Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Top Ten ways to Avoid Jury Duty

Since I have been called up for jury duty, but have not yet had to appear, I have been considering ways to avoid it. So, without further ado, here is my list of the top ten ways to avoid serving on a jury.

10. Refuse to answer to my slave name.

9. Hit on all the lawyers (regardless of gender).

8. Try to convince the lawyers of Pyrrhonic skepticism. (Especially effective if they are asking for my name.)

7. Stand up in the courtroom and loudly ask whether any homeless people can take my place for the princely sum of $ 20/day.

6. Answeryay allyay estionsquay inyay igpay atinlay.

5. Scream, “Off with his head!” as soon as I see the judge.

4. Answer all questions with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ depending on whether the question ended with an even-numbered letter of the alphabet or an odd-numbered one (starting with letter ‘a’ as the number 1).

3. When called up, sing, “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,” and walk away.

2. Answer every question truthfully.

And, finally, the number one way to avoid serving on a jury, follow George Carlin’s advice:
1. Some people try to get out of jury duty by lying. You don't have to lie. Tell the judge the truth. Tell him you'd make a terrific juror because you can spot guilty people [snaps fingers] just like that!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Comments on Our Daily Bread, "Coverups Stink"

Next in a continuing series of critiques of blandified Christian moral lessons. . .

Every few weeks I look at the brief devotionals provided by a website called Our Daily Bread. My goal is to show that this predigested Christianity, made as palatable as possible for a broad audience, does not accurately represent the Biblical stories and lessons, and, even on their own terms, they present Christianity as morally bankrupt. Here is an excerpt of the ODB posted today.

Coverups Stink

The smell at an overflowing garbage landfill site became a growing public concern. So workers installed high-pressured deodorant guns to counteract the smell. The cannons could spray several gallons of fragrance a minute over a distance of up to 50 yards across the mounds of putrefying garbage. However, no matter how many gallons of deodorant are sprayed to mask the odorous rubbish, the fragrance will serve only as a coverup until the source of the stench is removed.

King David tried a coverup as well. After his adultery with Bathsheba, he attempted to use silence, deceit, and piety to mask his moral failures (2 Sam. 11–12). In Psalm 32 he talks about experiencing the intense convicting hand of God when he remained silent (vv.3-4). Unable to withstand the conviction any longer, David uncovered his sin by acknowledging, confessing, and repenting of it (v.5). He no longer needed to cover it because God forgave him.

It’s futile to try to hide our sin. The stench of our disobedience will seep through whatever we use to try to cover it. Let’s acknowledge to God the rubbish in our hearts and experience the fresh cleansing of His grace and forgiveness.

When we do something morally wrong, we should act to repair the damage we cause and seek forgiveness from those we have harmed. However, King David was not just guilty of adultery. We all know the story, I assume. David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his military officers, got her pregnant, then brought her husband back and encouraged him to sleep with his own wife so that the child might be thought to be Uriah's and not David's. Since this did not work, David sent him out to the front lines and had his other soldiers pull back when they were attacked so that Uriah would die. David then comforted the poor woman he had widowed and married her. David’s immoral action did start with the coverup of his adultery, but it was mostly immoral because it was an act of deliberate murder.

God (“the Lord”) sends some dude named ‘Nathan’ to tell David a little story about someone who has everything but still takes from an impoverished person the one thing he has. David is incensed, and then Nathan reveals that it is David who did this when he took Bathsheba away from Uriah. God, through Nathan, then threatens to take away everything David has, so David says, “Oops, my bad!” So God says, “Oh, that’s all right then. I won’t kill you.” Then God kills the kid instead. And, no, I am not kidding; God gives the innocent child an illness that kills him.

Our Daily Bread’s inference is that we should beg God for forgiveness when we do something morally wrong. The only sin, ultimately, is disobedience to God. If we disobey God, God will kill some completely innocent other person to make us pay for our sin.

This is dangerous nonsense.

