It’s no joke

From Paul Johnson’s wonderful Humourists: From Hogarth to Noël Coward. Having now flown from Budapest to London, where I finished the book on the flight, I find it both eerie and appropriate that this is how Johnson’s book ends.

In an attempt to put down ‘racism,’ the concept of ‘hate terms’ was introduced into English law for the first time. This makes many words and expressions unlawful, and punishable by fines and imprisonment. It is the most comprehensive system of censorship since the days of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, and means there are more restrictions on freedom of expression in England than at any other time since Hogarth’s days.

It is, of course, fatal to humour, if enforced and persisted in. For one vital quality of humour is inequality, and striking visual, aural, and physical differences. Differences in sex, age, colour, race, religion, physical ability, and strength lie at the source of the majority of jokes since the beginning of human self-consciousness. And all jokes are likely to provoke discomfort if not positive misery among those laughed at. Hence any joke is liable to fall foul of those laws. The future for humourists thus looks bleak, at the time I write this [2010]. The ordinary people like jokes, often crude ones, as George Orwell pointed out in his perceptive essay on rude seaside picture postcards. But are ordinary people, as opposed to minor officials, in charge any more? Democracy doesn’t really seem to work, and people are insufficiently dismayed at its impotence. Noël Coward made the point more than half a century ago:

There are bad times just around the corner,
We can all look forward to despair.
It’s as clear as crystal
From Birmingham to Bristol
That we can’t save democracy
And we don’t much care.

We visited The House of Terror on our last full day in Budapest, which is a memorial museum about Nazis and Comms by people who know quite a bit about it first hand. It is sickening to find that the principles that once made England great are rapidly disappearing, and most truly don’t much care among “officials”, and it’s no longer just the minor ones.

And for more on the same, there is this today from Steve Hayward at Powerline: Liberals and the Death of Comedy. It’s about whether Monty Python could be produced by the BBC today. I won’t tell you his conclusion so you will have to read it yourself.

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