Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Humor

The power of humor: WoT Humor?

An thought provoking and amusing piece from The Jakarta Post:

Do Asians have a sense of humor?
Nury Vittachi
A teacher who wanted only to be known as Man-sir had sent me links to several articles which said the biggest threat to world peace was the culture gap between West and East. “Experts say the best bet for bridging that potentially catastrophic gap is shared entertainment: movies, sport, and in particular, humor,” he wrote.
But that’s the problem. “Westerners consider Asians to be wildly unfunny. And several non-Western cultural groups, such as Muslims and Mainland Chinese, they consider humorless to a dangerous degree,” Man-sir wrote. “We need to prove Asians can be funny.”
Intelligent, sensible people do not waste time on people who insult them. So I dropped what I was doing and phoned him at once. The world’s most pressing problem was a drastic shortage of Islamic humor, he explained. “Locating and distributing this will defuse global tension by showing that Muslims can be funny, charming and self-deprecating.” Thinking about it, I realized words like “funny” and “charming” aren’t used a lot about Osama Bin Laden, the only Muslim most Westerners can name. Man-sir was right about something else, too: Asian comedians are as rare as braincells in the Jonas Brothers’ fan club.

I’ll leave aside the question of asian’s being funny ( Anh Do always cracks me up), but the role of humor as a political weapon is a critical and under-discussed issue in shaping the psychological nature of the war on terrorism. This is something one of my favourite comedians Lewis Black noted way back in 2002: The fundamental difference between the west and its attackers was that we could laugh. We could laugh at ourselves, we could laugh at them, and relief from the burdens of life through humor, and in that we could find perspective. Given our moral descent into torture and the angry stridency that even 7 years later still marks our (esp the US’s) debate on terrorism, it’s worth reminding ourselves of this virtue.
Read the full article »

Enter the clowns

So Malcolm ‘Mugabe‘ Turnbull is in trouble, and the brightest lights of the Liberal Party have stepped up to bring down the tyrant. Or maybe not:

Illustration: David Rowe -

Illustration: David Rowe -

Former high-profile Howard government minister Kevin Andrews has confirmed he is prepared to challenge Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership of the federal opposition.”There is growing concern in the electorate that this is going to be a massive tax by Mr Rudd which we will be paying for, not just for years, but for decades to come,” he said.

“There has been no economic debate about the real impact of this on Australians.”Meanwhile, prominent Liberal frontbencher Tony Abbott says he wants Mr Turnbull to remain Opposition Leader and that he won’t challenge him for the leadership.

“No, I won’t be challenging for the leadership,” Mr Abbott told the Nine Network.

It’s possible to see Andrew’s claim as a noble act. After all no one in the party wants to sacrifice their best candidates like Abbott and Hockey for what is a guaranteed electoral loss next year (Given that no one is allowed more than one election loss anymore, despite its historical absurdity). So Andrews could be a useful caretaker leader to try and limit the losses, esp to the more capable members left.

Thats perhaps the nicest spin you could put on it, more likely its pure vanity. Andrews might know he can’t be PM, but at a cost of major disunity to his party he is clearly willing to take on the job of opposition leader. Quite a stark comparison to Costello who wouldn’t challenge to be PM, Andrews is willing to challenge to never be PM, but I guess it helps his biography writers find something to talk about. Even Banaby Joyce at the Senator doorstops the moment wasn’t willing to say anything nice about Andrews, so no one is really taking him seriously.

Andrews would be an awful leader, having neither the respect of his colleagues or opponents, and he has a very poor image in the public if known at all. More likely people recall him as the one who has xenophobic views about Sudanese refugees

Andrews was also the minister for Workplace Relations, making him along with Howard a direct author of WorkChoices. So while the Labor party drooled at the thought of pinning Workchoices on Costello as treasurer who introduced it, Andrews would be a golden target to re-run the workchoices campaign. And with Andrews far less able to defend it than Howard was, which was why Howard took away responsibility in early 2007 and handed it to Joe Hockey.

I doubt we will see a spill on Thursday, however Turnbull’s leadership is clearly terminal. Abbott and Hockey are going to stay out of the fight, so he may well survive until the new year, but if Andrews, Tuckey and Jensen can add about 5 more members to their numbers in open rebellion, then he won’t be able to ignore them for too long. (The media will make sure of that!). Still if we discount the ‘elder taking the blows to protect the young’ thesis for Andrews run, this must be seen as one of the most vain and hubristic claims of any politicians in a long time.

One final point about yesterday’s entertainment, twitter really came into it’s own for me during these events. I had to carefully cull my list, but when it was just journalists on the ground who were tweeting, it was the closest thing to being there possible. I’m used to having journalistic friends send me txt’s about what’s going on, but twitter let me and millions others have access to the best people on the ground in just about every situation. So if one person was out for dinner or in a different area, others picked up the slack to ensure total coverage. Congratulations to Annabel Crabb, David Speers, Samantha Maiden, Latika Bourke, James Massola and others for having provided such great reporting during the days events. It’s not yet a substitute for considered reporting, and indulges some of the worst of the 24 hour news cycle, but for those of us stuck on the glass outside trying to peer in, its astounding.