First, ODB misconstrues the Biblical story. David only repents of his sin after God threatens to kill him for it. It’s certainly unclear that any true repentance occurs. It’s one thing to feel guilty and repent; it’s another to say you repent because God will kill you if you don’t. Then God punishes David by executing his innocent child. It goes without saying that this Biblical story reveals God as a moral monster, not a fair or merciful judge.

Second, even if ODB’s interpretation were accurate, the conclusions would be unwarranted. Morally, David must beg forgiveness from the people he has harmed; it makes no sense to ask God for forgiveness for a harm committed against someone else. Murdering Uriah and committing adultery with Bathsheba is wrong because it harmed Uriah and Bathsheba, not because of David's disobeyed God in doing these things. There is no sin of disobedience to God. If God’s commands are morally justified, then we should obey them because they are morally justified; if God’s commands are morally unjustified, then we should disobey them. ODB’s view is a variant on the Divine Command view of morality, and it makes no more sense as a claim about obedience to God.

Finally, if God exists and is all-knowing, then God knows about any immoral behavior, and so, it is not possible to hide one’s sin from God. But it does not follow that when we have done something wrong, the best action is to confess to God and repent. God does not enter into the equation; God is not the injured party here, and no one acquires any special duty to God by .

Confession and repentance can make us feel better, but the morally important issue is whether we attempt to repair the harm we have done to others. David makes no such attempt, yet God forgives him. But, even worse, the justification ODB gives for confession and repentance is that it will benefit us to do so, and that means, to them, confession and repentance, are motivated only by self-interest.

It’s hard to see even this bland version of Christianity presented by ODB as anything but morally contemptible. God rewards murderers and adulterers while forgiving them if they only ‘repent’ under threat of death, then punishes the innocent instead, and the ODB Christians tell us that what this teaches us is that we have to confess our sins to this God, not in order to repair the harm we have done, but to reaffirm our fealty to God and to make ourselves feel better. This daily devotional leaves me feeling less than devoted.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Some Thoughts on Carlin Romano "Is America Philosophical?"

Carlin Romano argues in an article, “Is America Philosophical?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education that America is in many respects a philosophical nation. In effect, he answers his own question, that yes, Americans are philosophical in that they are engaged in the kind of public reasoning and debate that characterizes philosophy.

Romano is certainly correct that public debate in America often centers on philosophical ideas and sometimes even addresses philosophical arguments, but he completely ignores the question of whether these debates are informed by good philosophical reasoning. If two drunks in a bar argue about marriage equality (whether same sex marriage should be legal), they are engaged in a debate on a philosophical question, but they still may fail to be philosophical. If one argues that the Bible says marriage is between one man and one woman (who are the lucky pair, I always wonder), that person is not really philosophical or a philosopher. If the other actually asks what the grounds are for moral acceptability of entering into a contractual relationship, and considers the reasons for those grounds, then that person is being philosophical. So, I will start off skeptical of Romano's claim. Americans are to some degree philosophical (in that many do reason in this way even if they don’t call it ‘philosophy’), but, so far, polls on most issues that generally require critical, even philosophical, thought, do not lead to the conclusion that a majority of Americans are good at philosophical reasoning. (This situation may be changing on the marriage equality front at any rate assuming that critical thought strongly favors marriage equality, and opposition to same sex marriage strongly indicates lack of such thought. Further, this assumes that supporters of same sex marriage are basing their beliefs on such reasoning.) So, my guess is that the majority of Americans (and even American opinion columnists) are, depending on your definition, either not very good at philosophy or not really philosophical at all.

The article is interesting but contains weirdness. Romano writes, in the course of arguing that little of Americans' insatiable media appetite is directed towards philosophers,

Despite a seemingly bottomless appetite for guests, neither the nation's better TV talk shows nor its tabloid trash fests have ever hosted America's great philosophers, even in a pandering format (''Philosophers Who Sleep With Their Ideological Opponents!!!'').

