Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Japan, Good Taste, Common Sense, and a Duck

I've made the point, before, that all the rules of the Catholic Church boil down to a pair of very simple commandments:
" 'Teacher, 21 which commandment in the law is the greatest?' He said to him, 22 'You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: 23 You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 24 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.""
(Matthew 22:36-40)
So, why all the rules? In my opinion, it's that "sparks" thing in Job 5:7. Where you've got human beings, you've got trouble. I've discussed that before. (November 28, 2010, for one) So, why all the rules? I think it helps us to have the implications of those two simple commandments spelled out for us.

Like whether or not humor and suffering belong together.

Human Nature, Humor, and God

I could assume that God has absolutely no sense of humor, and frowns on merrymaking of any sort. As for getting more drinks when a wedding party runs dry? Horrors! (John 2:3-10)

Then there's Matthew 7:3 and Acts 9:11. Those verses have, I'm confident, deep spiritual significance. They also, I strongly suspect, had a funny angle that's still there for folks who are willing to admit my Lord's humanity. That's almost another topic.

I do not think that God gave humanity a sense of humor - and now intends to punish us severely for having a sense of humor. That just doesn't make sense. Not to me, anyway.

Still, I'm just "some guy with a blog," with no more teaching authority than any other Catholic layman. I'll get back to the Church, humor, and how we use it, later in this post. (And Now, for Something Completely Different: Catholics and Humor)

Death's a Big Joke?

I don't think that thousands - maybe tens of thousands - of people dying, many more injured, and yet more facing disease and food shortages, while an oil refinery burns, and a nuclear power plant's reactors malfunction as a particularly funny situation.

Even so, I've thought of some rather funny quips I could make about the March 11, 2011, earthquake near Japan, and it's aftermath. Even on reflection, I still think some of them are funny.

But you will most likely never see them.

That's because, like I said, I don't think that thousands - maybe tens of thousands - of people dying is particularly funny.

What am I, crazy?

Actually, yes: and that is another topic.

Sometimes Love Means Stifling a Joke

We're supposed to "love your neighbor as yourself" - which sometimes means stifling my self-expression. Even if a joke really is funny.

Humor in the Hospital, and Otherwise

What's funny, and what's not, depends on who's saying what, where, and why.
First-Person Humor
There's 'humor in the first person,' jokes that folks make about a situation they're in.

Decades back, I read about some GIs who were recovering from serious injuries in some hospital. One of them, who was missing a leg, was getting some sort of hydrotherapy. He twisted around, waved his stump out of the water, and yelled "SHARK!"

Am I shocked and horrified at that callous display of indifference to suffering?

Hardly. I'd worry a little about a young man in that position who didn't make a few wisecracks now and again.
Third-Person Humor
And there's 'third-person humor,' jokes that folks make about somebody who isn't part of the conversation.

Somebody at a coffee shop, making a wisecrack about a paraplegic GI? That, I might think was callous, depending on the context.

Is this the sort of "hypocrisy" that those Christians, and/or those Catholics are supposed to be just simply full of? I don't think so. But then, I wouldn't: since I'm a practicing Catholic. And in some circles 'everybody knows' what those people are like. And that's yet another topic.

Or maybe not so much.

Humor: It Heals; Or Hurts

Humor, cracking jokes, doesn't always help everybody in all stressful situations. It is, in my opinion, helpful for some folks, in some situations, sometimes.

That's why I'm not shocked and horrified at the story about recovering GIs. That "SHARKS!" gag seemed, in context, to be a pretty good way of dealing with a stressful situation. Better, I think, than moping around and sobbing "don't pity me!" And that's drifting into yet again another topic.

Does that mean that, if I was visiting someone who'd lost a limb, I'd offer some witticism like "are you hopping mad?" Not likely: not unless I knew the person very, very well - and knew with no reasonable doubt that the wisecrack might be helpful.

That's because, in my opinion, just as humor can help a person cope with stress: it can hurt, emotionally.

That's not entirely consistent with the sort of 'stiff upper lip' attitude I learned from America's older British-based culture - or my mother's Norwegian heritage. Both of which I value, by the way: to an extent.

Although I think it's imprudent at best to let emotions rule a person's life: I think it's also imprudent to pretend that emotions don't exist, or that they don't matter. More to the point, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a few words to say on that subject. (Catechism, 1762-1770, summarized in 1771-1775, for starters) I've discussed emotions before, fairly often. You could check out emotions in this blog's Label Cloud.

'What's the Matter With You? Can't You Take a Joke?'

