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The joke is the gauge of freedom at its simplest testing point.
The Joke is also the title of a 1967 novel by Czech writer Milan Kundera, about a university student named Ludvig in Soviet Czechoslovakia in 1951 who gets sent to a work camp for a joke he dashed off on a postcard to his super-serious girlfriend. It sounded so familiar that I had to read it.
There was a time when the plot would have produced a shudder throughout academia. Nowadays a college student might shrug: “The dude had it coming.” This is why dystopian forewarnings by George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells must be deemed flops in the end, having failed to foresee that the future, once here, will have been arrived at with such gradual and gentle acclimations as to be embraced and not recoiled at.
Any country with an arm of government called ‘Human Rights Tribunal’ is a country already in trouble.
Rod Serling, mortician-suited, Chesterfield-King-chain-smoking 1950s prophet to the TV generation, sent up a flare in episode 65 of The Twilight Zone, titled “The Obsolete Man” (1961). He introduces the imminent execution of a librarian gone afoul of state orthodoxy, now entering a courtroom for a kangaroo trial:
“You walk into this room at your own risk, because it leads to the future; not a future that will be, but one that might be. This is not a new world: It is simply an extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has refinements … [for] destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the super-states that preceded it, it has one iron rule: Logic is an enemy, and truth is a menace.”
I’ve been thinking about what a joke is. Why do people laugh, and what is laughter, that spontaneous, spasmodic total body reflex to an artfully delivered string of words? Are not the best jokes nine parts truth and one part fabrication? Truth and irony are what have been obliterated from the public discourse today. Joseph Goebbels, German Reich Minister of Propaganda from 1933 to 1945, tells why that’s necessary: “It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
A Human Rights Tribunal in Canada fined comedian Mike Ward $42,000 for a joke. (There’s inflation, folks.) In my opinion any country with an arm of government called “Human Rights Tribunal” is a country already in trouble. Quiz: Can you spot the difference between modern Human Rights Commissions and Kundera’s ’50s Party University Committee? Me either.
Pakistani-born Norwegian comedian Shabana Rehman mocked the wrong imam and now needs police protection after her family’s restaurant was fired at. Dutch internet cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot (former friend of Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated by a Muslim extremist) was arrested with great fanfare in 2008 after eight of the cartoons in his book Misselijke grappen (Sick Jokes) were said to ascribe negative qualities to certain groups, and therefore be chargeable under article 137c of the Dutch Penal Code.
I thought I would end this column with actual jokes from Soviet Union days, doubtless passed along in whispers and with nervous glances over the shoulder lest the teller be delivered to the “Humor Department of the Censorship Apparatus of Soviet Ministry of Culture” (it was a real thing):
First: Stalin has lost his favorite pipe. Some days later, Minister Lavrentiy phones his boss and asks, “Have you got your pipe back?” “Yes,” replies the Premier, “I found it under the sofa.” “Impossible,” exclaims Lavrentiy. “Three people have already confessed to the crime.”
Second: Guy goes to a car dealer to buy a car. “OK, put your name on the list, come back in 20 years and pick it up,” the salesman says. “Morning or afternoon,” the buyer asks. “What difference does it make, it’s 20 years from now,” the dealer says. “It matters,” says the buyer, “’cause the plumber’s coming in the morning.”
Ah, remember when we used to laugh?