I don’t recall a lot of philosophers on talk shows, but Harry Frankfurt has been on the Daily Show twice, and just recently Stephen Colbert had Michael Sandel on to talk about his book about the limits of capitalism. I think a good part of the reason Frankfurt was on was for the publication of his book (actually a reprinted article from 1978) On Bullshit. Maybe this was just an excuse to have a guest use the word ‘Bullshit’ repeatedly on the show, but these cases appear to contradict Romano’s thesis. The examples actually strengthen Romano’s actual thesis a bit that America does provide some public space for philosophy and philosophers. Later in the article, the author does mention the Frankfurt book:

The combination of title and microsize accounted for the book's allure more than Frankfurt's reasoning, which, the retired Princeton University Spinoza scholar charmingly told one interviewer, he no longer considered cogent.

This sentence should be bronzed. The book is badly argued because the scholar no longer considers it cogent? By that standard, we should burn everything written by Bertrand Russell and Hilary Putnam. On Bullshit is a nice piece of ordinary language analysis, and I don’t think Frankfurt’s misgivings about his argument mean that it was not a worthwhile piece. Moreover, here’s the thing, Romano admits that philosophers do appear on television but invents some ad hoc justification for taking that counterexample off the table. Frankfurt was on a television interview show; hence, philosophers are given time on American interview shows. That's a clear counterexample to his claim. But, no, their appearances only count if the work is a good one (minimally indicated by the author continuing to find his/her own work cogent after 30 years). If Romano knows about the interview, how can he say that America’s great philosophers have never been interviewed? Is the Daily Show not one of the nation's “better TV talk shows”? If he thinks the Daily Show is not one of the better ones, what on earth qualifies as a better one? Or is Frankfurt not a great philosopher? After all, according to the author, he’s just a ‘retired Princeton University Spinoza scholar’. On the other hand, wouldn’t it count more strongly for the idea that talk shows interview philosophers if even not-great philosophers can get them? (By the way, I really like Harry Frankfurt but I’m not taking a stand on whether he’s great or not. Who knows what counts as a great philosopher? Romano doesn’t tell us anyway.)

Now Romano turns to critics of American culture, to those who think Americans are, on the whole, pig ignorant and even have a culture that celebrates pig-ignorance. (Does this thesis need to be defended? Does Romano own a television set?)

In Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles Pierce argued that we live in the land of his title, "the America of the medicine wagon and the tent revival, the America of the juke joint and the gambling den," that we remain "the best country ever in which to peddle complete public lunacy."

Romano responds:

Pierce's prime evidence—conservative talk-show hosts and intelligent-design advocates—hardly made his case. . . Indeed, sound judgments about American culture always depend on how one sifts and looks at large swaths of evidence, not an example here or there.

I’m not following this at all. I haven’t read Pierce’s book, but if the quotation states his thesis adequately, it seems as though conservative talk show hosts and intelligent design advocates (aka creationists) provide a fairly compelling case that being professionally dumb or scientifically misinformed can be highly lucrative in America. I’m not sure that makes America the” best country ever” in which to be professionally stupid, but it appears Pierce is guilty only of hyperbole not poor statistical reasoning.

Romano continues arguing that Americans ain’t so dumb after all:

Religious fundamentalism in the United States, for instance, is seen by some as the embodiment of irrationality. But it's also possible for even an atheist to argue that religious thought persists not because believers are dimwitted, but because concepts like God and faith possess logical peculiarities that stymie disproof of religious belief in the absence of prior agreement on how one defines terms.

Does he know what religious fundamentalists believe? Has he checked the polls (or, “look[ed] at large swaths of evidence, not an example here or there”) on scientific (not philosophical) illiteracy? It’s not just that people have a philosophical disagreement about the existence of God, it’s that approximately 40% of Americans believe in the Genesis account of creation. That account is totally inconsistent with huge swaths of modern science. There is nothing about the concept of God or faith that can account for this level of scientific illiteracy. Scientific illiteracy does not imply philosophical illiteracy, but it’s hard to do good philosophy when you have no grounding in the basic scientific facts. If you really think that the Genesis account of creation is accurate (and presumably coherent with the scientific evidence), then you are not going to be open to a sophisticated philosophical argument about belief in the absence of testability.

