On jokes, and how to take them

You probably already know more about the Charlie Hebdo massacre than I do. This isn’t about that. The shooting spree is certainly the spark for what I have to say here but, aside from sharing in the grief of this senseless loss of life, it’s not exactly the point.

This is more directly a response to those people who say, “Yeah, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ is a great catch phrase but you, you left-leaning wise-asses, are in no position to state it. You’re not Charlie because, if you were, you’d have been speaking out against self-censorship for years. If it wasn’t a government or a religious order you feared, then you were tiptoeing through the minefield of political rectitude your own allies laid around you. Maybe you could cough up the courage to hurl your bile at “Repugnicans” or “Teabaggers,” but when it came time to call out overreaching leaders of feminist, gay rights, illegal alien, or umbrage-taking minority grievance merchants, you’re missing in action. You never had the balls to be Charlie, and now you must’ve rented them from somewhere to say you are.”

What can I say? Those voices are, like the allegorical broken clock, right at this particular second.

I’ll start with chastising myself. In 2005, I started work on what would be my first novel, Land That I Love, which was a thinly veiled critique of the hubris that led to the Iraq War. George W. Bush had just won a second term in the White House. (I hesitate to use the term “re-elected” which implies he was elected the first time.) It’s hard to believe now, but at that time, political humor at Bush’s expense was completely lacking in major media. You could chide him on his doofus image, but you couldn’t say anything against his policies because if you did you “were with the terrorists” or “hated our freedoms” or “didn’t support the troops”. It was all bullshit, but nobody wanted to be the first to call it. It took me a year to write LTIL, during which the Katrina response fuck-up and the now half-remembered Social Security reform gamble began the thaw. Even so, nobody would publish the book until W was out of office. I still have rejection letters from the Bush years telling me how little appetite agents and publishers had for political satire.

You’d have thought I’d learned my lesson about being more aggressive with the targets of my humor after that, but no. Whether I’m too nice a guy for this line of work or I’m just a pussy is a matter of interpretation, but I’ve demonstrated the point again as recently as last year.

There’s a speculative fiction author of great renown whom I have long respected professionally and who has on occasion provided me with valuable mentoring. Then he wrote a book which I thought really, really sucked. Now, it got great reviews and some real bigfoot novelists stood in line to blurb it. But I maintain to this day its literary quality is a mass delusion, an emperor’s-new-clothes beauty contest to see who can put the best shade of lipstick on this pig. Not to say this guy hasn’t written great stuff before and will again, but this was Book One of the What The Fuck Trilogy.

So I ping this guy offline and say that I wanted to lampoon it, a la what the Harvard Lampoon did to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. He said yes. I offered to let him see it before anyone else. He declined, stating that it wouldn’t be in the spirit of the exercise if he held any sway over the process. Then in a post to this blog, I mentioned the project, including this author’s name.

Within 20 minutes, he’s IM-ing me to take down the post, excoriating me for making public what he considered a private conversation (which was true, but there’s a difference between private and privileged, and at no point did he tell me the conversation was not to be shared), and demanding that I immediately stop work on the parody. Bear in mind, I don’t think I got more than one or two hits on this site by the time he ordered me to take the post down. I don’t know if he was using some kind of sophisticated sniffer software or if he’s really that troll-y about his name on the web. Doesn’t really matter.

So I ceased and desisted. I like to think it’s because I felt a little guilty about blindsiding him with the announcement, and I (still) consider him a friend and didn’t want to foment any further ill will. But at some point I have to ask, was it worth stopping a creative project? And the answer is no. I didn’t want to offend a friend, but maybe I was more concerned with pissing off someone who’s in a position to do my own career a serious setback or a serious boost. And that is the absolute wrong reason to put the brakes on. I’ll say this now: I don’t know if I’m going to go back to work on that project. I don’t want to do it out of spite any more than I want to not do it out of candy-assedness. It’s a matter of whether or not it’s worth the time and effort. The author of the work to be lambasted doesn’t get a vote. You do. If you want to know more about this project or you want to encourage me to go forward, you know how to get a hold of me. (And if you don’t know how, just leave a comment here.)

But these aren’t the only example’s of the speculative fiction community’s lack of humor. You might’ve seen the internet meme about honest state mottos. A well-regarded feminist author posted it to her Facebook page (the day after I posted it to mine). It includes such bon mots as “Idaho: We’re More Than Just Potatoes. OK, Maybe Not But the Potatoes Are Real Good.” And “Illinois: Where A Politician’s Term in Office and Prison Sentence Are Roughly the Same.” But one gentle soul chided our feminist scribe because, buried somewhere in those 50 jokes, was “Hawaii: Haka Tiki Mou Sha’ami Liki Toru (Death to Mainland Scum, But Leave Your Money).” This, it was purported, cast Pacific Islanders in an unfavorable light. And to this, the author apologized profusely.

Really? “Florida: A Wonderful Place to Enjoy Pain Pills and Die of Old Age. And Vice Versa” doesn’t have a taint of agism to it? “Arkansas: Literassy Ain’t Everything” doesn’t sound like privileged elitists pissing on those with lesser formal education? “Utah: Monogamy and Cheap Drinks … Who Needs ’em?!” doesn’t perpetuate an outdated stereotype of Mormons? And then there’s my favorite: “Kentucky: Five Million People; Fifteen Last Names” which is certainly less than accurate. But these stereotypes attack white, Christian people who are, apparently, free targets while the honor of Polynesians must be defended. Or something. Maybe somebody can volunteer a clearer explanation.

Which brings me to the whole topic of ethnic humor.

I’m all in favor of it.

There is a line, of course. But it’s not a matter of good taste. There’s no reliable arbiter of that. A humorist just has to play it how he or she feels. The distinction is this: intent.

There’s nothing funny about hate. Just the other day, I reposted a photo illustrating an act of vandalism that, in itself, was harmless, but was nonetheless an apparent hate crime. I have absolutely no tolerance for that kind of intentional malice. But a day later, I reposted a link to a news story headlined “Why Women Shaving Their Faces Is Now a Thing” and added this comment: “Not judging. Know too many Italians.”

As any other New Yorker — especially those of Italian heritage — will tell you, that’s just busting balls. It’s what Italians, Irish, and Jews have been doing for a hundred years around here. We know each other well enough and long enough that nobody takes offense because nobody takes it seriously. We still eat in each others’ restaurants, drink in each others’ bars, and march in each others’ parades. We laugh at each other because we don’t mind laughing at ourselves. The Puerto Ricans have recently caught up to this too. Humor can build bridges as well as minefields.

Well, this turned into a rant, but not a pointless one, I hope. We need more humor, not less. And it needs to be a little bit dangerous.

Think of it as analogous to sports. They’re both all about aggression. Humor can be a way to get it out of our systems without devolving into full-scale conflict. But it only works if we accept the inherent risk. In sports, people get hurt physically. In humor, you could get your feelings hurt. So wear a fucking cup and take a joke.

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