"When will it be OK to laugh again?" So the press and maybe the public wondered after last September 11. The moratorium on laughter, unofficially declared by David Letterman, was intended to signal respect for the dead and for the people who mourned them; but the desire for laughter persisted. Only people hungry for a laugh ask when one will be available.
There was no disrespect in this and no denial of grief; people crack jokes at deathbeds and funerals, at least in my family. "Tell him he's driving too fast. That'll get a rise out of him," my brother said to my mother while we gathered around my father on his deathbed.
I don't expect to hear even affectionate jokes such as this one around the anniversary of September 11. By the time this column appears, in late September, we will have been drenched in the inevitable bathos of commemoration -- the popular rituals of grief and "healing," the self-conscious solemnity of television's professional talkers and the banalities, or borrowed eloquence, of politicians. I'm not suggesting that this awful anniversary should be an occasion for humor. But humor -- gentle humor -- would be more respectful than the jockeying for viewers and votes that the grim date will surely inspire.
It's probably too soon for black humor. I've heard children of concentration-camp survivors joke about the Holocaust ("In some bakeries in Queens, the customers don't take a number; they just raise their arms."), but even for the children of survivors the Holocaust was history, not experience. Besides, in a therapeutic culture that equates virtue with inoffensiveness, black humor is at best a mark of unenlightenment; at worst it can lead to a charge of harassment. I once pointed out ruefully that feminism lacks a sense of black humor, and that while you will, on occasion, hear a Jewish joke about the Holocaust (you might even see a Broadway musical about it), you'll never hear a feminist joke about rape. A few people have never forgiven me.
Not that I miss the laughter about rape; but if rape is a political act, as many feminists have long insisted, then rape jokes are political speech. The political power of humor was made clear when it was subject to a de facto ban after September 11: Jokes about the president's questionable intellectual capabilities were suddenly taboo. (Comedy Central immediately canceled reruns of That's My Bush, the half-hour comedy that portrayed the president as a bumbling frat boy.) Only a few cartoonists, notably Garry Trudeau and Aaron McGruder, persisted in making fun of him and satirizing his policies.
Bush still retains some immunity from satirists; although hardly absolute, it protects him from the incisive, even vicious, attacks to which American presidents ought to become accustomed. Many people are still too fearful of another terrorist attack to dare consider the president incompetent, or they are more interested in his power than their welfare. That's why the always appalling Attorney General John Ashcroft has been such a gift to political satirists. They can have their way with him. (A drawing of Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller in drag by cartoonist Kevin Siers adorns my bulletin board: "We want the FBI to return to the standards of J. Edgar Hoover," Ashcroft explains, while the Martin Luther King Jr. files spill out of Mueller's purse.)
Virtually no one, however, publicly makes light of terrorism, a pending war on Iraq or other serious national problems such as the human damage of a faltering economy -- no one except the president, that is. And his jokes are neither goodhearted nor blackly funny. When he gleefully remarked that terrorism, war and a recession have given him a way out of his fiscal promises ("Lucky me: I hit the trifecta"), few people outside the more or less liberal press seemed to care.
Compare the silence that greeted the president's expression of disregard for national suffering with the attacks on Democrats who weakly criticize the administration's missteps on the economy. The Democrats are accused of welcoming a recession. In private, some partisan liberals have indeed found vindication, if not pleasure, in the falling stock market, happily predicting that it will fall further, to the benefit of Democrats. Never mind that people will be hurt. But this lack of concern for actual human beings is a nonpartisan characteristic of ideologues and power mongers, left and right. They're not afraid of joking about the burdens and the horrors we face, but their jokes are mean or witless.
"I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive," Bush famously remarked this summer, during a golf course photo-op. Americans are supposed to admire cocky men who appear to take hardship and danger lightly (cocky women are still liable to be considered unnatural). But it's surprising to me that they support a president who apparently takes a tee shot more seriously than a war. His lightheartedness has nothing to do with courage, of which he has little need. He doesn't work in a high-rise or fly commercial airlines or venture anywhere without protection. And, of course, he doesn't go to war. When the United States likely invades Iraq, Bush, like Saddam Hussein, will be hunkered down before any shots are fired.
I'm not suggesting that presidents shouldn't live in bubbles, and I don't begrudge them their security. But they ought to at least be sobered by the perils they inflict on their constituencies. Bush may have a sense of humor, but his jokes are always on us.
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