Update: Turnbull called a vote on a spill, allowed a secret ballot, and won 48-35. In an interview immediately after, Joe Hockey said that the votes today were the same as yesterday. A statement he repeated twice.

That is, everyone who opposed the ETS, supported the idea of a leadership spill. So clearly the idea of loyalty to the leader wasn’t worth a single vote. Enter the summer of discontent for the Liberals. Just a matter of time until Hockey, Robb and Abbott decide to run, of which Robb seems most likely.

And thankfully that is as close as Kevin Andrews will ever get to being the leader of the country.


The ‘daily outrage’ in the US last week was been the arrest of a black harvard professor for breaking into his own home. Gates understandably got angry at the officer who arrested him. What exactly happened at the time no one other than those two know, and in my view no one else should care. But this is America, home of the busybodies and so that has been the big news, rather than say the fact 48 million americans have no health care insurance. What was more surprising however was that Obama, normally one to avoid the ‘daily outrage’ waded into the debate: calling the police officers actions ‘stupid’. Of course this just made things worse and Obama has had to walk it back, and wasted a few days. The real highlight of this story however is the perfect acronym that this story now is labeled under: Gatesgate.

Now here in Australian in the aftermarth of Utegate, every 2nd conversation over the bbq (well pumpkin soup, it’s far too cold for the snags atm!) was the ridiculousness of the label ‘gate’ and wondering what next. A farming scandal named ‘farmgate’, a tetanus outbreak named ‘rustygate’, but leave it to the US to beat us to the punch and reduce it to it’s only logically stupid conclusion: Gatesgate.

This all comes at the same time as the original cause of the Gate meme the Watergate Hotel is up for auction and failing to attract any bidders. Whilst the actual break-in to record the Democratic National Committee in 1972 was rather minor in the overall scope of the Watergate scandal, the hotel’s place was enough to become shorthand for the entire investigation, the eventual downfall of a president, and the lasting infernal affix on every political scandal ‘-gate’.

I therefore propose the US, on behalf of political pundits and commentators everywhere purchases the Watergate Hotel and blows it up. Every single piece of that building needs to be destroyed if we are ever to escape the ‘gate’ clause. It seems only fair. Political watchers are the only real interest group which has never got direct government funding. Sports lovers get billions each year, as do seniors, farmers, apprentices, with soldiers, doctors and teachers all taking their pay check direct from the government. But what do political junkies get ? We’re the one’s who have to sit through the politicians boring speeches, endure their spin and lies, send our friends running as we try to explain (for their own good) healthcare policy in micro-detail and the historical origins of the filibuster. And what do we get for it ? Nothing.

So, as a gesture of good faith: Mr Obama tear down that building!

Tales of the Freaky

I had been happy with company including Bertrand Russell, Pope John Paul II and Tina Fey as fellow May 18th Birthdayers. But now it turns out way-to-sucessful-for-his-age- uber-Blogger Matthew Yglesias also shares this birthday. Hmm guess that gives me 2 years to go to Harvard, write & publish a book and get a job with a major magazine so as to catch up (And add about 50’000 readers to this blog!) (Although he published a book at 26, meaning I now have 364 days to get one written).

Growing up is hard…

The Gong Show

A fortnight ago I posted on the greatest of all political dangers: being laughed at. Stephen Conroy, your time is up:

The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has admitted that Bill Henson images were added to the communications regulator’s list of prohibited websites in error, while blaming the addition of a dentist’s site to the blacklist on the “Russian mob”.

Meanwhile, the website of the Federal Government’s censorship body, the Classification Board, was hacked last night and defaced with an anti-censorship screed.

The admission by Senator Conroy on ABC television’s Q&A program last night casts significant doubt on the Government’s ability to filter the internet without inadvertently blocking legitimate websites.

Q&A was inundated with 2000 questions from the public about the Government’s hugely unpopular policy, and the audience last night ridiculed Senator Conroy by laughing at a number of his responses.

Senator Conroy, under siege after this website’s report yesterday afternoon that an innocuous link containing Henson’s artistic photographs of young boys had been added to the blacklist, said “the classification board looked at this website and actually said it’s PG”.

“A technical error inside ACMA I’m advised included it … but it was actually cleared by the Classification Board so it shouldn’t be on the list,” Senator Conroy said.

“I’ve asked ACMA in the last few hours to go through their entire list again to see if there are any other examples of this.”

What’s surprising in all this, is that Conroy always struck me as one of the sharpest and most IT savy politicians Labor has. I remember watching him in estimates committee hearings using his laptop to help question public servants and witless ministers. Whilst they squirmed or quibbled, he (and his office staff via email) were quickly google & hansard searching for contradictory statements or alternate evidence. It was effective, and back in 2003 & 2004 an original step.