Humor can also, I think, be used as a form of social control: a way in which culturally-dominant people can impress on their inferiors their position in the social order.

How much of that is involved in situations where someone is mocked, and then criticized for not 'having a sense of humor,' I don't know. And that, again, is getting off-topic.

Death and Destruction in Japan: What a Joke?

You've probably heard about the Aflac Duck and a tennis celebrity already. If you have, skip these excerpts. If not, here's what I'm talking about, with brief (for me) comments:
"Gov. Haley Barbour's press secretary, Dan Turner, resigns after making Japan earthquake joke"
NYDailyNews.com (March 15, 2011)

"The press secretary to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour resigned Monday night after it was revealed that he sent a series of insensitive emails, including one that joked about earthquake victims in Japan.

" 'Gov. Haley Barbour has accepted Dan Turner's resignation as Press Secretary,' a statement posted on the GOP presidential hopeful's website read, adding that former deputy press secretary Laura Hipp would replace him.

"Turner sent an email Friday to fellow staffers and supporters that contained a roundup of news stories and historical notes, Politico reported.

" 'Otis Redding posthumously received a gold record for his single, (Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay. (Not a big hit in Japan right now.),' Turner wrote...."
First of all, as I've said before, this isn't a "political" blog. I don't claim that one party is always right, and that everybody who doesn't agree is a doo-doo-head.

Do I think Turner was right in resigning? Yes. The joke was mildly funny: and in abysmally poor taste. Sharing it - in an email of all things - was, for someone in his position, a monumentally stupid thing to do. Back in 1945, maybe not so much. I'll get back to that train of thought.
"50 Cent admits he's 'ignorant' after joking about Japan tsunami"
NME (March 15, 2011)

"...Referring to the tsunami, he wrote: 'Wave will hit 8am them crazy white boys going to try to go surfing.'

"Though some of his followers actually reacted positively to his comments, the rapper did acknowledge that some people may have found his tweets offensive. After news agencies began to circulate his comments he wrote: 'Some of my tweets are ignorant. I do it for shock value. Hate it or love it. I'm cool either way.'...
Unless things have changed a very great deal in the last few decades, anything I say about 50 Cent will be wrong, so I pass.
"Comedian Gilbert Gottfried fired as voice of Aflac duck"
CNN (March 15, 2011)

"The Aflac duck lost its voice Monday after the insurance giant fired the comedian behind the commercial quack for tweeting jokes about the earthquake and tsunami that has devastated Japan....

"...The tweets include this, posted at 12:33 p.m. Saturday:

" 'Japan called me. They said "maybe those jokes are a hit in the U.S., but over here, they're all sinking." '

"Another tweet, posted at 11:06 a.m. the same day, said:

" 'I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said "is there a school in this area." She said "not now, but just wait." '

"[Aflac senior vice president and chief marketing officer Michael] Zuna said, 'Aflac Japan -- and, by extension, Japan itself -- is part of the Aflac family, and there is no place for anything but compassion and concern during these difficult times.' He added that the company was giving the International Red Cross 100 million yen (U.S. $1.2 million) to aid in disaster relief...."
Aflac plans to find a new voice for the Duck, by the way.

Do I think Aflac was right to fire him? Maybe. It was their decision to make, anyway: and the odds are that his jokes haven't improved Aflac's business in Japan. Maybe not here in America, either.

Am I shocked and horrified at the Mr. Gottfried's jokes? No. I think that Tweeting them wasn't the smartest thing an American actor has ever done. I also think that it was very far from the daftest stunt pulled by a Hollywood personality. Very, very far: that's a colorful lot.

Why Repeat These Dubious Jokes?

Maybe I should follow the lead of some news services, and just say that Turner, for example, sent "insensitive" jokes via email. And let your imagination fill in the details. Ditto with Gottfried.

As it is, having lived through two eras when terribly thin-skinned folks could shred reputations: I think it's better to dig up what these 'offensive' statements actually were. That "thin-skinned" phrase, by the way, means "quick to take offense." (Princeton's WordNet) I don't think it's "racist," but I've run into folks who do. Moving on.

Like I said, I've lived through two hypersensitive (in my opinion) eras: the trailing edge of McCarthyism and the Bible-thumper's America; and political correctness. For what it's worth, I don't think the Hollywood blacklists were a good idea, and that crazy "tolerance" a few decades later wasn't an improvement. On the 'up' side, I see that Ben Vereen got his career back. (New York Magazine - Feb 2, 1981)

Given the sort of distortions that can happen when folks read an adjective, and fill in imaginary 'facts:' I think that repeating what individuals actually wrote or said is a good idea.

