The Joke's On Janet


Janet Albrechtsen had a curious piece in the Australian yesterday, a reaction to the controversy over an off-colour Welcome to Country joke told at Sydney University’s St John’s College. According to Albrechtsen, the scandal was a beat-up by left-wing "New Puritans". She writes.

"Without humour, civility cannot flourish. The tendency to label every joke or passing comment we consider to be in poor taste as something more, something sexist, misogynist, or racist is a sign of a New Puritanism taking hold… Declaring a joke or a comment in poor taste is one thing. Confecting outrage for an ulterior motive is altogether another thing, which is what the New Puritans do when they selectively find offence and discrimination."

Far be it from me to call Janet Albrechtsen a hypocrite. She is, of course, right to say that when people make jokes nowadays, their witticisms attract more attention than they used to. People are more likely to comment on the fact that someone’s amusing story may well contain a hefty dose of misogyny, racism, and the reassertion of old colonial or male hierarchies of power.

Is this, as Albrechtsen would have us believe, merely an attack on humour itself? That by identifying the extra dimensions to the joke, the wit is reduced to a banal criticism of politics or sexism or the patriarchy? In reality, it is Albrechtsen who is fiercely, desperately wedded to such an approach — one that excludes anything other than the punchline.

She denies the idea that jokes are not only humorous but also many other things: sometimes celebratory, sometimes cruel, often skewering, in a just or unjust way, corrupt or objectionable practices, and all the while responding (if they are good) to the political, economic and cultural environments of their time.

These extra dimensions of the joke are repressed from discussion: "Gesprächszeit Verboten" reads the sign across the Albrechtsen’s comedy Checkpoint Charlie. No entry into the forbidden area.

For someone who often espouses libertarian views, this cordoning off of topics which cannot be talked about seems out of character. Are we really only allowed to discuss public jokes in line with the dictates of the News Ltd style guide?

She hints darkly at the kind of censorship she has in mind, at the way she would like to keep some people quiet when she talks of the reaction of a "furious Aborigine" (denying at a stroke any valid reason for his anger) who was "almost speechless" in response to the Welcome to Country joke. But "alas", she opines, "not speechless enough". Shutting up black people is an important part of the solution here.

What has pushed her to feverishly grasp at this approach, this rather authoritarian censorship of the public sphere? One of the phenomena to emerge from the recent defeat of Mitt Romney in the US election has been the widespread shock at the inability of white American males to deliver a presidential victory for one of their own. This power crisis that hit the United States has spread quickly around the world and it is not just a crisis for the Republican Party, but for the patriarchy internationally, the global defenders of male privilege and authority.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that central to the victory of Barack Obama were the votes of male workers in the automobile factories of the Midwest whose industries he had saved, suggesting that Romney’s defeat was not so much a failure of white males in general, as a crisis of the power of white upper middle class males.

This phenomenon has also been manifesting itself in Australia: the drop in the polls for Tony Abbott, the unearthing of decades of paedophilic abuse in the Catholic Church, and at more local levels the challenging of the rituals and authority of the old boys’ club at St Johns College, the putative subject of Albrechtsen’s piece.

The column illustrates a further point about the crisis of the white patriarchy: it is not just a crisis for white patriarchs. It is also a major catastrophe for all those involved in the political battle to keep the ideological superstructures of white power standing upright, who toil everyday in the parliaments, the newspaper columns and tv shows, around the office water coolers and in the pubs. Many of these are not white males themselves, but form a diverse and multicultural array of ideologues. Indeed, like Ann Coulter and Albrechtsen herself, they can even be women.

We should probably expect more and more emergency measures to come out of the white male establishment as the crisis deepens, and we shouldn’t be too surprised if further restrictions on rights and freedoms are demanded in order to shore up white men in their positions of authority. Freedom of speech has taken a battering in the decade of the War on Terror, as have many other civil liberties. If we can be asked to give them up for the security of the nation, then surely it is not too far a stretch to also give them up for the security of the patriarchy.

But what we shouldn’t expect from the conservatives is a real sense of humour. Though self-righteously proclaiming themselves as its sole defenders, a sense of humour seems to be the one thing that eludes them.

When considering examples of progressive types making fun of conservative people, Albrechtsen comes over deadly serious. She notes, with scarcely concealed contempt, that "it’s called entertainment when the ABC’s Chaser boys poke fun at the Archbishop of Sydney". It seems that jokes that are funny or deal with pressing social issues aren’t really worth considering.

What’s more, the joke at the core of her defence of white power japes, the "Benedictine" acknowledgement of country (and which she herself admits to being not all that funny), was actually made years earlier by one of the founding Chasers, Charles Firth, at a meeting of leftie Labor types in Parliament House.

While trying to assert some progressive power in the face of the conservative elements of the then Carr government, the meeting began with an acknowledgement of indigenous country, immediately followed up by Firth’s own statement, recognising and paying his respects "to the owners of the land on which we meet: the right wing of the NSW Labor Party".

There’s little we can do in the face of these death throes of white male power but laugh. And we may as well laugh as much as we can as we find new types of humour in the passing circus of its demise.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.