Earl Butz probably began the movement toward political correctness, but his comments were said in jest. Indiana-born, Purdue-trained, Butz was Agricultural Secretary under Gerald Ford and told a racial joke that got him fired (rather, he resigned; nobody gets fired for racial jokes!).
In discerning the motives of Negroes (as they were then called), Butz suggested there were three top priorities. One, loose shoes. (Many blacks of that generation, especially farmers and country folk, had severe foot abnormalities and pain.) Dare I mention the other two? Tight pussy. (The outrage—and outrageousness—was as much in the use of the term; this slang was prohibited in polite or public conversation and it was startling to make any reference to the sexual proclivities of blacks, who were widely thought to constantly engage in hot monkey sex like rabbits. The use of the slang to refer to a vagina was seen neither as outrageous or funny, but dreadful; sex and women had not entered comedy.) The third? A warm place to shit. (Which dismally failed in its humor. For a generation who had grown up using outhouses on winter mornings, there was nothing funny about recalling the bone-jarring cold or the walk in the wet dew.) Yep. Got ol’ Earl fired. Hoisted pathetically on his own petard. And two-thirds of it was more true than funny.
Today the scatological comments about a black President are neither funny or obscene—or true; no line of public or private sensibility exists, no boundary of behavior is off-limits. Lost is any connection to reality, to any semblance of actual experience or cultural memory; missing are any ties to the hidden contradictions that elevate life beyond being a mere record of good and bad. Humor is no longer a guide post, a way of embracing the true-hearted. Why did political humor die?
My earliest recognition of political humor was in the slave tales. I was astonished that tales of laughter told by people denied freedom were filled with a subtle, complex, thoughtful humanity that soared above the conditions that bound their lives. More so, the punch lines were pure revolution. They told of how situations can be best met—humor was used to change the odds, to open windows, to build community, and often, really, outrageously, just for laughs. This simple minimalism was dangerous. How dare those enslaved find time and means for the joy of simple laughter, to replace paralyzing fear and the intrusion of control on every aspect of their lives, with a free moment whose joy even slavery could not kill.
Today, does anyone remember that slaves told jokes? Rather than feeling slighted by ‘ol Earl, they would have taken him under wing and taught him better technique. Prayer was an important part of that technique and the enslaved frequently prayed for freedom. Often they found a particular tree near the edge of the fields and in the afternoons fervently asked God for freedom. One day, a voice answered an especially prayerful member of the enslaved community and promised the money to purchase his freedom if he passed the trials of faith. Each day the voice said, ten dollars would be found at the base of the tree. Each day, the faithful slave found what seemed to be this divine gift. Fifty dollars was the amount needed to purchase his freedom and soon the total reached forty dollars.
But that day, the voice placed before him the test. Bring the entire forty dollars tomorrow and leave it. Come the next day and you shall have your fifty. The slave thanked the voice profusely, but he finally picked the money up and replied he’d get the other ten on his own.
Make no mistake that this lesson on self-reliance has any resemblance to Rush Limbaugh’s vicious putdowns. He attempts to disguise attacks as irony, parody, sarcasm, or surreal engagement. But they are none of these. His conclusions are false, his purpose is to intimidate. He uses words as stones and calls it funny. But his words are simple confessions of hate and fear and proffers of threats.
One woman who applied as a CIA agent early in the days of women applicants exhibited no fear during a training exercise. To test her commitment to completing any assigned task, she was given a gun (which unknown to her, had been disabled) and was told her husband was tied to a chair in room behind a closed door. To prove her loyalty, she must go in and shoot him. She took the gun and entered the room. Violent noises drifted out. Finally, she emerged, out of breath, flushed, and handed back the gun. “The gun didn’t work,” she said. “I had to beat him to death with a chair leg.”
Lots of political humor savaged its opponents in the same way. The last master before Barack was Lee Atwater, who once said of a Democratic candidate running for South Carolina governor who had been treated for depression by electric shock that the state “didn’t need a governor who had been hooked up to jumper cables.” Somehow you were left with the image of alligator clips on his ears. In the case of Jim DeMint, a current senator from South Carolina, somebody removed them before a full charge.
Barack is the zen master of political comedy, another area where he fails to get credit. His laughter is overlooked: his funny angels don’t play well in prime time. The jokes in his speeches are awful and fall groaningly flat. But in his own voice, his takedowns are without public peer. Barack’s wit is a political fortress. His sly distinction at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner between the weight of Donald Trump’s decisions and words and his own, as President, when he contrasted the 3:00 o’clock call at the White House to deciding who to fire on Celebrity Apprentice, put Trump so firmly in his place, he is still receding more than his hair.
All of this reminds me of a Tibetan folktale:
A sheep and her lamb left the valley every summer, going to a plateau where grass was plentiful. One spring, they met a wolf. “Oh wolf,” cried the sheep, “we are doing no harm; We are going to graze on the rich grass of the plateau.” “Well,” said wolf, “the fact is, I am hungry and will eat you both on the spot.” “Please, please, wolf, don’t do that,” the sheep replied. “Wait till autumn when we shall both be very much fatter.” “Very well, sheep,” said wolf, “I will spare your lives now, but meet me at this very spot on your return in autumn.” But that autumn the wolf met a hare who told the wolf he was collecting wolf skins. Frightened, the wolf fled. When they arrived, the sheep and her lamb passed safely.
The moral today: we offer ourselves too readily and the wolf has no fear.
But in the spirit of non-partisanship, let me offer to Republicans clinging to the past, especially Mitt, Lincoln’s adage: “You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.”