Robert Frost once said that humor is the most engaging form of cowardice, but not really. In Some Observations on Style he said this:
I own any form of humor shows fear and inferiority. Irony is simply a kind of guardedness. So is a twinkle. It keeps the reader from criticism. Whittier, when he shows any style at all, is probably a greater person than Longfellow as he is lifted priest-like above consideration of the scornful. Belief is better than anything else, and it is best when rapt, above paying its respects to anybody’s doubt whatsoever. At bottom the world isn’t a joke. We only joke about it to avoid an issue with someone, to let someone know that we know he’s there with his questions: to disarm him by seeming to have heard and done justice to his side of the standing argument. Humor is the most engaging cowardice. With it myself I have been able to hold some of my enemy in play far out of gunshot.
There’s a lot to think about there, but it comes down to this – the world is not a joke. It never was and never will be – but if you can joke about it all you can deflect any existential heebie-jeebies you might be feeling about the deadly seriousness of life, which will end for each of us soon enough, ambiguously. And you can deflect any criticism of your thinking – because you’re cool, being cleverly ironic about it all. Hell, you don’t even have to think much at all. You really don’t need to take a definitive position on anything – anyone who does that is laughable of course. H. L. Mencken made a career of this sort of thing – mocking everything in sight, most of which deserved a good and thorough mocking. But there was a kind of emptiness there, and as Frost implies, if you make it all a big laugh you’re really using humor as a weapon, something to attack another, but most often as a shield, a defensive weapon so no one can pin you down to anything. You were only joking after all, and you’re left with nothing.
This is what Frost meant by cowardice – humor is morally dangerous. Use it sparingly, and use it wisely – and don’t hide behind it. This is also why some people are terrible at telling jokes. We all know such people. What they think is a side-slitting punch-line falls flat, because those who hear the words suspect the joke-teller isn’t kidding at all. The cat is dead and that’s not funny – or whatever the nasty joke is. People are pretty good at sensing pure cruelty. In high school, long ago of course, Mitt Romney thought it was pretty funny to get that legally blind teacher to walk into that closed door and smash his face, with Romney leading his classmates in laughing at the guy, and Romney also thought it funny as hell when he dressed up as a state trooper and scared the crap out of his unsuspecting younger kids. There are a lot of those stories – early on the man learned to use humor as a weapon of dominance, and something he could hide behind too, because these were only pranks. Robert Frost probably wouldn’t have liked Mitt Romney very much. At bottom the world isn’t a joke. Frost would consider Romney a cruel coward.
Many have that view now, as there’s a touch of obliviousness to the man. He doesn’t sense when his jokes don’t work, when his words are needlessly cruel and inappropriate – when he doesn’t get the joke he himself is telling. Mackenzie Weinger at Politico reminds us of some of the odd things he has said:
“I’m not concerned about the very poor.” – Feb. 1, 2012, in an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien.
“I like being able to fire people.” – Jan. 9, 2012, while speaking about holding insurance service providers accountable.
“I should tell my story. I’m also unemployed.” – June 16, 2011, after listening to a group of unemployed Floridians talk about their difficulties find a job.
“I know what it’s like to worry whether you’re going to get fired. There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.” – Jan. 8, 2012, speaking at a rally about sharing the anxiety of workers worried about losing their jobs.
There are more and the list is hardly exhaustive – the man has a tin ear. But it’s more than that. The Brits were not happy when he told them that maybe they couldn’t handle the Olympics as well as he did back in Salt Lake City. NASCAR fans probably didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy when he mentioned he doesn’t follow the sport much but some of his best friends are NASCAR team owners. He probably shouldn’t have mentioned his wife’s two or three Cadillacs when he was talking about how much gasoline costs these days. He probably shouldn’t have mocked those cookies in Pittsburgh and so on. Yes, his jokes are lame, but even his casual comments seem to come from another world – where no one really suffers, where you can kid around about anything at all – where your words and actions couldn’t possibly hurt anyone. It’s the world of money and privilege, of old money and entitlements, where everything works out. At bottom the world is a fine place, not dire at all.
Such people should not tell jokes, and the Friday before the Republican National Convention proved that:
At a campaign stop in his home state of Michigan Friday, Mitt Romney made a joke referencing the continued doubts about President Obama’s birth certificate raised by Romney supporters like Donald Trump.
“I love being home, in this place where Ann and I were raised, where but the both of us were born,” Romney said after introducing his wife, fellow Michigan native Ann. “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place where we were born and raised.”
An Obama spokesperson watching the speech tweeted that Romney was “keeping it substantive & classy” with the line.
Ah, but it was only a joke:
In an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley on Friday, Mitt Romney played down the remarks he made about President Obama’s origins, arguing that they amounted to a joke and not a “swipe” at the president.
“No, no, not a swipe,” Romney said. “I’ve said throughout the campaign and before, there’s no question about where he was born. He was born in the U.S. This was fun about us – and coming home. And humor, you know – we’ve got to have a little humor in a campaign.”
This was damage control:
While Romney’s remarks may have amounted to an off-the-cuff joke, they elicited a swift and harsh response from the Obama campaign.