I’m really digging the weird asides in this article. He dubs Richard Rorty, “America's most important recent philosopher”. Who does he think he’s kidding? I suppose this all depends on what you mean by “most important” and “recent”.

Romano does have a few well-chosen examples of philosophy in American popular culture. He notes the popularity of the Philosophy blog, the Stone, at the New York Times, of the philosophy and popular culture series (e.g. Philosophy and the Simpsons), and of some philosophy joke books. How does this compare in popularity to the typical Youtube video of a guy being hit in the nuts? Or a cat playing the piano? In an enormous and diverse country such as America, there are many pieces of anecdotal evidence (rather than “large swaths of evidence”) supporting either side on this question. Some Americans in some circumstances definitely have some philosophical interest and inclinations, but there is not enough support here for a conclusion as broad as Romano’s. (Maybe he includes the further evidence in his book America the Philosophical. However, I don't think I will be racing off to buy it.)

Romano concludes,

Americans have thus not so much "evaded" philosophy, in the provocative phrase of Cornel West, as they've sidestepped antiquated conceptions of it. In the post-positivist, post-cold-war, pan-Google era in which we live, America the Philosophical can be seen as a coruscating achievement in the pragmatist project that's been unfolding for centuries.

I’ll agree that there’s lively debate on philosophical issues in America, but it’s not yet a “coruscating achievement” of philosophical argument. It's more like an occasional spark.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Carpe Diem! and Other Bad Advice

Prophets, poets and even philosophers often say that we should act only for the present moment and not to consider the future. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (Matthew 6:34) Carpe diem! Seize the day! Because the present is all that is real, neither the future nor the past exists, we must find meaning in our actions themselves. [This is a paraphrase of Moritz Schlick.]

What’s startling about this advice is that it is so clearly terrible, shocking advice. If I care nothing for the morrow, then why not get drunk every night, use heroin, have unprotected sex to orgiastic excess? If all that exists is right now, why not go skydiving without a parachute (after all the landing is in the non-existent future)? Obviously, no one follows the Carpe Diem advice, or even could do so rationally. So why do people give it?

There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, this is extreme advice that compensates for an opposing harmful tendency. Reaching the middle ground sometimes requires an excessive pull in the opposite direction. If I try to bargain with my employer about my future wages, I don’t offer my actual worth but I name a higher wage. If I ask only for what I am worth, the amount resulting from the bargaining will be less than that, and I will be underpaid.

Second, sometimes focus on a goal can actually interfere with one’s ability to achieve that goal. I call this Mill’s Paradox (which isn’t really a paradox but a counterintuitive fact about human psychology—still ‘paradox’ is catchier). John Stuart Mill, as he explains in his autobiography, tried for a part of his life to make himself happy, and found that the more he focused on the goal of being happy, the less happy he was. He only managed to make himself happy by ceasing to think about being happy and instead doing things that he thought were worthwhile. Then, he found, without realizing it, that he had become happy. If you try to steer by watching your hands, you’ll jitter all over the road, but if you look down the road, you keep a smooth, even course. Trying to live only for the day may help people’s focus so that they pay some attention (one hopes an appropriate amount) to the day itself rather than the future.
This advice is a useful corrective to an existing opposite tendency. As part of a general humanist movement that encouraged people to attend to this world rather than a future afterlife, “Carpe diem!” is useful advice. There will be no future afterlife (I think), and failure to enjoy yourself and do good in this world means a failure ever to enjoy yourself or do good. But, even after the middle ages, people will still undervalue themselves in favor of benefits they can give to others, especially for their own retirement or to benefit their descendants. My own parents worked throughout their lives in order to leave things to their kids, and if their kids work throughout their lives in order to leave things for their descendants, there will be a potentially infinite series of people who fail to enjoy themselves or do anything useful with their wealth. If the lives of our descendants are worthwhile, if it matters whether they are happy and enjoy themselves, then it matters whether we are happy as well. Many people need encouragement to live for themselves now and not just for a future that may never come.

