Did you hear the one about the queer, the Muzzie and the pre-op tranny?
No? Well, you’re unlikely to any time soon. The British government, fresh from recent proscriptions on religious and racial “hatred,” is pushing ahead with legislation that will criminalize homophobic jokes.
I’ve been trying to recall the last time I heard a homophobic joke in a public forum. You have to go back a ways. At Vegas, Dean Martin used to have a bit of business where he’d refill his tumbler and ask Frank, “How do you make a fruit cordial?” And Sinatra would go, “I dunno. How do you make a fruit cordial?” And Dino would say, “Be nice to him.”
But these days, no matter how cordial you are, it’s never enough. On the BBC comedy show Little Britain, a weekly glimpse of the hellhole of Hogarthian depravity that is the United Kingdom, there is a recurring character whose catchphrase is that he’s “the only gay in the village”—a Welsh village, I believe, so his claim would seem to be statistically improbable, if you’ll forgive a bit of Welshophobia—or is it Cymruphobia? Or Cymruhomophobia? Anyway, he doesn’t actually have any gay sex and he gets inordinately jealous if some real live practising gay comes passing through and threatens his unique status. But one could argue that his determination to be “the only gay in the village” testifies to the social cachet homosexuality now enjoys. On the other hand, one could argue something else entirely. On the other other hand, once you’ve attracted the attention of Constable Plod and his crack humorological investigative unit, you’re probably best to cop a plea and settle for misdemeanour hate-mongering and three points on your licence.
Down the leftie end of Fleet Street, various columnists, justifying their support for the legislation, or at least its goals, have tutted their disapproval of gay stereotyping in comedy. Limp wrists. Camp walks. Judy Garland references. I write as the token heterosexual Judy Garland fan (please, no tittering) on the Maclean’s payroll, and as a chap who’s sung with Liza Minnelli on TV (oh, okay, titter mercilessly, but no guffawing), yet I confess to some misgivings about the state demanding upon pain of a seven-year jail sentence that the citizenry pretend there’s nothing the red-blooded knuckle-dragging English soccer yobbo likes better than listening to Judy singing The Man That Got Away before he nuts you in the head, knees you in the bollocks and tosses you through a chip-shop window. To its credit, the House of Lords inserted a so-called “free speech” amendment to the bill, but the justice secretary, Jack Straw, has decided to repeal that, announcing that there are “no circumstances” in which the right to free speech can “justify homophobic behaviour.”
And why stop there? Representatives of the transgendered and the disabled were also invited by the government to grab a piece of the joke-police action. Interestingly enough, last week Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to do a retard gag on national TV. Referring to his bowling score (129) during an appearance on The Tonight Show, the Kibitzer-in-Chief cracked that “it was like the Special Olympics.” Ha-ha! What a wag that Obama is when he unplugs the teleprompter and kicks loose a little. How do you make a fruit cordial? Appoint him your GLBT Outreach Coordinator.
If my past experience of Mr. Obama’s notoriously touchy courtiers is anything to go by, it’s undoubtedly racist to suggest that the President is disablist. Likewise, Gloria Steinem and other feminists argued that Bill Clinton’s support for abortion entitled him to go around dropping his pants to any female subordinates who tickled his fancy (I paraphrase, but not much). But, that said, I do wonder how things might have gone had Obama essayed the same jest on a BBC talk show. Robin Page, the chairman of Britain’s Countryside Restoration Trust and a columnist with the Daily Telegraph, spoke at a rally opposing the government’s anti-hunting laws at a Gloucestershire country fair in 2002. “If you are a black vegetarian Muslim asylum-seeking one-legged lesbian lorry driver,” he began, “I want the same rights as you.” A jocular reference to various approved identity groups by a member of an unfashionable one (country folk). Mr. Page was subsequently arrested and, upon declining to answer questions without the presence of counsel, thrown in a cell. Don’t worry. He eventually cleared his name—after five years.
Her Majesty’s Constabulary: the joke police—in every sense.
