July 04, 2006

Today, I searched and searched and searched for a single piece of humour I could post as the Smile of the Day specifically for July 4. Thus, it had to identify something intrinsic to United States culture and/or self-identity. Also, because I seek always to bridge rather than contribute further to division, the laughter invoked by the sought-for piece had to be, not at the expense of others, but out of a sudden, delighted self-insight.

Usually, I can retrieve these kinds of humorous pieces quickly, either from my own memory, or from the thousands upon thousands on the Internet. Yet on the topic of the United States, I found this to be a surprisingly difficult task.

Easily 90% of what I found was partisan humour: very good, some of it (and some of it I saved for later), but for today I was not looking for a teasing dig at an individual or side, however clever or insightful. Just about all of the rest was cored in light or heavy targeted ridicule. In the process I also ran across sites attempting to transcend schism and tease out what constitutes a common United States identity, and across others which wondered why Americans could not seem to be able to laugh at themselves and which concluded, however tongue-in-cheek, that perhaps the underlying problem was that there was no real culture at which to laugh. I even found one site with some of the nastiest, racist, low-blow stereotypical jokes I have ever seen, but safely preceded by the disclaimer:
These one liners are only meant to add more smiles, chuckles and guffaws to your celebrations. They are not meant to hurt anyone's sentiments and we request you to take them in the true spirit of the famous American humor. Enjoy!!!
I had not thought it was ... representative, I mean. The individuals I know who happen to live in one part or another of that country have the same wide spectrum of generosity of spirit and occasional narrowness of viewpoint of those I know in other countries. Yet in times of crisis -- and especially nebulous crisis -- every country which does not have a strong unifying positive self-referencing identity (what one is, rather than what one is not) has always quickly turned against itself: or, to be more precise, against whoever could be quickly defined to become the insidious Other existing potentially treacherously within its borders. Differences in religion, in language, in skin colour, in social values: magnified and distorted out of all proportion by crisis and by fear.

There are humourists and comedians who are able to play lightly upon the foibles of their own country and culture and that of their audience: come, let's look at ourselves in this mirror I hold up, are we not sheerly, cryingly funny? The best can even evoke a deep sense of love out of those light-hearted tears. For these, the initial humour comes never out of ridicule but out of empathy, an empathy the audience is invited to share ... an empathy that becomes absolutely impossible once the constant background radiation of mutual distrust has begun to flirt with mutual fear and mutual hatred.

Yet how could it be otherwise? A polemic this-or-that necessarily forces its adherents toward the extremes: and, further, makes it impossible for those adherents to conceive of possibilities outside the polemic. In most modern cases, inherent diversity is such as to preclude polarisation until it emerges as a warning sign that internal division is about to explode into civil war -- but what of those societal structures built directly upon and in the model of the polemic? Is life forever to be Republican OR Democrat, rich OR poor, English-speaking OR Spanish, science OR arts, black OR white? I have yet to see a single criticism of An Inconvenient Truth which did not explicitly point out that Al Gore's degree was in liberal arts ... as though this somehow in and of itself disqualified the work, as though Gore were somehow the exception among politicians and spoke only what he himself alone had researched, without heavy reliance on a heavily qualified support network. Invert the parties and the message, and much the same holds true for any and all criticisms of George W. Bush. As the old joke goes: "I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth ... if he will": this sound clip, and not one word more, however relevant. Or, broaden the scope to a world stage: individualism OR statism, free market OR communism? (Although, as it happens, free market is not the political opposite end of the spectrum from communism.) To narrow possibility into a polemic is to gradually come to measure all things by that polemic. Reduce all things to economic measures, for example, and gradually nothing which cannot be bought and sold will have any value. Reduce all things to the free market, and all things are forced into commodities.

To paraphrase the words of one commentator to the above-linked pieces: has consumerism now become the dominant value of American society?

Assuming we have money to loan as we see fit, the monetary loan is an expression of fiscal trust, a complex relationship correlating monetary profit and personal trust: we are willing to extend the use of our money to people we either know personally, or who can be vouched for by a trusted third party, or about whom we care not at all in terms of what consequences we are willing to inflict to get our money back, when the time comes. Increasingly, empathy becomes scissored out of the equation entirely: perhaps effect of decreasing trust, perhaps cause, probably both and something else besides. How much money can buy a friendship? Supply and demand: what if a higher offer comes along? not if, but when?

How much money does it take, to purchase absolute trust? How can a polemic perspective settle for anything less?

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