People also sometimes worry unnecessarily about the future. Not all worry about the future is unwarranted, of course, but many people worry unproductively. And thinking only about the present can help one release one’s concerns about the future. My guess is that the goal of worrying less about the future isn’t served well by encouraging people only to worry less. How much less? Does this replace worrying about the future with worrying about worrying about the future? The easiest thing is to try not to worry about the future at all. One will almost certainly fail, but the advice might encourage movement in the right direction.

So, while I think the advice to seize the day is objectively crazy advice, “Carpe diem! Gather ye rosebuds while ye may! Think not of the morrow!”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

This blog post is not funny

Discussions of humor are never funny just as theories of objective truth are never objectively true (not because there is no such thing as objective truth but because it’s just plain hard to give a good theory of truth). Furthermore, I doubt there is even a single thing that is humor. There is probably nothing that all types of humor have in common, and nothing that suffices for something to be humor. The best we can get is probably a family resemblance model of features that humorous things tend to have in common.

All of which is meaningless preamble to the question of the day: Why aren’t conservatives funny?

I joke, of course. See, that was funny right there. Wasn’t it? Or was it? I’m just going to take certain things as funny and other things as not funny with no argument or attempt to convince. Whaddyagonnado?

Actually, conservatives are frequently, but unintentionally, hilarious. I must make the question more precise: Why are so few deliberate and intentional acts of comedy or humor from political conservatives in contemporary America funny? There’s an enormous humor gap between the two sides of our political debate in America. Liberal humorists are simply much funnier than conservatives. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are consistently funny, but there is nothing even close on the political right. So, what explains the humor gap? Is there something about political liberalism, rather than conservatism, or the character of political liberals that lends itself better to humor?

Before getting into the meat of this issue, I don’t want to overlook or underestimate the obvious explanation. Comedy is hard. It is excruciatingly difficult and embarrassing to learn comedic timing and all the little things (proper inflection, phrasing, ability to read an audience, etc.) that make for good comedy. Becoming a good comedian must be one of the most difficult and emotionally scarring things one can do in modern America. There are physically more demanding jobs, and more dangerous jobs, but working in comedy clubs, refining jokes, and having them fail over and over before you get them right, must be emotionally and intellectually draining. The professional complainers on the right are just too stupid and lazy to do good comedy. And it may be that the contemporary conservative movement, with its aggressive sense of grievance, self-aggrandizement, and obliviousness, inculcates values in the followers of the movement that renders them incapable of the character one needs for good comedy.

It’s possible but perhaps not always plausible that conservatism so deforms one’s character (or attracts only those with such deformed characters) that no conservative could do good comedy. I will suggest, instead, that there is something about humor and comedy that makes it more difficult for conservatives. I will argue that some common features of humor or comedy, specifically its subversive, self-effacing nature and its focus on incongruities or inconsistencies, conflict with the conservative ethos. My source of assumptions about the conservative personality and movement is Bob Altemeyer.

His research does not address conservatism worldwide or even all varieties of conservatism, but primarily the right-wing (politically conservative American) authoritarian follower. Thus, my references to conservatives are to the authoritarian follower type.


Humor is frequently subversive and anti-authoritarian. Conservatives in America are primarily authoritarian followers while liberals are more likely to question authority or those in power, even the authorities on their own side.

Carlos is late for work on his construction job for the third time in a week and the foreman talks to him about it. “Carlos, If you’re late for work again, I’ll have to fire you.” Carlos replies, “I am sorry, senor, but I have terrible headache this morning and had hard time getting to work.” The foreman says, “You should do what I do when I have a headache. I get my wife to give me a blowjob and the headache clears up right away.” The next day Carlos shows up for work on time and bright-eyed. The foreman says, “So, did you have a headache and take my advice?” Carlos responds, “Si, senor. Your wife, she is very nice.”

