Not long ago a gaffe was made in Canadian politics. Yes, gentle reader – a gaffe. The dead in their graves cried out to heaven in bitter outrage, and the sun wept tears of fire upon the wretched Earth. The satyrs moped and the nymphs fornicated not, and then the nymphs moped while the satyrs abstained from fornication.
I refer, of course, to Justin Trudeau’s recent comments about the situation in Ukraine. Apparently he made a lame joke:
In his interview last Thursday with “Tout le Monde en Parle,” Trudeau suggested Russia, peeved about being eliminated from the medal round in Olympic hockey, might vent spleen by getting involved in Ukraine.
“It is even more worrisome now,” Trudeau said in the interview, broadcast Sunday night. “Especially since Russia lost in hockey, they will be in a bad mood. We are afraid of a Russian intervention in Ukraine.”
And that’s it! That, in the name of all that would be holy if it weren’t just random body parts dubiously attributed to men and women who apparently merit an “St.” in front of their names because some flagellation-addled hagiographer thought they got themselves devoured by giant weasels in a Roman amphitheatre in the time of Tiberius Caesar, is what people are complaining about.
Trudeau’s little joke elicited some earnest, disapproving commentary, including a particularly risible hatchet job from Mark Steyn. For the record, I like Mark Steyn. I think he’s sharp, eloquent and wonderfully acerbic, and I think many (though hardly all) of his targets are well-chosen. In attacking Trudeau, however, he veers into absurdity. He claims that the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada was “devastating” when he wittered that you “have to be extremely careful when you talk about 82 people who died fighting”, inviting the mild objections that Trudeau’s joke wasn’t actually about those Ukrainian deaths and that it seems unlikely that all of them occurred in battle anyway.
Steyn also intimates that Ronald Reagan’s jokes about the Soviet Union were superior to Trudeau’s one joke about Ukraine, Russia and the Olympics because of their ability to “illuminate”. Here’s a joke of Reagan’s that Steyn quotes approvingly:
Okay, one more: The Commissar for Collective Farms asks the farmer how the harvest is going. “Oh, comrade commissar! If we piled up all the potatoes, they would reach the foot of God!”
The commissar rebukes him sternly. “Comrade farmer, this is the Soviet Union. There is no God.”
“That’s okay,” says the farmer. “There are no potatoes.”
So apparently, joking about deaths that result from a harsh response to a civil unrest is beyond the pale but joking about a potato famine can “illuminate” a situation. My 19th century Irish ancestors knew that potato famines were no laughing matter, although I’ll bet they’d still have found this pretty amusing once they’d been brought up to speed on the 20th century context. Seeing the brutal side of something is no real bar to seeing the funny side, and vice-versa.
Better yet, though, Steyn writes the following in his 2006 book America Alone: The End Of The World As We Know It:
Thirty-five years later, the Palestinian Authority elections were a landslide for Hamas and among the incoming legislators was Miriam Farahat, a mother of three, elected in Gaza. She used to be a mother of six but three of her sons self-detonated on suicide missions against Israel. She’s a household name to Palestinians, known as Umm Nidal – Mother of the Struggle – and, at the rate she’s getting through her kids, the Struggle’s all she’ll be Mother of.
It’s a witty passage, and it makes a fair point about the fanatical and jihadist strain of Islam, but it’s not exactly dripping with pious respect for the value of human life. Mark Steyn is clearly a man who understands and indeed embraces the value of black humour, which makes his complaints about Trudeau’s little Russian joke seem more insipid and transparently partisan than ever.
Steyn the author of America Alone is far better company than Steyn the moralistic complainer. We atheists have learned to be irreverent towards the pieties of religion, and to me it seems natural and entirely healthy for atheists and theists alike to cultivate at least a dash of similar irreverence for the pieties of humanism. Russia’s belligerence towards Ukraine may be deplorable, but refusing to joke about the matter amounts to surrendering the ability to look at it from a vantage point – that of humour – that may be helpful in understanding the situation, in communicating about it, and especially in keeping it in perspective. Humour is the perfect tool for puncturing the overwrought moral fervour that geopolitical conflicts tend to inspire in some commentators, and maintaining a more grounded attitude. Trudeau’s sally hardly rose to the level of sparkling, mordant Churchillian wit, but I applaud him for at least having a go. It’s frankly one of the few good signs I’ve seen from the man.
Meanwhile, Russia has of course pushed ahead with its “intervention” in Ukraine, and the BBC reported (on its “live update” page covering the crisis) a Ukrainian claim that the officer in charge of operations in Crimea is one Aleksandr Galkin. The Russians are presumably hoping that he’ll be a more potent force than his namesake, Mr. Ovechkin, was in Sochi.