Frogs and snails and puppy-dogs' tails —
That's what little boys are made of …
Mother Goose wasn't kidding. My 6-year-old boy Ollie and his little pal have had a new game these past few weeks: World Trade Center. What you do is, you stack up two towers of wooden blocks, or anything else that will stack, then you crash toy planes into them, yelling: "Wheeeeeee! Boooooooom!!" My wife caught them at it in the living room and scolded them indignantly. Half an hour later I found them out behind the garage, playing … guess what? World Trade Center: "Wheeeeeee! Kah- B-O-O-O-O-OM!!!!"
I confess I am not going to lose much sleep over this. A certain appetite for violence is right and proper in boys, according to me. I'd be upset to think my son approved of the World Trade Center attacks, but I don't blame him for being impressed by them. Sure, I need to have another go at explaining the difference between (a) wanton violence by entrepreneurial psychopaths in the grip of crazy ideas, and (b) measured violence done in the interest of justice or self-preservation by authorized agents of a civilized state. At age six, however, kids have an awful lot to learn, and you can't expect them to learn it all at once. There are tenured professors at prestigious universities to whom the distinction between (a) and (b) is not clear, so it's not too surprising to find that one's first-grader is blithe about it.
What these six-year-olds are displaying is a lack of Emotional Correctness. Now there is a phrase I wish I had thought up myself — but then, I wish I had written A Man In Full, invented Collateralized Mortgage Obligations and asked out Claire Cooper when I was seventeen. Sometimes another person gets there first, you just have to resign yourself and move on.
Emotional Correctness means having the right feelings, just as Political Correctness means having the right opinions. "Right," in both halves of that sentence, means: "Approved of by schoolteachers, municipal union bosses, corporate Human Resources officers, Katie Couric, Hillary Clinton, The New York Times and any college professor of any subject that does not require the extraction of square roots." In the wake of the September 11th attacks (a phrase we have all typed so often now that I would set it up with a hot key on Macro Express, but for a vague feeling that it would be Emotionally Incorrect to do so … I'll get to the point in a minute, I promise) a great blanket of Emotional Correctness settled on this land.
One of Roz Chast's New Yorker cartoons in late September caught the mood. A woman is standing outside a bookstore looking with a dismayed expression at a book that is on prominent display in the store window. The book has a huge sticker on it saying: Now With 50 Percent Less Irony! Irony was out, see, along with satire, sarcasm, parody, lampoon, travesty, caricature (thanks, Mr. Roget) and definitely black humor. New Yorker in fact took a big hit in the wake of the etcetera. They pulled all their cartoons, which of course meant that there was no point opening the thing at all. The second week they brought back cartoons, but as the "This-Week's-Magazines" round-up in the New York Post pointed out, took care to make sure that none of them was very funny.
The Post, recently subject to an anthrax attack, has been having its own troubles with EC. The October 20th edition ran a cartoon by Sean Delonas. The cartoon had a left-hand frame showing some Post editors in conversation, one of them emitting a speech balloon saying: "What sort of twisted sicko would send us anthrax?" In the right-hand frame was a twitching Mort Zuckerman at his desk licking an envelope, a big jar labelled Anthrax close at hand. Zuckerman publishes the Daily News, the Post's rival newspaper. The Post has since been swamped with letters and emails saying: "That's not funny!" Personally, I laughed out loud; but then, people tell me that I am to good taste what Zsa Zsa Gabor was to women's lib.
Look: we are well into this thing now. The shock has worn off. Our jaws, that were hanging loose in horror and disbelief seven weeks ago, are now set firm with defiance and determination. I am truly sorry for the fellow who died from anthrax, and for the others who are ill — one of them very seriously at the time of writing. The anthrax attacks are of a piece with the suicide bombings, though — we all know that. It is all one thing, and we are, as I said, well into it now. We need some humor at this point to help us along, and I don't think we should be too fussy about what makes our friends and colleagues laugh. Humor is an important part of the process of collective healing. Humor, even — perhaps especially — dark humor, is in fact a healing and a soothing thing altogether. It is a defiant assertion of our humanity in the face of the unspeakable. Or not quite "in the face of": as now, it comes up in the period of release when the unspeakable has receded a little. It is all a matter of timing. If you have ever been together with others in a really terrifying white-knuckle situation, you know there is no joking at the time. Soon afterwards, though, someone makes the first wisecrack, and all present laugh a little too loud, even hysterically perhaps, by way of release.
Military humor is like that. Anyone who has been around soldiers much knows that they are not shy about laughing at the dangers and horrors of their work. "Sarge! Sarge! I've lost my leg!" "No you haven't, son. Look, it's over there in that bush …" Combat memoirs are sometimes very funny: Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That is an instance. Towards their enemies, fighting men are even less restrained. The squaddies (British Army enlisted men) sent off in 1982 to recover the Falkland Islands, which Argentina had re-named "The Malvinas," sang, to the tune of Cliff Richards' Summer Holiday:
We're all going to the Malvinas.
Gonna kill us a **** or two …
(The omitted four-letter word is an anagram of "icps.") I'd tell you the song the squaddies in Ulster were singing when Irish terrorist thug Bobby Sands was on hunger strike the year before, but after my "Israel, Taiwan, Ulster" piece last week, my email-box is already clogged up with outraged IRA fans droning on about the Saxon Yoke, 800 years of oppression and the wickedness of Oliver Cromwell, so I shall refrain out of concern for the tender sensibilities of terrorist supporters. BTW, where can I get one of those mirrors on a long handle for spotting bombs under my car?
Notwithstanding the reservations implied in all that, I find I have much less of a problem with EC than I have with PC. Looking back at my own responses this past seven weeks, in fact, I find that, with one or two minor lapses, I have been EC more or less by instinct. Far as I'm concerned, that makes EC much more acceptable than PC. Nobody is PC by instinct. Rather the contrary, in my opinion: PC goes against all the grain of civilized human thinking. Right now, though, I feel I am starting to lose my bearings a little. Plainly it is now OK to make jokes; but what is it OK to make jokes about? I don't think I'm ready for World Trade Center jokes, and in fact don't think I ever shall be. I'm ready for jokes about pretty much anything else, though, including — especially! — jokes about that pig-ugly son of a bitch who planned and launched those attacks, and his legions of rag-head disciples. Oops — am I allowed to say "rag-head"? Am I allowed to poke fun at his religion? (At the time of the Iranian hostage crisis, the London satirical magazine Private Eye ran a photograph of a mosque congregation all knelt over with their foreheads touching the ground, above the caption: "In Teheran, the search for Ayatollah Khomeini's missing contact lens continues …") Or is this one of those things like Jewish humor, which only Jewish people are allowed to indulge in? Have I meandered out of the zone of EC into PC? It sure is hard to keep this stuff straight. Katie, Hillary, could you give me some guidance here, please?