By R. D. Flavin

In the beginning was the Joke, and the Joke was with G*d and the Joke was G*d.
Jack 1:23

     There are those who ask for transparency in government, myself included, but I'd also request transparency in women's clothing.  Was that funny?  Yes, a little, though it likely alienated some readers for a variety of reasons.  We can't please everyone, government imposed standards for cross-platform applications could hinder the development of the next generation of cellular telephone software (and, perhaps, those who don't really want to know what's in the processed and fast-foods we consume), and most mentions of women's clothes (or the lack thereof) will disappoint or anger someone. That's a fact, Jack!  We need apparency.  The discussion and disclosure because of a diaphanous public relations policy is sort of okay, yet wouldn't it be simpler if things and matters were apparent?  Forgo the expensive nightie and just get naked!  Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (unless it's part of some role-playing game).  Less curtains, more openness and honesty now!  Okay, that last part wasn't funny, but it wasn't supposed to be.

     The United States of America is still a young nation.  Our brief history is storied with deception, betrayal, oppression, and wars, though our immature struggles suggest we retain a promise of one day achieving a greater good which might extend far beyond the needs and goals of the select few or even the countless many.  As an infant grows to adulthood, so too will America mature with confidence and wisdom.  But, we’re not there yet and seem to be behaving like a spoiled teenager with no thought for the future.  Some believe we’ll make it, while others hold that we won’t.  Regardless of ill-tempered debate, we must try. 

     It's easy to dwell on the morose.  Such examples of sadness and injustice exist in America and elsewhere that even to name them invites profound depression.  I've long suspected that with every 'new' statistical study of caution and warning, purportedly suggesting that there exists today more of this particular societal aberration or that cultural abomination, we aren't reviewing notice of epochal evil, but rather we've become better at compiling numbers and we're essentially the same wonderfully flawed humans we've always been.  Yeah, I'd argue there was likely the same percentage of Stone Age pedophiles, mass murderers, cannibals, and jerks as there are today, we're just better at statistics.  I'd also advance that in those ancient of olden times there was humor...

     For the last couple of weeks the American media (and celebrity intelligentsia) have concerned themselves with the irrevocable right (contra puffery privilege) of the Comedy Channel's animated television program, South Park, to make fun of the non-scriptural requirement of the Sunni faction of Islam to punish (read: murder) anyone who would depict a graphical human-like form of the founder of Islam, Muhammad (570 CE – 632 CE).  It's not in the Qur'an, the Shiite faction of Islam doesn't hold to such a requirement, yet the artistic depictions of the Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten 'Muhammad' controversy led to riots and deaths in 2005 from the publication of several Danish newspaper editorial cartoons, and now there are threats against the creators of South Park and the Comedy Channel.  In an open and free society we must defend the right to satirize.  We must defend humorism against terrorism.  If we lose the ability to laugh, we lose our sense of self.

     The pantheistic mythologies about the pagan gods contain many humorous accounts, asides, and comments, as do the Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Ridicule and mockery, while petty, are conversational conventions we use to exchange information with one another for currency of disparate opinions, that is, we make fun of things we disagree with and those who don't laugh are usually instructed to take a seat in the next room or leave the building altogether.  Now, in all fairness, the pagan gods are said to have performed many horrible acts, the Hebrew god is believed to have been quite vengeful at times, and Jesus is thought to have represented the “Heavenly Father” as extremely intolerant of personal wealth (though some, notably those who actually study the sayings of Jesus and those who make lots of money from them, disagree).  Yet, we find humor in the pagan myths such as the teasing of Hephaestus about his limp (Shorey 1927; passim Hewitt 1917), the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Job contains witticisms which predate Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack by almost three thousand years (Sparks 1907), and I'm told that, among other lessons (Knapp 1907), when Jesus taught the parable about putting new wine into old skins that it would have brought the tent down.  I assume other religions contain a similar mixture of somber and silly.  Islam and the Qur'an, however, seem to find it hard to appreciate a joke (passim Borges 1949).

     Last week, The Wall Street Journal ran an “Opinion” piece by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote: “Another idea is to do stories of Muhammad where his image is shown as much as possible.  These stories do not have to be negative or insulting; they just need to spread the risk.  The aim is to confront hypersensitive Muslims with more targets than they can possibly contend with.   Another important advantage of such a campaign is to accustom Muslims to the kind of treatment that the followers of other religions have long been used to.  After the 'South Park' episode in question there was no threatening response from Buddhists, Christians and Jews — to say nothing of Tom Cruise and Barbra Streisand fans — all of whom had far more reason to be offended than Muslims.”  Similar ideas and opinions have been advanced by others; there are even plans to conduct various “Everybody Draw Muhammad” events in the days and weeks ahead.  However, as fact is all too often as strange or stranger than fiction, Ms. Hirsi Ali is not only a commentator on the threat against South Park, she's also an unwilling part of it.

