“Humorists have been scared out of the business by the touchiness now prevailing in every section of the community. Wherever you look, on every shoulder there is a chip, in every eye a cold glitter warning you, if you know what is good for you, not to start anything.”
—P.G. Wodehouse, 1956
I just saw this Wodehouse quote today (Pointer: Jay Nordlinger on Instapundit), and sure enough, a joke controversy came in through the bathroom window.
The Texas Tribune Festival, an annual gathering of political and media figures in Austin, included a panel on urban activism. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt complained that the Republicans running the state government opposed any measure on the environment—even, she said, local tree ordinances. Then springing the punch-line following her own set-up, she said, “Governor Abbott hates trees because one fell on him.”
The overwhelmingly Democratic crowd laughed. I did not know, but apparently Texans do, that at 24 Abbot was paralyzed from the waist down , when a tree blew over on him while he was jogging on a windy day in Houston in 1984.
Predictably, however, there was at least one person who witnessed this who was not amused. John Daniel Davidson, the Political Editor at The Federalist, was on hand, and tweeted the line and the identity of its creator out to his followers. Some Texas legislators and publications picked up on it, Judge Eckhardt was contacted and asked about its appropriateness, and soon she was issuing an apology,…
As usual in such episodes, the apology was not enough. The Texas Tribune piled on, writing about the comment and adding details about Abbott’s accident. Its conservative readers unanimous condemned the judge, variously calling her apology insincere, vicious, cruel, and mandating her resignation. The attendees who laughed were pronounced equally detestable. The Tribune quoted Travis County Republican Chairman Matt Mackowiak , who went full “How dare you?”:
“Judge Eckhardt apparently believes that his disability is open to ridicule if it helps her make a political argument. This joke represents a profound lack of compassion from Judge Eckhardt. There is no place for insulting Americans with disabilities and Judge Eckhardt should know better.”
Davidson closed his article by pronouncing the incident as a telling one…
I strongly suspect that if I hadn’t tweeted her comment that there would have been no public pushback, no apology, and no news story. In other words, was Eckhardt sorry she said what she said, or just sorry she got caught? Did she make fun of the governor’s disability because she thought she was among friends and could speak freely? Because she thought everyone in the room would be cool with it?
That’s certainly how it seemed…. she thought she could let the mask slip for a minute, tell the crowd how she really feels about the governor, maybe have a laugh at his expense. After all, just because he’s paralyzed doesn’t mean he’s not the enemy, right? And because he’s the enemy, we don’t need to be decent or respectful or civil, do we? We can mock him in ways we would never mock a Democrat, can’t we?
This entire sorry episode is a microcosm of American politics today. All that matters is what side you’re on, and if you’re on the wrong side, everything about you is fair game—even a disability. This kind of crude tribalism encourages and enables bigotry, which is really the only word to describe Eckhardt’s behavior.
I confess: I thought the joke was funny. I’m not surprised it got laughs. First, it was obviously a joke: nobody would believe that Abbott literally has a vendetta against trees. The quip had multiple features that Freud identified as making something funny: it was surprising, since listeners had never thought such a thing; it was shocking in its political incorrectness; it was silly, it evoked a slapstick, cartoon image, and again, it was clear she was joking.
I would like to think that Abbott would find the joke funny; I would respect him if he did. Many handicapped people I know excel in black humor, especially about themselves. I am certain that the joke would have also gone over well if it had been made by Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher, Bill Barr, Wanda Sykes, Dave Chappelle, or the late Don Rickles.
Is it cruel? I’m not sure it is cruel; as black humor goes, it’s certainly rough. I would never want to discourage a comedian or humorist from making such a joke, even if it misfired. But of course, the judge’s party and political compatriots do exactly that. They grab onto any intended joke that pokes fun at their various sacred cow herds, and pronounce the quipster as inhuman, hateful, bigoted scum.
Is that what’s wrong with the joke—that this was a Democratic judge and not a professional comedian? There is some logic to that distinction: progressives and Democrats should be held to their own standards. Yet if we have to accept their standards as cultural norms to do this, I’d prefer to let them get away with their hypocrisy.
I also find the infantilization of the disabled, or handicapped, differently-abled or whatever its safe to call them by Matt Mackowiak obnoxious. Do Americans like Gov. Abbot really want to be treated like everyone else instead of like helpless puppies, or not? The President of the United States, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Rush Limbaugh and many other political and public figures are mocked and insulted routinely in ways that often aren’t witty or funny at all by politicians and pundits as well as comics, and nobody apologizes. Public figures are mocked about their weight, their hair, their hands, their legs, their speech quirks. Democrats in particular have obliterated all lines of decorum.
Take Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who has announced in public more than once that “We’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker,” referring to the President. That’s not funny. That’s not witty. It’s just crude, and we all know that any elected official who called President Barack Obama a “motherfucker” would have been condemned and shunned from sea to shining sea. By what weird standards does that kind of gutter-level rhetoric about the nation’s leader not require an apology, but an absurdist joke about the Governor of Texas does?
A culture that accepts pure denigration through political discourse containing name-calling and ad hominem attacks is unhealthy for our democracy, and so is one that suffocates humor by punishing legitimate efforts that may go too far. I think Judge Eckhardt should get credit for adding some wit to her critiques, and not be forced to grovel at the altar of “Not funny!” I think Governor Abbot should have the opportunity to show he’s a good sport, and capable of laughing at himself.
Once again I find Clarence Darrow’s least quoted (except by me) encomium apt: “In order to have enough liberty, it is necessary to have too much.” In no realm is that statement more true than that of humor.