Predictability and humor

Some things in life are very predictable, other things are not at all predictable.  When something that we had expected to be unpredictable turns out to be very predictable, sometimes we laugh.  Lenore Skenazy’s column “Obama, Haiti, and Lard” in the March 2010 Funny Times points out that some stories in the news have endings that are a lot easier to guess than the people who decide what goes on the front page want you to think.  For example, what effect will the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti have on attitudes toward that country in the USA?  Well, we know the answer to that already.  At first we’ll all be very concerned and agree that we should stay focused on Haiti.  “Except that the next time the media actually DO focus on Haiti, it’ll be in late December, when they put out their ‘Biggest Stories of 2010′ lists, at which point we’ll think ‘The earthquake!  Wow!  Was it really THIS year?”  That cycle of shock, compassion, fatigue, and nostalgia is as predictable as what American school systems will ultimately do with the  information they are gathering from the standardized tests they’re always giving students.  They will decide to “NOT use standardized tests.  They’ll use student pantomimes or clay figurines or something, but not standardized tests, which will be shown to be not only inaccurate but harmful.” 

The same issue contains a couple of columns and lots of cartoons about Scott Brown, recently elected by Massachusetts as America’s newest and nakedest Republican US Senator.  In addition to the front cover, reproduced above, there’s the back cover, on which Jen Sorenson illustrates the way in which Brown’s victory was utterly predictable.  In one of his cartoons, Matt Bors suggests that Edward Kennedy should have been able to predict that a Republican might succeed him if he died in office.     

Dave Maleckar’s 100 Word Rant opens: “Let’s skip right past the hybrid and electric cars and start believing in magical ones.  The only way to make a green automobile is with a coat of paint.”  The point seems to be the only reason we think the auto industry might surprise us with an environmentally sound product is that we are dominated by wishful thinking.  Look at the facts, and you can predict that their future products  will be as unsustainable as their past ones. 

Curmudgeon has some funny lines about the rottenness of the human race in general.  Mark Twain defined “Man” as “A creature made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired.”  Oscar Wilde was a bit less charitable to the Almighty, sharing his suspicion “that God in creating man somewhat overestimated His ability.”  The same thought has been phrased in secular terms; Nietzsche said that “The Earth has a skin and that skin has diseases; one of its diseases is called Man.”  I think Edward O. Wilson’s quote qualifies as secular, though he does sound like a Calvinist preacher declaiming on the Utter Depravity of Man: “If all mankind were to disappear, the  world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago.  If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”  Holbrook Jackson wondered why Nature gave rise to us.  “Was it to show that She is big enough to make mistakes, or was it pure ignorance?”  Samuel Johnson declared “I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.”

“Language Related Efforts to Help Out in Haiti”

A post at Language Log.

The Nation, 8 February 2010

I had never heard of Alice Guy Blaché before I saw a review in this issue of a biography of her;  that turns out to have been a severe gap in my knowledge of the early history of cinema. 

An editorial calls for forgiving the foreign debt that has done so much to harm Haiti over the years; a short essay by Amy Wilentz decries the “genteel racism” of many who have shown disdain for that nation; and Calvin Trillin’s doggerel verse expresses disgust at a couple of idiots who said ugly things in the aftermath of the earthquake. 

An editorial about the election of Senator Naked (R-Massachusetts) reminded me of some info I owe to blogger Maggie Jochild.  Maggie quotes a mass email from Democracy for America:

Last night, Democrats lost Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in a bitter special election. This is already a sad day for all of us who loved Ted Kennedy. But to make it even worse, conservative Democrats and Washington talking heads are claiming that the loss happened because Congress was “too far to the left.”

They’re wrong again — and we can prove it.

We had Research 2000 poll voters immediately after the Election ended: Even Scott Brown voters want Democrats to be bolder and they want healthcare reform that includes a public option.

You read that right. By a margin of three-to-two, former Obama voters who voted for Republican Scott Brown yesterday said the Senate healthcare bill “doesn’t go far enough.” Six-to-one Obama voters who stayed home agreed. And to top it off, 80% of all voters still want the choice of a public option in the bill.

The message is clear, there is only one way out of this mess if Democrats want to win in 2010. It’s time to pass healthcare with 51 votes in the Senate using the budget reconciliation process. And it must include the most popular piece of bold reform: the choice of a public option.

