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. (more…)
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.