This joke would not be as funny if the foreman had been the one with the headache who got a blowjob from Carlos’s wife. The foreman gets his comeuppance for his attitude of superiority toward Carlos, and Carlos, by getting a blowjob from the foreman’s wife, gets a kind of revenge on the foreman who has power over him. In that sense this joke is anti-authoritarian.

The problem for conservatives is that they have too much respect for their own authorities to be make jokes like this. Respect for authority is tied to poor critical thinking skills in general. Since conservatives frequently lack the skills to defend their beliefs against those who disagree with them, they tend to spend time primarily with those who agree with them and who don’t raise uncomfortable questions. Liberals tend to seek out people with different opinions rather than only seek out support. (Of course, everyone wants social support but conservative prefer not to have diversity of opinion.) I’ve seen this on questions on religion I’ve asked students. Conservative religious believers are much more likely to seek out authority and confirmation when they are faced with doubts about their beliefs. Liberal/less-religious people are more likely to seek out opinions from people on all sides of an issue. The anti-authoritarianism one finds in many jokes is, thus, uncomfortable for typical American conservatives.

Conservatives are happy to attack liberal authorities. However, given the nature of liberalism in America, there are people liberals respect, but there aren’t really liberal authorities. Similarly, liberal humor is often self-effacing and willing to critique one’s ideological allies or authorities (to the extent that there are any). If one’s world-view is supported more by reason and less by group conformity, then it is easier to criticize, even in jest, one’s ideological colleagues. When one has a foundation of good reasons for one’s view, jokes are less likely to undermine one’s beliefs. Hence, liberals have the unfair advantage of making fun of themselves as well as of conservatives. Conservatives can only make fun of liberals and those not in a position of power.

Question: How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Answer: That’s not funny.

I’ve heard feminist-sympathizers make this joke about the supposed humorlessness of feminists. I don’t find feminists to be actually humorless (in general), but they can still poke fun at the caricature of feminism as humorless. It’s not clear how well a conservative can do this with another conservative or ideological ally. Conformity tends to hold conservative groups together, and that conformity suffers from making fun of each other. Liberals do not rely so heavily on consensus in their group identification. Liberals are open to differences of opinion. (Sometimes it seems as though liberals can’t agree about anything.) I also think that feminists mostly don’t mind jokes such as this one in the way that conservatives mind jokes at their own expense. When authority, not backed by reasons, is all one has, then jokes about the authority are particularly painful.

Humor is often tribalistic. It tends to construct and reinforce in and out group distinctions, and thus to reinforce social cohesion within the group. Conservatives can easily make jokes that demean an out-group (just as liberals make demeaning jokes about conservatives), but when the out-group is a traditionally disadvantaged group, the humor is considered to be in poor taste. Racist or sexist jokes, or jokes demeaning any out-group, tend to maintain the self-esteem of the in-group. A lot of people will say that racist or otherwise prejudicial jokes are not funny, but I do not believe this to be always true. Even the most offensive things can be funny.

Humor based on stereotypes, even offensive ones, can be funny.

Question: Did you hear what the drummer got on his IQ test?
Answer: Saliva.

Our society now frowns more on racist or sexist jokes, or other jokes that operate at the expense of those of lower status. You can make jokes about bankers (or the foreman) more easily than about the homeless (or Carlos). That doesn’t mean that jokes about the homeless or, other powerless groups, are not funny. It only means one cannot tell those jokes in public as much. Since conservatives tend to ally with those in power, insulting conservative humor tends to be less acceptable in public.

A spic, a wop and a kike walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Hey, you three. You can’t come in here; this is a nigger joke.”[Note 1]

Incongruities and Inconsistencies

Another common feature of humor is exposing incongruities or inconsistencies. It is in this way that comedians are most like philosophers. Philosophers often discover a problem to worry at when they discover an inconsistency in what people in general, or they in particular, believe. These inconsistencies are a source of philosophical bemusement but also of humor. For example, here’s my favorite Daniel Tosh joke. (The What Would Jesus Do Joke).

