THE BLOG OF LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING
points us towards this piece
which muses on the connection between humour and terrorism. The article is worth a read, as are De Spectaculis's comments
But's it's ultimately a hodge-podge of a piece. What it tries do is suggest that because of some non-western attribute, Islamic terrorists lack a sense of humour (unlike, say, the IRA, who were really funny guys). It suggests that there is something unique about western humour, and then it tries to link a lack of a sense of humour amongst militant Islamacists with a willingness of the left to excuse such lack. Or something:
DOES THE EUROPEAN Left have a humor problem? The current issue of Merkur, a highbrow German journal devoted to ''European thought,'' explores this ticklish subject. Roughly half of the contributors address the topic of humor and 9/11, and along with the inevitable analyses of American humor after the terrorist attacks, there are a number of well-written polemics excoriating what the authors view as a fundamental hostility within the Islamic world toward Western ideas of fun - and the European Left's tendency to sidestep or blame the West for this hostility.
So there are two aspects here, the interesting idea that terror arises from humourlessness and that the left can't give, get or take a joke.
On the former point I think we can reasonably conclude that abuse of power speaks to a certain lack of joviality, though I wonder if you can quite cast it in this "clash of civilisations" type framework. Fart cushions and poo-jokes are equally out of place in the halls of absolute power of west as much as the east. The idea that humour belongs to the good guys is a staple of political literature and not devoid of truth as readers of, say, Milan Kundera
or Vladimir Nabokov
would be well aware. There is something fundamentally humourless about the exercise of power and the more draconianly you want to exercise it, the less likely you are to be the life of the party. Power, as Ellis said, devolves to the most boring person in the room, and boring and humourless go together nicely.
But this is too big a topic for a blog post, so let me just deal with the second accusation, yawn, about humour and the left.
That the left lack a sense of humour (or in this case, sneakily, the European left), is a polemical ploy that has the distinct advantage of being forceful without the need to be substantive. It's part of a general method of attack upon the left that works like this - find a trait you think is admirable and then declare, preferably with no evidence, that your political/philosophical opponents don't have it.
Thus the left is variously of accused of being unpatriotic, humourless, against family values, anti-children, anti-American, anti-western, anti-progress, unAmerican, unAustralian (substitute country at will) unwashed, unkempt, unemployed, unintelligent, just plain butt un
ly. The beauty of the technique is that the more the target objects to it, the more likely they are to look guilty, and this is especially true of the charge of being humourless.
So saying that someone or some group has no sense of humour works well because to try and respond to the criticism is to just about to prove the point - there is nothing less funny than someone trying to prove that they have a sense of humour (as readers of Ken Parish's blog
will appreciate). As logical as humour must be (that is, however absurd it gets it needs to be internally consistent to work) there is simply no logical proof you can present to show you have a sense of humour, let alone the right sort of sense of humour. It doesn't matter how unfair the accusation is, the more you protest, the more humourless you are going to look (I was joking, Ken).
The accusation of not being funny is one that cuts deeply. This is probably because we recognise that humour is such a fundamental aspect of human existence that to be accused of lacking it is to be accused of being less than human. In other words, to be accused of being unfunny is a serious accusation. So important is having a sense of humour that countries build up a self-image around the idea that their
style of humour is somehow better than everybody else's.
Thus the Brits will tell you, straightfaced, that their comedy is the most subtle and sophisticated available on the world market, that Americans "just don't get" irony and that the entire German nation has had a humour by-pass. In a land with an unwritten constitution, that is, one where ultimate knowledge still resides in an oral tradition, these three oft-uttered statements have the status of immutable truth.
The fact that you can dispel each of them in turn by simply saying Carry-on movies, The Simpsons
and, well, there must be something I can use as representative of the depth of German humour (I'm sure it will come to me) is a reasonable indication of the flimsiness of the claim.
Of course, a lot of humour is
culturally specific: Australians wet themselves when the guys started pushing Victa lawn mowers around during the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics, but I suspect no-one else did, or not for the same reasons. But that's quite different from saying that such-and-such a nation has no sense of humour. Ultimately, we accuse others of being humourless at the perpetual risk of the limits of our own tolerance to humour being breached. And there are always limits. And they are always breached.
Even the author of the article in question, although he tries to cover his arse by pretending that he is willing to laugh at some of the tactics of the Bush Administration (as if to say, see I can
laugh at my side) shows himself, nonetheless, to be sensitive to accusations that fall outside his particular humour tolerance zone, even in the opening paragraph with the passing comment about "the inevitable analyses of American humor after the terrorist attacks." What's the matter, Jefferson, don't like it when the nasty German's say you can't take a joke?
He also gets something terribly wrong in this paragraph I think:
If humor is an index of a society's capacity for self-criticism - and the confidence that self-criticism presupposes - then it is not coincidental that the American media's most immediate reaction to 9/11 was a temporary joke moratorium on programs like the ''Tonight Show with Jay Leno.'' It is to America's credit that before long Leno's groaners resumed and computer-altered photos of Osama bin Laden posing next to Bert from ''Sesame Street'' appeared on the Internet. It certainly does not say much for the sophistication of the anti-American demonstrators in Pakistan that they downloaded these very images and used them on placards.
Um, Leno doing jokes about bin Laden says nothing about America's capacity to use humour as self-criticism. And when a comic did try to do actual jokes about 911 as a form of criticism (Bill Maher's comments
about the US being cowards for dropping bombs from planes rather than flying them into buildings) he lost his job and the show got axed.
Anyway, saying the the left lacks a sense of humour is about as compelling as saying America lacks a sense of irony. Neither accusation can be sustained. I know a lot of lefties who can spend hours laughing at George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and even Rush Limbaugh (and even, sometimes, during the bits where he's trying to be funny). As to Americans lacking irony: well, what could be more ironic than a nation that prides itself on its rugged individualism, its frontier spirit, its can-do resourcefulness and its tolerance of diversity, and that is also the place where every olive on every supermarket shelf is already pitted, where every movie has a happy ending, where hamburgers are produced with communist comformity, and where Paul Wellstone was considered a radical lefty?