“Throughout this campaign, Governor Romney has embraced the most strident voices in his party instead of standing up to them,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt emailed reporters. “It’s one thing to give the stage in Tampa to Donald Trump, [Arizona] Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio, and [Kansas Secretary of State] Kris Kobach. But Governor Romney’s decision to directly enlist himself in the birther movement should give pause to any rational voter across America.”
The Obama campaign also capitalized on the incident with a fundraising pitch to supporters. In an email with the subject line, “A new low for Mitt Romney,” campaign manager Jim Messina asked supporters to “take a moment or two to think about [Romney's remark], what he’s actually saying, and what it says about Mitt Romney. Then make a donation of $5 or more to re-elect Barack Obama today.”
Maybe that’s unfair:
“I think the citizenship test has been passed. I believe the president was born in the United States. There are real reasons to get this guy out of office,” Romney said in April 2011. Romney this year defended his alliance with Donald Trump, an outspoken “birther,” but Romney made clear he disagreed with Trump on the issue.
When Pelley asked Romney if he agrees Mr. Obama is the “legitimate president of the United States,” Romney responded, “I’ve said that probably 30 times by now, and 31 certainly won’t hurt.”
Fine, he made a joke about something he doesn’t believe in the slightest, but cleverly riled up the base. Frost would call that cowardice, and the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent sees it this way:
Of course Romney fully believes Obama was born in the United States. But in a way, that’s the point – he’s still willing to dabble in birther humor, either to rev up his base by proving that he’s willing to take it to Obama or whatever, or for a cheap laugh, or for some combination of the two.
Maybe this will get chalked up to Romney’s awkwardness and get dismissed, but it looks to me like a major mistake. Coming just after days spent debating Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remark, this is again a reminder of the extreme voices in the GOP, which Romney has at times been slow to denounce. And it seems less than presidential, to put it mildly. The fact that uncomfortably large numbers still believe Obama has perpetrated an elaborate plot to fake his birthplace and ascend to the presidency illegitimately is a pretty damn big deal.
It will be easy for the Obama campaign to seize on this to raise questions about Romney’s judgment, temperament, and character. Wow.
Andrew Rosenthal at the New York Times editorial page simply sees a coward:
Politicians sometimes think they can get away with saying something profoundly offensive or just plain stupid by acting like it was a joke. It never works, just like it didn’t work today when Mr. Romney shamelessly played the birther card in what seems like an increasingly desperate campaign against President Obama.
Today’s crack was way over the line. His audience laughed and applauded, probably not because they thought Mr. Romney was doing hilarious stand-up comedy, but because they knew exactly what he was up to. … It’s racism, pure and simple.
On that note even Cher got into the act by tweeting this – “lip biting over! Mitt Romney ‘NO ONES EVER ASKED 2 SEE MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE’ Ya No Why FOOL? U make ‘WONDER BREAD LOOK DARK & MYSTERIOUS.’”
That’s funny and maybe to the point, but Rush Limbaugh was very happy:
Here is Romney, I’m convinced, test-driving something. I think this line is a test drive.
So Ryan’s out there, talking about Obama and his bitter clinger quote. And Romney gets up to the microphone. It’s his turn to speak, and he test-drives that line about nobody’s ever had to ask to see his birth certificate.
I’m going to tell you what. You know, I’m gonna make a prediction for you. It’s going to be fascinating to watch. The Obama-bashing at the Republican convention is going to be delicious. It’s going to be five-star-restaurant type stuff. I mean, you’re going to love it. You are going to eat it up, all the Obama-bashing.
Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog sees what comes next:
I think Romney and Ryan are going to go for everything Sarah Palin wanted the McCain campaign to focus on in ’08 – Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, the whole nine yards, and not just at the convention, but through the fall. Racial stuff? Sure, but not just – also allegations of anti-Americanism, Tony Rezko, you name it. It’s pathetic, but that’s what seems like the right strategy in the wingnut bubble. (And Romney still thinks he’s undergoing initiation into the wingnut Crips, so he seems to think he has to do this.)
The only difference between this and a campaign run according to Palin’s principles is that Romney and Ryan are going to be sneaky about it – they’re going to slip this stuff in, then say, “Who, us? Why, we just want to have a high-minded discussion of serious issues!”
But this is what’s coming: a campaign that repeatedly goes there.
Adam Serwer offers this:
Romney is not himself a birther. He was engaging in ironic post-birtherism – showing solidarity with birthers by making a humorous remark that can be plausibly denied as a joke later. This is a necessary device for a Republican politician who wants to rile up the base without seeming like a lunatic, because the belief that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States is still held by nearly half of self-identified Republicans even after the very public release of the president’s birth certificate. Birtherism remains the most frank and widespread evidence of racial animus among some of the president’s critics. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic this month, the birthers, strapped in their waxen wings, aim for nothing less than the sun: “If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.”
