Entry from June 13, 2008

My respect for the “Letters to the Editor” page of The Times of London, always high, just went up a notch or two. On Wednesday, columnist Robert Crampton had written of finding somebody’s gold wedding band on a street in Paris at the same time that it was spotted by a young woman. She had proposed that, since it was a man’s ring, he should keep it, but it might be nice if he gave her, say, ten Euros for letting him have it. Fearing it might be some kind of scam, he gave her the money anyway on the grounds that he would be a better custodian of the ring than one so obviously mercenary if its rightful owner turned up. But he was still doubtful and asked his readers if they thought he had been duped. This elicited the following letter, published in this morning’s paper:

Sir, The young lady whom Robert Crampton encountered outside the Louvre (Opinion, June 11) has been working her “gold” ring scam there for at least three years. If he takes her find to a pawnbroker for testing, he will discover he has paid €10 for a falsely hallmarked brass olive from a plumber’s compression joint.

What I liked best about the letter was the signature: The Rev D. E. Ashforth, Leyburn, N Yorks. I immediately thought of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown when he astonishes the thief whose confession he is hearing by knowing more about the business of thievery than he does. It’s impressive enough that this polymathic paragon of a clergyman knew all about the scam, right down to how long it has been going on, but the real note of authenticity comes in knowing not only that the counterfeit ring had its origins in plumbing supplies but what the plumber himself would have called it.


You’d think that an article about political humor would have a few laughs in it, and that it would make at least some effort to provide examples of its subject in order to provide them. How, you might wonder, is it possible to write 2200 words about comedians and their politics without saying a single thing that could give rise to so much as a chuckle? Well, if anybody can do it, The Washington Post can. Yesterday’s “Style” section included such an article by Michael Cavna which boils down to little more than two sentences, one in the second paragraph and the other in the 25th. The first tells us that “Pointed campaign humor has more prominent platforms in this historic presidential election than ever before, from YouTube to Onion.com videos to the continued growth of satiric cable comedy.” The second, perhaps in illustration of the first, avers that “Among viewers ages 18-29, 39 percent said they learned about the presidential candidates and campaign at least sometimes from comedy shows and late-night programs such as “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” according to a Pew Research Center survey last December.”

Well, well. Young people are inclined to mix politics up with entertainment. Who’d ever have thought it? Interesting as this fact is, however, why not go beyond telling us where they get the entertainment and illustrate it with a joke or two? Either this didn’t occur to him or Mr Cavna was prohibited from reproducing any samples of the “humor” or “satire” he writes of — which is, of course, overwhelmingly anti-Republican, pro-Democratic and left-wing in its political tendency. Instead, he is reduced to asking a number of the satirists if they think their humor makes a difference in electoral terms. Some say yes and some say no.

He can tell us that “satirists [Bill] Maher and ‘Boondocks’ creator Aaron McGruder say their material maintains a consistent political agenda — something that viewers ‘can plant their flag in,’” but he can’t tell us what that political agenda is. He is allowed to say that Chris Rock is “a vocal Obama supporter” — perhaps because Mr Rock himself once played a black presidential candidate in a movie — and that Garry Trudeau “first made a name for himself by satirizing Watergate-era Nixon,” but if the one was ever funny or incisive in his support for Senator Obama or the other in his opposition to Nixon, we’ll just have to take his word for it. He tells us that “Saturday Night Live” did a sketch suggesting that the media were in the tank for Senator Obama, but he leaves out the punch-line, if any.

True, a comedian named Lewis Black is allowed to opine that “this presidency is madness” while someone named Will Durst — who calls himself “a Raging Moderate” — claims that the Bush administration’s policies “have resulted in the No Comic Left Behind Act.” But these are mere assertions — nothing even allegedly mad or funny is mentioned to back them up — and by now so commonplace in the media as, perhaps, to seem almost uncontroversial. For, assuming that Mr Cavna is not merely a dullard, it must be the Post’s perceived need to appear at all times as taking an “objective” and non-partisan approach to all subjects which is at work here. Even to report somebody else’s partisan attack, particularly if it is funny or telling, risks being labeled partisan oneself. The irony is that this obsessive avoidance of partisanship is itself far more distorting of objective truth than partisanship would be — not to mention that it creates the impression that these funnymen are not funny at all. But then, perhaps they’re not.

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