Jo Ann Wypiewski reminds us of one reason why Senator Naked’s election is not entirely bad news; his opponent did make her name by hounding innocent people into prison.

The Nation magazine’s first issues of 2010

1 February: The first issue to go to press after the earthquake in Haiti includes some recommendations for those who would like to find a good relief organization to give money.  The first organization I looked up when I heard about the quake was one I’d first read of in the pages of The Nation, MADRE.  In her year-end lists of groups that deserve financial support and elsewhere, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt has made mention of this organization, which supports groups around the world.  Most of MADRE’s partner groups are initiatives in poor countries, started and led by citizens of those countries, that prioritize the needs of women and girls.  MADRE’s Haitian partner is Partners in Health, which runs a network of clinics called Zanmi Lasante; they’re on the list.  The magazine’s website includes several more pleas for Haiti; see here and here

In the same issue, Robin Einhorn attacks Gordon Wood’s recent book about the early federal period of the United States, arguing that Wood shows a “remarkably naive sense of politics” that allows him to keep the South at the margins of his story and free white male Northerners at the center of it.  Even as he puts the focus on a rapidly industrializing region, Einhorn argues, Wood shows an uncritical admiration on for the agrarian politics of Thomas Jefferson and his party.  Einhorn grants that Wood’s chapter on the politics of slavery is excellent, but says that confining the topic to a single chapter, quarantined from the rest of the book, is profoundly misleading.  In the end, Einhorn declares that Wood has succeeded in thinking like Thomas Jefferson, but that this is no unmixed virtue:

If Jefferson had known nearly as much about his society as Wood does, Empire of Liberty is the book he would have written. It is no coincidence that the title is Jefferson’s, a phrase encapsulating his brand of velvet-gloved imperialism. Wood seems to know that there was an iron fist lurking inside, but he identifies with an audience that treasures the national fantasy of egalitarian triumph that Jefferson represents. Like Jefferson, Wood nods to the evil of slavery and the violence of westward expansion. Unlike Jefferson, he realizes that there was something undesirable about the way men treated women. But Wood’s focus remains squarely on the subculture of white men–especially in the North–who energetically pursued their liberty and happiness in the “republicanized” world of postrevolutionary America. 

25 January: Alexander Cockburn is disappointed with R. Crumb’s version of the Book of Genesis.  In Cockburn’s view, Crumb does not thoroughly deflate monotheism, but produces a more or less reverent text.  “If a conclusive disresepcting of Genesis was required, wouldn’t you think R. Crumb was the man for the job?… But the overall effect is more solemn than satirical.”  Cockburn is also disappointed that Crumb depicts the characters of the book as recognizably Jewish (in fact stereotypically Jewish, “hairy” and “with big noses,”) missing an opportunity to make the point that “There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion” (a line Cockburn quotes from Israeli journalist Tom Segev) and that Zionism is therefore an illegitimate enterprise.  Indeed at one point Cockburn claims to have “wondered whether Crumb, a Catholic long ago, had converted to Zionism.” 

I agree with Cockburn about a lot of things, but when he turns to Judaism and the Jews I sometimes suspect him of being a bit cracked.  Not that I want to wave the flag for Zionism, but it doesn’t seem especially reasonable to expect a graphic novel, even when that graphic novel is R. Crumb’s adaptation of Genesis, to achieve everything he demanded of it.   

11 January: A piece about the Polaroid camera and the pictures it took includes this:

Polaroid’s “now” having been driven into the past, it has become ripe for nostalgia. Found Magazine, launched in 2001, was well ahead of the Polaroid nostalgia wave and spun off a whole book of Found Polaroids in 2006, when the end of the road was already in sight. But for its author, Jason Bitner, the medium had always been “instant nostalgia–framed and faded, a picture that already looked decades old.”

The same issue includes an essay about Thelonious Monk that ends with this anecdote:

Monk liked to wear a formidable ring bearing his name when he played, an encumbrance that no pianist in his right mind would want to burden a hand with. While he was flashing his ring for the world to see, from his own perspective he saw something else. “KNOW” said the ring, more or less, to the audience. “MONK” was the reply when he saw it himself.

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