That’s the problem. Even if you think it’s a good idea for the state to regulate speech, the only troops available to do it are blundering coppers and hack bureaucrats. Last year, as readers may recall, I had the curious experience of having the “tone” of my jokes examined in a Vancouver courthouse by the geniuses of the British Columbia “Human Rights” Tribunal. Hitherto, such forensic dissection has been limited to the more obscure literary critics. But not anymore. Following their week-long deconstruction of Steyn’s “tone,” the BCHRT announced that for its next show trial it would be turning to the “tone” of Guy Earle, a stand-up comic whose late-night put-downs of some lesbian hecklers were allegedly homophobic.
Maybe it would be easier just to ban all jokes, except for official government-licensed rib-ticklers.
Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
That was no lady, that was my Gloucestershire Comedy Court probation officer.
Human Rights Tribunal Joke Investigative Unit. Come out with your hands in the air, not fluttering around your hips as if it’s Carmen Miranda night at the Gay Stereotype Lounge.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To take part in a demonstration against poultrophobic humour.
How do you make a fruit cordial?
Be nice to him. Or else.
Sometimes you have to pick the lesser of two evils, and, if it’s a choice between offensive gags or massive expansion of state power, no self-respecting citizen should find it difficult working out which is the lesser evil and which is the greater threat. You don’t like the President’s pathetic “joke”? Hoot and jeer at him. Obama could use more of that. The best response to his suggestion that his 129 bowling score put him in Special Olympics territory came from the Special Olympics bowler Kolan McConiughey, who pointed out he’s scored a perfect 300 on three occasions, and he’d be happy to take on Mister Hopeychange any time he wants. That aside, I thought it was a revealing remark: as one of my Quebec readers put it, in Leno veritas. Away from the telepromptered hopeychangey touchyfeely mush, this President is not cool so much as cold. The PC niceties are skin deep, and this won’t be the first time he gives us a glimpse of the harder man underneath. Unlike Clinton, he doesn’t feel your pain, and he doesn’t care if you know it.
Still, if Obama really feels the urge to do crip shtick, I wouldn’t criminalize it. In Britain, Canada and Europe, the state advances too easily from regulating behaviour to policing ideas to criminalizing language. It’s almost too cute an irony that one of the United Kingdom’s few remaining principled champions of free speech is the creator of Mr. Bean, a man who barely utters a word. The comedian Rowan Atkinson said he didn’t think he was at risk of prosecution for telling a gay joke “but I dread something almost as bad—a culture of censoriousness, a questioning, negative and leaden attitude that is encouraged by legislation of this nature.”
Ah, but, as the computer wallahs say, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then criminalizing words is a way of disarming potential opposition, of inculcating a reflexive self-censorship in the citizenry. And, after all, self-suppression is the most cost-effective of tyranny. Political correctness isn’t merely the blasphemy law of our time. It makes communication impossible. It renders a people literally illiterate: the conventions of language used by functioning societies throughout human history—irony, indirect quotation, period evocation, and, yes, even comic stereotype—are all suddenly suspect. What a strange fate to embrace. In London, the Lord Chamberlain’s power to censor West End plays was finally abolished in 1968: it was widely accepted by then that there was something absurd in a palace courtier ruling that your script could have three “Bastards!” but not four, and that two specific references to sodomy had to be replaced with one vague allusion to heavy petting. Yet, four decades on, Britons now think it entirely normal for police constables and time-serving bureaucrats to function as literary critics determining the “intent” behind a throwaway jest.
To hell with it, and to hell with “sensitivity training.” The only way a multicultural society can live in freedom is with what the Toronto blogger Kathy Shaidle calls “insensitivity training”: we all need to develop thicker skin and rub along—without government monitoring. “CSI Catskills” is a totalitarian concept, and only a bunch of fairies would fall for it.
And just to clarify: I’m not saying you’re a fairy if you have sex with other men.
I am saying you’re a fairy if you think the state should police our jokes.