Screen capture from the web-site.

     As I understand the sequence of events, the day after the April 14, 2010 premiere of the 200th episode of South Park, an Internet website called re-published a photograph of the murdered Dutch film-maker, Theo van Gogh, lying on the street with his throat cut and a large knife sticking out of his chest.  The knife in Van Gogh’s chest also pinned down a threatening letter to Ms. Hirsi Ali, who had written the story and script for the documentary which incited Islamic fundamentalists to murder Van Gogh.  The name of the documentary?  Submission 1.  Yeah, the OED gives the etymology of ‘Islam’ as: “a. Arab. islām lit. ‘resignation, surrendering’, inf. noun of aslama ‘he resigned or surrendered (himself)’, spec. ‘he became or was resigned or submissive (to God)’, hence ‘he became or was sincere in his religion’, 4th conjug. of salama ‘he was or became safe, secure, or free’; whence also the words salaam, Muslim, Mussulman.”  Skinny: many regard “submission” as a direct translation of ‘Islam’.

     Van Gogh and Hysis Ali's documentary, Submission 1, erotically confronted the unerotic and heinous aspects of sanctioned Islamic abuse of girls and women (read: genital mutilation, rape, and ritual killing).   It was informative art, showed the female form as beautiful and described how wrong it is for a so-called 'religion' to encourage the sick, cruel, and self-destructive traditions which EVERYONE ON THE PLANET, except the Islamic fundamentalist abusers, decry as wrong.  Wait, I mean ...except the Islamic fundamentalist abusers and soul-sucking, kowtowing politicians who lack spine enough to support apparency.  What part of genital mutilation, rape, and ritual killing is okay?  Some years back New Jersey tried to address the issue, and allowing for snack and nap times, just got around to passing a law.  Yeah, we're lazy and turn our backs to make it easier.   It's apparent we fear religion more than government.

     The definitions of love, hate, and indifference are the stuff of life, art, and greeting cards, but should be expressed as best as possible in our laws, actions, and confectioneries (please, some candy-bars are so much better than others).  We strive for moderation, yet often polarize with extreme behavior.  Hanging out with ex-smokers or ex-drinkers is usually an un-fun experience.  By all means, kindly insert a favorite behavior and compare it with someone who has ceased that behavior and now regards it as ...not only wrong, but with a “the sky's a going to fall” prognostication of doom, gloom, and worse.  Such is true with religion, as well, as ex-this or that usually join an extremist sect or cult.

Yousef al-Khattab, Frank Collin, and Prof. Noam Chomsky.

     The founder of the web-site and 'organization', Yousef al-Khattib, was born Joseph Cohen to “secular Jewish” parents in Brooklyn, New York.  He lived briefly in Israel, studied to become a rabbi, but eventually grew disenchanted with the Jewish faith and turned to Islam.   His group is best known for handing out anti-Israeli hate literature outside of New York City's most popular mosque, which NYPD says approaches, but doesn't cross, our cherished (though vague) oh so fine line of speech.  Last December 2009, Cohen left and America, moved to Morocco (?), and is only peripherally attached to the group that he founded.  Cohen didn't write the anti-South Park material featured on, has denied and defended the threats against Matt and Trey on his blog, and continues to publicly demand the death of all Jews and the destruction of Israel.  This is self-hatred and it's been encountered before.

     Frank Collin, arguably America's most infamous neo-Nazi punk, is the text-book example of self-hatred.  After threatening to lead a march through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb with a prominent Jewish population, Collin chickened out at the last second, even though he was granted a legal permit because of a vigorous (and costly) representation from the American Civil Liberties Union before the Supreme Court.  He knew that radical members of the Anti-Defamation League were in Skokie waiting to kick his ass.  A short time later, his fellow neo-Nazis learned that Collin's father was Jewish, a Dachau concentration camp survivor, and threw him out of their hate club.  Desperate for attention, he agreed to a television interview with a psychiatrist, who publicly diagnosed him as suffering from self-hatred due to his half-Jewish heritage.  Completing a karmic hat-trick, Collin was subsequently arrested for photographing naked underage boys holding guns.  Collin's sad and sick tale is discussed elsewhere.

