Deconstruction of an Unfunny Joke

America Divided

“The only reason I can explain it to you is I am not a fan of our president, but this goes beyond not being a fan. I didn’t send it as racist, although that’s what it is. I sent it out because it’s anti-Obama.” -A federal judge on why he sent out an Obama joke about his mother committing bestiality to a short list of his ‘friends’

Reading this story, I feel the urge to ask the judge: “Setting aside the fact that judges are supposed to prevent even the appearance of political partisanship, if you admit this is racist, but that you didn’t want to send it ‘as racist’, what message was it supposed to impart? What about it did you find funny?”

I find this kind of interesting from a psychological perspective. I’ve always said you know a racist by what they find funny. I laugh at racist jokes on Tosh.0 all the time because they are told ironically and bring up something new and unexpected. I make hostile jokes against Republicans on Twitter all the time. But if you laugh at a clearly unfunny joke only because of who the target is, then you clearly have a psychological need to put down that person to make yourself feel good.

This subconscious form of racism-as-political-attacks seems to me to be fueling a lot of the racial tension in politics. Conseravtives who had absolutely no problem with Colin Powell and Condaleezza Rice have no problem breaking out the old animal and welfare tropes, thinking its only fair since Bush was constantly depicted as a chimp. It’s the same with biased chauvinism, Conservatives always making terribly unfunny jokes about Hillary Clinton wearing pants because everyone was sick of seeing her balls while withholding any sexist comments about Margaret Thatcher.

There are plenty of racists who don’t dress up in KKK uniforms because the question of race isn’t that important to their lives and their identity. Those who do are basically submitting themselves to a cult that works by providing self-esteem to individuals solely on their relationship with the group. To some extent, everyone does this on a individual level: ever-more partisan news shows get their money by focusing their audience’s hatred on the other side which in turn makes them feel better as a person. But the method is reinforced far more vigorously when the relationship is personal and two-way rather than the imaginary friendships people make with news personalities.

The joke the judge sent out wasn’t so much as funny but fulfilling in its ad hominem attack. Seeing how easily Democrats have abandoned civil rights and Republican hypocrisy on Libya and the debt ceiling, it’s easy to see how the meanings of “left” and “right” are slowly dissolving into ambiguity as Republicans accept that liberals won the culture war and Democrats accept that corporate socialists won the financial war, while at the same time that political partisanship has polarized the nation into hate-filled cynics who adopt numerous positions they don’t really believe in to defeat the other side. The judge is fulfilling his role in his place in the Republican superstructure by promoting racist sentiments to dehumanize the leader of the Democratic Party even though he would probably have been appalled at the same exact joke being leveled at Condaleezza Rice. He may not believe in racism as a virtue, but hating Obama is, so using a racist joke as a way to attack him is good, even if there’s nothing new or funny about the joke at all.

The whole ordeal makes me wonder if social media is corralling people towards a situation where the political parties become no more relevant than football teams: both parties being corrupt, socially-liberal corporatist hawks.

I realize the “socially liberal” part might seem premature since we appear to be fighting the contraception wars of the 60s all over again, but I don’t think the current kerfuffle is anywhere near as relevant or game-changing as those bra-burning days. We are still in a male-dominated era of medicine with birth control being termed recreational while boner pills are considered a mandatory health concern, but I think this will change with time and the draconian ultrasound shame law will be repealed in Virginia. The conflict itself is, I believe, only a reflection of the politicization of the parties: this issue never would have come up during the Bush years specifically because it’s meant to hurt whoever is in power at the time. Even just 5 years ago, people were still more likely to care about the issue rather than blindly accept the party stance and make excuses that it’s “not really about birth control.” The fight is nothing more than an election-year “wedge issue” where one half doesn’t even believe in the battle but hopes that it eventually leads to a victory in the war. Since it is only a means to an end — a club raised in partisan posturing — rather than a goal unto itself, it will drop by the wayside.

The latest battles don’t look to have helped Republicans much. In every case, over 18% of Republican voters said they are more likely to support Obama than the Republican challenger.

Popular issues no longer reflect the deep questions on how to govern but are only weapons used in utilitarian fashion, such as the inexplicable accusations regarding Sharia law. Republicans weary of the wars and Democrats not wanting to admit Obama’s ties to Wall Street focus exclusively on taxes. The cynicism was always present in politicians since they are the ones who are “in the trenches” trying to make deals and win fights, but I think the overall trend where the attitude of the politician hit mainstream with the launch of Fox News in ’96 and the massive media overhype of 9/11 for years after the event.

Politics itself is becoming a reality show complete with scripted conflicts. The whole debt ceiling debacle, which I fully admit I never heard of and was shocked to learn existed, felt like an episode of Jersey Shore where the crew happen to find a self-destruct button in the house and spent the entire episode fighting with each other over whether to push it or not. The Tea Party paid in popularity for that: becoming less liked that even atheists and Muslims. But the Republicans in congress only celebrated the enmity people had for them since by “sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.” The paradox of partisanship is that the White House assumes bipartisan bills will be better off if Obama doesn’t back it, so there is no leadership on boring left-wing issues like the desertification of the planet. GOP candidates bemoan the deficit while promising to increase it. The cynicism is infectious: I have to admit that I sincerely hope the Democrats repay the Republicans with wall-to-wall partisan-promoting filibusters the next time they are out of power.

The boring news of yesteryear can no longer compete in an era of 24 hour cable news so the shows themselves must be reinvented into political cults sporting charismatic figures who befriend the masses and talk everyone into getting involved with the issue of the moment. I admit I’m a part of it — watching no less than an hour of political shows a day. My favorite shows, the Daily Show, Colbert Report, Real Time, and Rachel Maddow all combine news and entertainment to some degree, and they all do a great job combining personality with substance, but it does sometimes feel like the inevitable conclusion of personified news is the WWF wrestler as president in Idiocracy. Common wisdom is that the more counter-arguments you provide, the more successful you’ll be in debunking a myth, but the Overkill Backfire Effect tells media creators that a more effective strategy is to make a smaller number of arguments: hence the popularity of sloganeering.

Overkill Backfire

Things can sometimes deteriorate as they become more popular. Everett often lamented the way anime became popular. I’m sure part of it is the fact that the more demand for something, supply is constrained to release substandard content in order to maximize profits, but it in turn pollutes the waters the way the flood of third party Atari games destroyed the gaming industry in the late 80s. But perhaps another aspect of it may be the way an unpopular subject will attract people of a like-mind, so that when the subject becomes popular, the inclusion an increasing number of less empathetic people makes the experience seem less unique. And once something becomes important, questions of profitability begin to overtake questions of integrity.

If the popularization of the news has transformed the political parties into gang rivalries, it’s been worse before, but when I look at media events like the “Ground Zero Mosque” (which opened without any protestors noticing) and the debt ceiling battle, I’m not sure if it’s ever been this random and pointless.

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About Jeff Q

I live in New Orleans. I have a Bachelors in Computer Science and a Masters in English Literature. My interests include ancient history, religion, mythology, philosophy, and fantasy/sci-fi. My Twitter handle is @Bahumuth.

2 thoughts on “Deconstruction of an Unfunny Joke

  1. How do you define racist? When reading the linked article, it wasn’t immediately clear that the email was racist per se–but the whole email wasn’t printed. Or maybe I just don’t get the subtleties of language sometimes. I think the much more disgusting part is the implication about Obama’s mother, not the “why am I black and you’re white” part…

  2. Yeah, I guess I see the racist intent now–I can imagine it wouldn’t have been said about someone who was white.

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