Iran, which then would not impact on your grandson as you claim he visits you there every day.
This is close to the cruelest stereotype of the British character: cold and haughty, a nation of bookkeepers and arrogant property owners, sensitive to animal suffering but indifferent to humans. The only “equity” they care about is home equity. The Guardian has become the only effective court of appeal against this inhuman immigration policies, meaning that basic human rights end up depending on the vagaries of journalists’ attention.
The series of individual tragedies reported in The Guardian seems endless. It struck me that every one of these reports ends with the same coda:
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits, on the basis of the evidence available and in line with UK immigration rules.”
I know this conforms to ordinary journalistic standards — you have to let the government state its perspective, the government has a policy of not commenting on individual cases, blah blah blah — but, following the principle articulated by Mark Twain, this repetition — The Guardian transcribing this boilerplate again and again and again, begins to produce a darkly comic effect, satirising without comment the robotic, dehumanised and dehumanising character of the Home Office bureaucracy.
(I never cease to be fascinated by the role of bureaucracy in whitewashing tyranny. The UK Parliament could abrogate its recognition of asylum rights, eliminate family rights in immigration cases, and so on. But that would openly acknowledge what monsters they have become — and invite open resistance, at home and abroad, and might even be uncomfortable for the perpetrators themselves. We’re not splitting up families, we’re facilitating the use of modern digital technology to keep them together. It’s the same motivation that led the Nazi SS to apply the term Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) in official documents to the murder of disabled children, and the mass gassing of Jews.)
I suppose this could invite a variation on Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Kerenina: Comedy is repetitive. Tragedies are unique.
Like all tyrannies, though, the UK Home Office is endeavouring to mass-produce tragedies. And the evil wrought by Theresa May works on, even after she has moved on to greater things.
I’ve tended to think of republicans as a fairly humorless bunch. But with information coming out more about the pattern of top Republicans making “jokes” (Trump on stopping the Flynn investigation, House Majority Leader McCarthy on Trump being paid by the Russians) under conditions of absolute secrecy, I have to consider the possibility that there’s a whole underground world of Republican humour.
And they’re obviously sincere, since they also mistook President Obama’s secret private warning about Flynn for a joke.
One of the bizarre features of US politics is that, among the many roles that presidents are required to take on — commander in chief of the armed forces, head of the federal bureaucracy, regal head of state — they are also expected to act as stand-up comedians on certain ritual occasions. So naturally candidates are expected to do so as well, to prove they have what it takes. The occasion is the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner, an event in honour of the first Catholic major party presidential candidate (in 1928), former NY governor Alfred Smith.
Donald Trump has suffered from the inability of large parts of the public to appreciate — or indeed, to recognise — his idiosyncratic humour, whether he’s been joshing about Barack Obama being the founder of ISIS or not accepting an election loss or encouraging Russian hackers to break into his opponent’s email accounts. So it is hardly surprising that his appearance at the dinner was not well received:
Donald Trump was loudly booed at the annual Al Smith charity dinner in New York on Thursday—an evening typically reserved for good-natured humor and a rare opportunity for presidential candidates to demonstrate a capacity for self-deprecation—when he attacked Hillary Clinton with the aggressive language frequently used at his campaign rallies.
What interests me about this is what it says about the nature of humour in general, and political humour in particular. Barbed jokes are naturally easier to enjoy when the target is someone you dislike, though that is somewhat balanced, at least for mature and responsible people, by a discomfort at “punching down”: It is uncomfortable to see the weak being trampled on, even if they are contemptible for other reasons.
I do have the impression that there is an asymmetry between left and right in this respect, at least in the US. No one likes seeing their sacred cows being gored, but it seems to me that US liberals really enjoy seeing their champions taken down a peg, and are able to find deeper humour in their opponents through greater willingness to imagine their worldview. I think this is why successful political satire in the US has come to be almost exclusively a province of the left. Continue reading “Joking around”
An example that is frequently cited in elementary statistics courses for the unreliability of survey data, is that when people are surveyed about their sexual history, men report more lifetime female partners on average than women report male partners. (A high-quality example is this UK survey from 1992, where men reported 9.9 female partners on average, while women averaged 3.4 male partners. It’s possible to tinker around the edges with effects of changes over time, and age differences between men and women in sexual relationships, but the contradiction is really inescapable. One thing that is quite striking in this survey is the difference between the cross-sectional and longitudinal pictures, which I’ve discussed before. For example, men’s lifetime numbers of sexual partners increase with age — as they must, longitudinally — but among the women the smallest average number of lifetime sex partners is in the oldest group.)
In any case, I was reminded of this when reading Stephen Greenblatt’s popular book on the rediscovery of De rerum naturae in the early 15th century by the apostolic secretary Poggio Bracciolini, and the return of Epicurean philosophy more generally into European thought. He cites a story from Poggio’s Liber Facetiarum a sort of jokebook based on his experiences in the papal court, about
dumb priests, who baffled by the fact that nearly all the women in confession say that they have been faithful in matrimony, and nearly all the men confess to extramarital affairs, cannot for the life of them figure out who the women are with whom the men have sinned.