Jokes are One Thing: 'fu*k Japan' is Something Else

One reason I'm not all that upset about a few clueless jokes about Japan's national disaster is that I've seen worse.

There's the sort of 'hate the Japs' stuff that America was flushing out of its system in my youth.

I think American culture still hasn't quite gotten used to the idea that folks whose ancestry isn't mostly from northwestern Europe, and who don't live in the United States aren't 'foreigners' - in the xenophobic 'Frank Burns' sense of the word.

These days, I'm not quite as concerned about the now-marginalized (in my opinion) right-wing nut cases. It's the folks who hate for more 'relevant' reasons:

"...Growing Weary of 'Tolerance'

"...That 'fu*k Japan' remark was made by a person who has great enthusiasm for saving the whales and other precious creatures. I'm okay with having environmental concerns, to some extent. I am a trifle less convinced of the need to keep Earth's ecosystem exactly the way it was in about 1800 than some folks are: but that's another topic.

"On the other hand, closing a considered statement with 'fu*k Japan' is over the top for me. I recognize that Japanese culture, government, and business are not perfect: but whose is? And I remember the sort of racist propaganda that was still drifting around in the decade or two after WWII. 'Disgusting' is about the nicest term I can think of to describe that sort of attitude...."
(April 14, 2010)
After "Fu*k Japan," Gottfried's "is there a school in this area" joke is rather tame.

And Now, for Something Completely Different: Catholics and Humor

Catholic tradition has quite a few examples of different sorts of humor:
"...There is nothing so hopeful as laughter. Every person has a sense of humor, and tapping into that can build a connection faster than anything else. Suffering people are tender all over, and humor is risky, but worth the risk. Occasionally my jokes have been poorly received, but each time I just asked forgiveness and permission for a fresh start...."
(Light-heartedness / Humor, "Hope for the Journey: Meaningful Support for the Terminally Ill," USCCB)
Two things to take home from that, I think, are:
  • "Every person has a sense of humor"
  • "Humor is risky"
    • "But worth the risk"
Next, part of a discussion of St. Philip Neri:
"...St. Philip devised mortifications without end for attacking pride in souls of promise who could bear his heavy-handed humor. ... An especially pious young man asked permission to wear a hair shirt and Philip granted his request with this stipulation: he wear it on the outside. He was known around Rome as 'Berto of the hair-shirt.'..."
("St. Philip's Suggestions for Idleness and Learning Patience," CatholicCulture.org)
A hair shirt - on the outside?! The idea of that exquisitely-uncomfortable undergarment was to provide someone with a 'thorn in the flesh' that folks wouldn't notice.

My guess is that St. Philip Neri discerned that the young man was just simply aching to be holier-than-thou, and provided him with a penance that would really put a hole in his pride. (There's "pride," and then there's "pride:" (January 30, 2011, November 7, 2010 - and, more to the point, Catechism of the Catholic Church, , 17842094, 2540, 2728)
"...A constant source of suffering for Mother Genoveva was her involvement in external activity and the new foundations. She desired to return to her characteristic interior solitude and remain alone with the Lord, but she accepted her calling as God's will and did not let her physical or interior suffering stop her.

"She would say: 'Even if I must suffer greatly, thanks be to God's mercy, I will not lack courage'.

"She was known for her kindness and openness to all, and for her good sense of humour - she would even joke about her physical ailments.

"In 1953, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Holy Angels received Pontifical approval. Mother Genoveva died on 5 January 1956. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 29 January 1995."
("Genoveva Torres Morales (1870-1956), Vatican.va)
Looks to me like humor is okay - at least sometimes.
"...An extraordinary example of this truth is given to us by Pope John Paul II: in this too he is a great witness to men and women in our time. The Pope lives his old age with the greatest naturalism. Far from concealing it (who has not seen him joke with his walking stick?), he places it before everyone's eyes. With extreme simplicity, he says of himself: 'I'm an elderly priest'...."
("The Dignity of Older People and their Mission in the Church and in the World ," Pontifical Council for the Laity, Vatican.va)
That's not quite the same as the "SHARK!" gag - but again, being Catholic obviously doesn't mean being humorless.

Then there's what Cappie Pondexter and the Governor of Tokyo said: and that is definitely another topic.

Vaguely-related posts:
News and views:
Background:List of 'Japan earthquake disaster' posts in this and other blogs:

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.