     The anarchist and anti-war activist, Prof. Noam Chomsky (Massachusetts Institute of technology, linguistics), grew up in a Jewish family from Philadelphia (his father was a professor in Hebrew at Gratz College), lived for a time on a kibbutz in Israel in 1953, and has been a huffy critic of Israel for decades.  At 81 years of age, Prof. Chomsky shows no sign of slowing down, and recently (April 20, 2010) delivered an hour and a half lecture and Q&A about Israel and Palestine to students at Brown University without the benefits of cue cards, a teleprompter, or an accompanying media or PowerPoint presentation.  The quiet rant against “Israel's illegal occupation” of Palestinian lands is readily available on a number of Bit Torrent web-sites for free downloading.  Some of the lecture's material is presumably from his forthcoming Hopes and Prospects (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2010), which discusses, among other things, the 2008 Gaza “attack” and claimed U.S.-Israeli collaboration.  His last book was on the Basque and his next (after Hopes and Prospects) will be about Native Americans.  It's one thing to speak out on behalf of the little people (Hobbits?  I once called the Israeli embassy in protest of their short-lived prohibition of The Lord of the Rings because, they argued, the trilogy championed the story of a “little people” rising up against an evil foe), but to spend so much of one's time unpleasantly criticizing one's own people seems obsessive.  However, the PLO has often incited OCD since the negative public reaction to Vanessa Redgrave's 1977 documentary on Palestine (the 1984 lawsuit against the BSO is an easy example).  Sometimes, pick a number, an “ex-” whatever may not be the best source of an unbiased commentary.   I'd strongly suggest that there are many unresolved personal issues involved with the “ex-” whatever and a variety of medications and psychotherapies are available which could help.

     It'd be irresponsible to suggest or even insinuate that ex-Jews are any more susceptible to fanaticism than ex-Catholics, ex-Scientologists, or ex-Republicans.  The above examples just happen to be ex-Jews.  Personally, I'd love to complain about former cannibals, but the background research would be too daunting of a challenge for me and it's not like I could easily place an ad on Craigslist requesting interviews over drinks and hors d'oeuvres.  Okay, maybe I could, but I don't want to.

     After episodes 200 and 201, South Park ended their fourteenth season with “Intervention,” a fairly tame episode about a substance abusing talking towel.  Mmm...  Reality just re-asserted itself.

     I've been working on an exceptionally bad joke to end this column (a variation of a worm, a squid, and a snail walk into a bar...), but chuckles will have to wait.  A stranger sent me an e-mail yesterday which reads: “Just thought I would send you a quick note asking you to remove the images of Mormon garments from your site.  They are offensive, not funny.”  It wasn't the first time I'd received such an e-mail, in fact I've gotten maybe a dozen over the last several years.  I wrote back: “Nope, fair is fair, but thanks for taking the time to ...waste mine.”  Apparently this response wasn't suitable and another e-mail quickly arrived, which reads: “It doesn't hurt to ask before other means are used...”  Wait, what?  Other means?  I'm getting threatened because of Mormon underwear embroidered with Masonic symbolism?

     The e-mails originated from an address I wasn't familiar with.  A quick check on Google revealed they were from a company in Missouri...  Ah, a “reformed” Mormon!  I wrote to the CEO of the company and asked that I stop receiving threatening e-mails from his company's accounts.  Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by someone who introduced himself as the “chief information officer” of the company.  I sent him copies of the e-mails and gave him a quick telephone call.  His professionalism impressed me, he said he'd speak with the fellow the next day, I suggested that an apology would be in order and that if I received one I'd consider the matter closed.  Yeah, I'm thinking I'm not going to be getting that apology...

     Late last night, I got a long and rambling e-mail from the guy's personal account.  The e-mail ended with: “Civilization only works when rights are exercised and balanced with respect and personal responsibility.  In the absence of balance you are knowingly taking risks.  I personally try to balance the rights we share with responsibility, so I can tell you that that effort nearly eliminates all fear.  A reward for seeking integrity.”  So, the magic underwear removes fear?

     Threats from fanatics are real.  The attempted Times Square bombing last Saturday night demonstrates yet again that we need freedom of religion, but also ...freedom from religion.  A decade ago, in my “It'll Be Okay” column I offered that everything would one day work out, as we gave religion its power and we could easily take it back.  Yeah, I'm going to have to re-think that one.

The Great Humorist, Moe Howard, forever funny be his shtick and that of his sidekicks.

Borges, Jorge Louis.  1949.  “La busca de Averroes."  El Aleph.  Buenos Aires, AR: Editorial Losada.  See also: Borges, Jorge Luis.  1962.
  “Averroes' Search."  Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings.  Edited by Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby.  Preface by Andre
  Maurois.  New York: New Directions.
Hewitt, Joseph William.  1917.  “Religious Burlesque in Aristophanes and Elsewhere.”  The American Journal of Philology.  38, 2: 176-185.
Knapp, Shepard.  1907.  “Traces of Humor in the Sayings of Jesus.”  The Biblical World.  29, 3: 201-207.
Shorey, Paul.  1927. “Homeric Laughter.”  Classical Philology.  22, 2: 222-223.
Sparks, George Downing.  1907.  “The Wit and Humor of the Old Testament.”  The Sewanee Review.  15, 3: 340-352.

Wondering if I can win the funny fight

Return to