The Ta-Nehisi Coates item is here – an amazing analysis – and Serwer adds this:
I suspect many Republicans who continue to subscribe to the birther lunacy do so because it bothers liberals and because it’s an act of symbolic defiance of a president they dislike. The problem with birtherism, however, is that the underlying assumptions driving it have always been broader than the president. Birtherism is more than just a conspiracy theory about the president’s birth. Its underlying principle is a rejection of American racial pluralism. The refusal to believe – in the face of all evidence to the contrary – that Obama is an American reads to many as saying black people don’t really count as American unless they talk like Herman Cain or Allen West.
So this joke, such as it was, was inevitable:
It falls into a long list of remarks that suggest an emotional myopia based on an extremely sheltered life experience. It comes across as gloating about the fact that, as a rich white man born into a wealthy and powerful family, Romney has rarely been subject to the kind of racist or sexist assumptions that clog the daily lives of millions of Americans. Romney might as well joke that he’s never been mistaken for a waiter in a restaurant or a clerk in a retail store – or that he’s never been selected for extra screening at an airport or randomly told to empty his pockets by the NYPD. The reason Romney doesn’t have to show the country his papers isn’t because everyone knows he was born in Michigan. It’s because whiteness remains unquestionably “American” for some people in a way blackness does not.
That should not be a point of pride for Romney; it should be a matter of anger and disappointment.
But what we have here is a casually-cruel oblivious coward. Robert Frost warned us.
Still there may be ways to spin this, and Slate’s Davis Weigel offers a few:
It’s just a joke. Well, sure, but who’s the joke for? Since the summer of 2008, false rumors have circulated online, alleging that Obama’s pregnant teenage mother flew to Kenya – or something like that – and gave birth to a kid who wasn’t eligible for the presidency. Starting that year, activists started filing lawsuits, full of false information, aiming to get Obama kicked off of presidential ballots. In 2009, somewhat surprisingly, the conspiracy theory became even more popular – more lawsuits, members of Congress proposing legislation to require birth certificates from candidates, endless rumors at sites like WorldNetDaily that encouraged people to support soldiers who refused to serve under Obama. Even through this year, Donald Trump has continued pushing the theory and Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio has convened a “cold case posse” that produced evidence – all bogus – that the birth certificate is forged. Romney’s been endorsed by both those guys.
This is no casual joke, as Romney is in bed with these people, but Weigel also offers this other possible spin:
It’s fair play because Obama lowered the tone of the campaign by joking about Seamus. OK. Mitt Romney once put his dog in a kennel on the roof of his car and drove to Canada. But Obama wasn’t actually born in Kenya. Spot the difference?
Then there’s this:
Hey, Obama has joked about the birth certificate, too! How can it be offensive? There’s some truth here. Ever since the Great Trump Interregnum of 2011, when the president published his long-form birth certificate, his campaign has sold a coffee mug that reproduces the form under the slogan “Made in the U.S.A.” There are, right now, hipsters who love Obama but have those mugs in their cabinets. But a fairly clever child is probably familiar with this rule: You can say certain things about yourself and your friends that other people can’t say.
In 2005, when he was gearing up to run for president and his state was famous for legal gay marriage, Mitt Romney liked to riff on the Mormon Church’s past practices of polygamy. “I believe,” he’d say, that “marriage should be between a man and a woman … and a woman … and a woman.” But when Romney ran for U.S. Senate in 1994 and then-Rep. Joe Kennedy brought up the polygamy issue, Romney – correctly – lit into him. (Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but I vaguely remember George Romney going nuclear on Kennedy.) Republicans would light into Obama if he ever made a joke like Romney’s. I could explain why, but it’s so obvious that you might pass out.
There is no spinning this, as the Atlantic’s Molly Ball notes here:
As a “joke,” it isn’t very funny. And as a reference to the controversy-that-won’t-die over the president’s origins, it’s a venture into very perilous territory for Romney.
The most troubling part of Romney’s statement is the implication that Obama is somehow to blame for the birthers’ conspiracy theorizing – that there are some people you can look at and tell they were “born and raised” here, and others who make you wonder, for some reason.
This implication of a certain hazy foreignness about Obama isn’t new for Romney, who frequently says the president doesn’t “understand America.” Romney’s adviser John Sununu echoed that when he said last month that Obama needed to “learn how to be an American.”
This seems part of an ongoing effort but this time couched as a joke, as when it is a joke you can deflect any criticism of your thinking – because you’re cool, being cleverly ironic about it all. So you somehow try to clarify your precise thinking, saying you weren’t really saying what you were saying, as Romney did in an interview with Parade magazine with this:
Governor Sununu was not suggesting he wasn’t American, nor do I. I believe he’s making us far more like Europe, with a larger, more dominant, more intrusive government. I believe if we keep going on that path, we will end up like Europe, with chronic high unemployment, no wage growth, and economic calamity at the doorstep. I think you have to return to celebrating success, encouraging entrepreneurship, and finding ways to get government out of the way.
That’s boilerplate nonsense. It’s not exactly deep thought and hard to defend in any specific way, so you take the coward’s way out and drop it – and you go with the joke. You can hide there. No one can touch you. You can always say you were just kidding. But the right people will know you weren’t kidding at all, which you can also deny. It was only ironic post-birtherism. It’s no wonder Robert Front was saying humor is dangerous.
But of course it was only a joke.