Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What, exactly, was the joke?

I propose a rule of public life: if you say something appalling, and you defend yourself by saying you were trying to be funny, you must then explain what the joke was.

Michael Barone (who, sadly, shares the name of one of my best friends from high school) said the following to a group of academics:

“The liberal media attacked Sarah Palin because she did not abort her Down syndrome baby," Barone said, according to accounts by attendees. "They wanted her to kill that child. ... I'm talking about my media colleagues with whom I've worked for 35 years.”

Unsurprisingly, Barone was met with a chorus of boos, and some people walked out. Barone does not dispute the accounts of his words but says that he "was attempting to be humorous and ... went over the line."

Mike Allen and Andy Barr report this defense without comment. We are accustomed to cutting people slack for saying offensive things in jokes, which itself is a tricky matter, but in this case and many like it, isn't there a way to point out the obvious, which is to say, it's not a joke.

I don't mean that this is not a laughing matter--death is perhaps the most fundamental basis of humor. I mean that Barone made no attempt to transform the darkness of his sentiment into humor. Instead, Barone made a perfectly straightforward claim about the motives of his colleagues, with no indication of irony at any level. I can imagine a wide range of reactions to his comment, from my own disgust to the approval of a Palin supporter who suspects the worst of the media. What I can't imagine is that anyone would find the idea of reporters wishing Palin's baby out of existence to be funny.

I realize that Barone is probably calling his comments "humorous" because he is scrambling for any way to deflect attention from their obvious meaning. I still want to see him try to explain the joke.

1 comment:

Jack Lynch said...

Oh, Erik! -- you just have no sense of humor. I mean, really, is there a better punchline than "she did not abort her Down syndrome baby"? -- That's Catskills gold, my friend.

I suppose Barone resorted to "I was making a joke" because the other favorite of politicians caught for saying boneheaded things -- viz., "My comment was taken out of context" -- had been getting too much use recently.