There’s a uniquely American ritual that has so far escaped the attention of cultural anthropologists. A group of people huddle, near a water cooler perhaps. One of them lowers his head, looks nervously from side to side, and then begins to speak softly, so that no one else might hear.
You’ve caught him in the act of perpetrating a joke.
This isn’t exactly the golden age of humor, as Rush Limbaugh discovered. For which our morality police will breathe a sigh of relief. They don’t have to worry about an edgy Saturday Night Live (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”) or National Lampoon. In fact, they don’t much have to worry about laughter at all, since there isn’t a lot of it. Laughter is dangerous, you see, because in every joke there’s a butt, someone at whom we laugh. Otherwise, it’s not funny.
That’s precisely the problem, however. Our laughter tells the butt that he’s a fool, a chump, a hypocrite. In short, he’s ridiculous. That’s a useful message, since our laughter tells the butt to shape up. Poor sap, he should thank us. Not that that’s likely, since there’s nothing more humiliating than ridicule.
That explains the death of laughter, since it collides with its arch-foe, the modern duty of respect. We used to think that social justice was all about economic needs, but now we’ve got a stronger safety net and it’s about banning expressions of disrespect. Gay marriage, the “war on women.” It’s all about feelings.
By the way, have you ever noticed that the modern definition of “social” is “not”? Social science is not science. Social work is not work. Social justice is not justice.
Forgive me, but I’m rather short on socially approved feelings these days. I don’t like being told that conservative views “disrespect” the whiners, and mostly I’m simply not interested in their complaints. I’m the last person I know who supports “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” You’re in a wonderful relationship? Fine. I just don’t want to know about it. It may well be the most faaabulous thing in your life at the moment, the only thing you want to talk about, but at best you’ve committed the unpardonable sin of becoming a bore. At worst, you’re passive-aggressive, and are churlishly claiming a right to my expression of respect. Either way, I’m defriending you.
Too many Americans today are, like Jefferson’s cousin, John Randolph of Roanoke, “born without a skin.” Every snub is magnified a hundredfold, and burns like fire on their souls. The easy grace that permits the strong man to laugh off a jest has been replaced by a touchiness that feels a slight from ten feet away. The difference is that, unlike Randolph, we’ve replaced the duel with the petition: “We, the undersigned, are outraged that…”
We, the undersigned, are pretty much outraged all the time, in case you haven’t noticed. Which is another reason for the death of laughter. So little time, so much to hate. In George Orwell’s 1984, every citizen was required to participate in a daily two minute hate-in. They were shown a film of Enemies of the People and required to express their hatred for 120 seconds. They got off easy. If MSNBC had only two minutes to get the hate in, they’d have nothing much left to broadcast for the remainder of their time.
Which brings us back to Limbaugh. In case you’ve been living on Mars, Rush said a Bad Word on February 29, and there’s been Hell to pay ever since. A lady called Sandra Fluke (rhymes with…oh, never mind) complained before an agitprop Democratic committee about Georgetown Law School’s policy of not providing insurance coverage for contraceptive pills. She said that a prescription cost $1,000 a year. Actually, it’s closer to $100, and Rush wondered what the extra money was all about. And so he used That Word, causing 300 million hearts to go all-aflutter.
Georgetown is a Jesuit university, and from this some might have concluded that it was a Catholic institution. If so, one might have wondered what Ms. Fluke expected when she got there. What she expected, she said, was that Georgetown would live up to the Jesuit creed, as enlightened people understand it, and Georgetown seemed eager to oblige her. The university’s president, John DeGioia, hastened to condemn Limbaugh for the disrespect he had displayed to a Georgetown student.
One reads that her parents are proud of her. That’s not surprising. After all, they were responding to President Obama’s demands, for he had telephoned their daughter to say that her parents ought to be proud of her. How their hearts must swell at the fame and respect she has brought to the name Fluke, which will live forevermore as a symbol of…something or other.
The entire episode was shame-making, but not because of some fictitious war on women. Rather, it revealed the essential triviality of modern politics. The economy is tanking, a fifth of Americans are out of work, the public debt load is wholly unsustainable, and what we want to know is whether Obama will come out publicly in favor of gay marriage. The Iranians are about to get the bomb, the Arab spring has turned to winter, we’re embroiled in an Afghani quagmire, but the real question is whether Rush’s advertisers will dump him.
So far they’re hanging in, for the most part, because Rush still commands what appears to be the largest audience in American radio. His listeners like his politics, of course, but that’s not the only story. Rush is also a humorist of a particularly American type, the teller of tall tales, the man behind the golden microphone, the orator who invites you to laugh with him at his exaggerations. He also offers an astute analysis of American politics, but sensible policy advice doesn’t make for an audience said to be of 20 million people a week. He is, above all, an entertainer, and entertainers sometimes tell bad jokes, especially if asked to perform for upward of 600 hours a year, for more than 20 years.
That’s not good enough for people on the left, and it’s also not good enough for the many people on the right who joined in the opportunistic show of hypocritical outrage. The latter are an interesting group. Some are prigs, of course, who are shocked, just shocked, when Foster Friess tells a joke about aspirin pills as a form of birth control. Others are what the French call vendus, the sell-outs who owe their celebrity solely to their willingness to dump on their colleagues on the right. For the banal Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, the Fluke episode was a godsend, since it permitted her to move on from the awfulness of Sarah Palin, volume CXI. Am I the only one who misses CNN’s Parker-Spitzer? She was Little Nell, and like Oscar Wilde one had to have a heart of stone not to giggle at her stunned befuddlement, a vapid grin fixed on her immobile face, when teamed up with motormouth Eliot Spitzer. (But then who could have handled Spitzer? Oh yes, Sarah Palin.)
Finally, there’s a third group: the conservative who yearns for left-wing approbation. I am so reasonable, my facts so irrefutable, my conclusions so logical. How can you deny me respect, Keith Olbermann? That’s an intellectual failing, of course, one of high silliness, but it’s also a moral failing. It’s an example of the narcissism at the heart of the ethic of respect.
You know what one should do with all such people? Laugh at them.