Tosh points out the inconsistency of believing in a loving Jesus given the tenet of Christianity that non-believers are condemned to hell. More generally, there’s something strange about taking a religious leader as a moral paragon representing universal love and charity.
Conservatives are uncomfortable with dissension in their group and inconsistency in their beliefs. They have more difficulty with vagueness, ambiguity, and complexity. And, given the general failure to address problems with beliefs, they tend to avoid this sort of humor.

Humor and Truth

Humor has a complex relationship to truth. If humor often involves inconsistencies, does this mean that humor has as a function of helping us avoid false beliefs? Inconsistent beliefs cannot all be true, so, discovering, and being comfortable with discovering, inconsistencies in our beliefs might serve a larger function of guiding our belief systems towards truth or at least away from falsity. Unfortunately, guiding beliefs away from inconsistency is an unreliable means of guiding them towards truth. So, while jokes and humor as a reaction to inconsistency or incongruity may play a salutary role in our cognitive economy, I don’t think it can be exactly that jokes or humor help reveal or discover truth.

We often say that something is funny because it is true, but most of the time truths are not funny at all. And many times we find things funny when they are exaggerated or unrealistic.

The day after his inauguration as president, George W. Bush called his vice president Dick Cheney in his office, “Mr. Dick, I’m bored. I’ve already signed all the ceremonial bills I can and arranged everything on the desk, and I’ve run out of things to do.” Cheney replied, “Why don’t you find a jigsaw puzzle?” So, Bush went in search of a jigsaw puzzle. A while later he called Cheney again, “Mr. Dick, I’ve found a jigsaw puzzle, but I can’t do it. The pieces don’t fit together and they’re all the same color.” Cheney went to the oval office and looked in on the president. “George, that’s a box of cornflakes!”

GW was dumb, but clearly not as dumb as that. The point is made by exaggeration. Perhaps the exaggeration lessens the discomfort many of us felt with having an obvious moron as our president. Perhaps there is a deeper truth told through exaggeration, but the joke is not straightforwardly true.
I think it’s a commonplace to note that the truth is often painful, and we use humor to distract from that pain or that the recognition of a painful truth simply forces a laugh from us. The joke itself may be true, exaggerated, or understated, but it’s the painfulness of the truth that makes for the humor.

Other jokes, such as the one about the humorless feminists, aren’t really revealing truths at all. The feminists-have-no-sense-of-humor joke depends on the fact that people perceive feminists as humorless but not on them actually being humorless. I’m uncomfortable with saying that humor depends on truth since the truth is only about people’s perceptions.

In fact, we often joke when we cannot face a terrible truth. See the collected works of Allen, Woody. The humor is more because the jokes are painful than that they are true. Perhaps this is our way of admitting that something is true while taking away the painful truth’s sting, but it may just as easily be a way of hiding an uncomfortable truth, covering our fears or pain with self-delusion. For every joke based on a truth, there’s a joke that distracts attention from a truth by means of a falsehood. The source of the humor is the recognition of the truth, but the joke may call attention to it or to distract attention away from it.

Still, humorists who cannot recognize the essentials of the human condition will consistently fail to be funny. Alas, the standard conservative blogger-crazy-uncle-FOXNews talker has significant problems with recognition of the truth. With little ability to distinguish truth from fiction, or their alternative fantasy world, conservative ‘thinkers’ would have more difficulty being funny than liberals.

I don’t have a theory of jokes or humor, but I think it is more than a coincidence that humor is more often found on the political left in America than on the political right. The tendency of humor to puncture pretensions and undermine authority, to lead to questions about one’s beliefs or to point out incongruities in one’s beliefs, tends to cohere more comfortably with a world-view that not only accepts but values such questions. That worldview is more liberal than conservative in America.

All my rambling prompted by this Whiskeyfire post.

Note 1: I made up this joke because, as the point I made above, no one tells jokes like this in public anymore.