Conroy will last until the next reshuffle, but expect Rudd (likely 6 months before the election) to move him somewhere new. I hear defence might soon be open?

Of Politics and Mockery

Just over a month ago Michael Steele was elected Chairman of the GOP. In most western democracies party officials are largely ignored in the public debates, but in the USA due to the convoluted (or lack of) leadership roles in American Political Parties (other than the President & for 4-5 months every 4 years his nominated opponent) it remains a major position. Yet already calls for his resignation are coming through. Ross Douthat makes the obvious point that the RNC-erred in assuming Steeles charisma was the ship that would restore their balance.

Both Steele and Palin are extremely charismatic, as American politicians go, which is a big reason why Republicans of different stripes – moderates for the Marylander, conservatives for the Alaskan – have been so excited about them. But they’ve both attempted (or been asked) to chart a new direction for the Right on style alone, and they’ve floundered as soon as they’ve been pressed for substance. Steele has responded by telling his interlocutors whatever they want to hear, Palin responded by telling her interlocutors next to nothing at all – and the results, in both cases, are and were unfortunate

But whilst right, this doesn’t fully explain why Steele is under attack. Plenty of politicians, especially in the media driven atmosphere of US politics lack the substance required for their job, but fill it with charisma and certainty (See Bush, George.W). Steele’s problems relate in part from the mistake that led to his election, and from what he has attempted to fill that intellectual gap with.

First, though most are reluctant to ever say it, the African-American Michael Steele was in large part elected because the Republican party has a race issue and they assumed skin colour would override ideology and lead black americans back to the party. Just as McCain had a gender issue and tried to fill it with Palin, such identity politics however doesn’t work:

Women strongly preferred Obama to Senator John McCain (56 percent for Obama, 43 percent for McCain), unlike men, who split their votes about evenly for the two presidential candidates (49 percent for Obama, 48 percent for McCain). Defined as the difference in the proportions of women and men voting for the winning candidate, the gender gap was 7 percentage points in 2008, with 56 percent of women versus 49 percent of men voting for Obama. The gender gap this year is consistent with other presidential elections, where gender gaps have ranged from a high of 11 percentage points in 1996 to a low of 4 percentage points in 1992. There
was a similar 7-point gender gap in the final vote in 2004.

Republicans made the mistake of assuming that they could counter the first african american president with one of their own, but this was a mistake and the RNC is only now starting to realise this. Steele is not responsible for this mistake, (though he certainly benefited from it) but he will be hung for it.

Friedrich Nietzsche

- Friedrich Nietzsche 1885

The second error however is one of Steele’s making, and in it lies the heart of his true problems. Steele has made himself a target for mockery, and nothing in politics kills you faster than being laughed at. Politicians can be disagreed with, despised, denounced and degraded. But make them a joke and the veneer of authority disappears. Modern democratic society is built upon the presumption that the people willingly accept the authority of people who lead political parties, or merely participate in the debate. These are not people who can in any way coerce us to accept their authority (unlike the President who has the military & law enforcement to sustain his rule), and yet we accept that because someone is a “Chairman” of a political party they have some authority. Become a punch line and that acceptance of authority instantly vanishes. (There remains an opportunity for a great book to be written on politics and humor. The two go so naturally together)

From his call for republicans to have a “hip-hop makeover” to his insult & then next day public apology to Rush Limbaugh, Steele has been a boon to comedians and wanna be wits everywhere. Democrats could attack him on any issue from abortion (though there he contradicts himself) to economics to torture with as much vehemence as they could muster and it wouldn’t have half the impact of your neighbours joking aside about Steele turning the GOP into the Gangsta’ Only Party.

Unless Steele can find a way to return his image to one of seriousness and solid common sense (which Bush somewhat achieved over his last two years, after the left had got bored of its jokes) then he is not long for the position, and will drag the GOP -further?- down with him. Yet like many politicians in a similar position the expectation is that as he flounders he will keep retreating to what worked before, his natural charisma, and ignore the substantive issue which is killing his reputation. Insisting on party dogma more and more feverently so as to keep the base happy wont help either. The media know all the old reasons why GOP’ers are against abortion and for lower taxes, Steele needs as Douthat notes to have “something intelligent and fresh-sounding to say”.

(As an aside, I wonder how many people are suddenly linking to and reading Douthat now that he has been named the next big thing, via his selection to the New York Times Opinion Pages. I’m not sure if my own actions are from a blogger like pile on, or the old Australian habit of going after the tall poppies, or just resentment that he got such a position at 29, and at 25 I’m yet to be offered anything like it :P. As I forgot to do so last post, I should congratulate Douthat on his new position. A very strong choice by the NYT over that old hack William Kristol who, appropriately for our theme of the day, made an embarassment of himself with his repeated corrections for wrong information and utterly predictable columns.)