Observations On A Cruel—But Funny!—Political Joke

“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.

Wow.

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.

26 thoughts on “Observations On A Cruel—But Funny!—Political Joke

  1. Maybe it’s not so much about Davidson’s sense of humor (or lack of) as it is turn about is fair play. Democrats and the media are going out of their way to demonize those whose comments, intended as humor or not, don’t align with their group think. Perhaps Davidson is simply returning the favor.

    Personally, I thought it was funny also. I use dark humor all the time, especially when it can be used to ease tensions about subjects that are supposed to be verboten, and I hope Gov. Abbot is able to see the humor in it also.

    • Agree. If I were governor Abbott, I would. Say something like this. The judge told a funny joke, I thought I was funny, and others did too because it got a laugh.

      I don’t need an apology. In fact, I hope this is an acknowledgement by my opposition that such jokes are now welcome again as they were in the not too distant past. This is the party of safe spaces, speech codes, and a party with abolsutely no sense of humor. If a student on a college campus made this type of joke, he or she would be subject to punishment by the thought police.

      So I laughed. I’m glad your audience found it funny. But next time you scurry to your safe space because someone might be offended – remember, it just might be a joke.

      • We both know for a fact, OE, that if the political parties of each (Abbott and Davidson) were reversed, there would be hell to pay. National attention would have resulted at how uncaring the GOP judge was.

        No, I think this is just the beginning. Conservatives have taken it on the chin for so long the progressives believe their own jokes are reality, the aspersions they make up are true, and their opponents really deserve the death camps. Note how any non-progressive is a ‘Nazi’ deserving of ‘a punch in the face’ today.

        No, until the Democrats understand there will be consequences – personally painful ones – to not following the rules they have imposed on everyone else, we will never have civil discourse again. They will learn what it is like to follow the impossible ever changing edicts of their own party and those who set the rules, day by day, and perhaps reverse course our of self preservation. I hope so.

        If not, it will all be burned to the ground.

        • Found this article today, and think this is a good place to post, titled:
          “There is No Middle Ground with Today’s Democrats or the Deep State”

          https://www.amgreatness.com/2019/10/08/there-is-no-middle-ground-with-todays-democrats-or-the-deep-state/

          Some choice quotes:

          “It was all about how we deplorables view the world, a difference of policy, and about how America is to be governed—what we do as a country both domestically and on the international stage. They are quite sure not just that we are wrong but that somehow our opinions are illegitimate. Those people lost an election and they couldn’t stand it that an unwashed outsider walked into their holy of holies and called them fools, much to the delight of the Americans who elected him.

          If you truly believe that the administrative state is the vehicle by which you shall achieve the progress of implementing a demented “progressive” worldview, it is, essentially, your religion. We are fighting what amounts to a religious faith on the part of people who would impose it on us if they could.”

          “So if you’re wondering how all of this stops, how we return to normal, I will tell you what a friend told me: “There is no normal. There is only Clausewitz.” There is only absolute and total political war on this axis we face until we beat them into an unconditional surrender. The Left wants it that way because they think they can win. They want no holds barred total political war. Since we can’t escape it, I say we give it to them measure for measure.”

          There follows some agenda items that should be given deep consideration. Then:

          “For those who think there is some middle ground with the Left, there isn’t. There’s no negotiating with them until they sue for terms. Time to man up and fight: the future of our constitutional republic depends on it.”

  2. It sounds as if the joke was told in somewhat of an echo chamber and, there, it was funny. When it spread to a wider and more politically diverse audience it became a sick joke that required an apology. That mirrors some of my experiences with my weird sense of humor.
    It is not surprising that the county Republican party chairman found it disgusting, insulting, lacking compassion. Why not make political hay whenever you can?
    I found it funny, too, but I don’t know how sensitive Governor Abbott is to his disability, and I haven’t found any reports about his reaction. Perhaps Eckhardt knows, perhaps not. But, if she were willing to tell the same joke with the Governor sitting in the audience, then I would find it ethical, no apology needed. Kidding each other is something people do all the time; it should not be forbidden for political rivals.

  3. Okay, I guess I’m the outlier here. I thought the “joke” was cruel and offensive. And I say this as one possessed of a very dark sense of humor. And I completely understand gallows humor – and have opined on that topic in previous threads.

    But this isn’t gallows humor; gallows humor is that used by people who have working knowledge of the gallows. This is a political attack – and while political attacks are certainly part of the process, and humor is sometimes the cudgel, this one attempted to make light of a devastating, life-altering injury.

    This, from my perspective, is merely cruel. Perhaps Governor Abbott himself did see the humor in it – God bless him if he did. If HE had told that joke on himself, THAT would have been brilliant gallows humor. For a political enemy to do so, however, seems beyond the pale to me.

    Let’s take another famous bit of Texas political snark: that of former governor Ann Richards, who famously quipped of Bush 43 “Poor George, he can’t help it – he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

    THAT was funny. And witty. And a bit shocking, but given GWB’s upbringing and penchant for clumsy sentence construction, had that pinpoint of truth to it that made the gag work brilliantly.

    Judge Eckhardt, in my opinion, crossed the line between edgy humor and atrocious taste.

  4. Someone help me understand the difference between that joke uttered by a judge, aimed at a Governor, is different than any school kid making the same joke about another school kid who is now parayzed because a tree limb fell on him.

    • Don’t you think that’s easy? Kids are vulnerable, and don’t know how to take stuff like that. Adults are supposed to be able to. There’s a lot of behavior that’s unacceptably harsh when directed at a child that should be accepted by adults.

      • That seems to be a reasonable explanation.
        At what age does a joke morph from being hurtful to dark but funny humor?
        Does age differential make a difference or can a 60 year old college professor make fun of a 30 year old student’s speech impediment or other physical issue. Is the joke ok as long as the butt of the joke never gets wind of it?

        I just want to know who I can be the butt of my jokes.

        In all seriousness, we assume adults have thick enough skins to “take it” but if that is the case why are suicide rates rising, why are some resorting to violence when they feel “disrespected”? Why do so many opt for pharmacological methods of escape from daily pressures.

        The point I am trying to make is that our assumptions about making denigrating jokes about others is questionable and maybe we should think before we speak. That joke was not a spur of the moment thing, it was planned.

  5. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, being a judge, probably felt protected by a silver spoon. Didn’t anybody tell her?

    She didn’t know what she could not say. Had she said something like, “I think Governor Abbott hates trees.” the joke would be more subtle, more for the insiders and, also important, with plausible deniability.
    “Joke? …. There is no joke!”

    Maybe she should quit the justice department and get herself a steady job.
    Not as a stand-up comedian however because she can talk but she can’t stand-up … for herself as shown by her tweeted apology.

    • [Just posted the above comment too quickly]
      I don’t think the joke was too cruel but it was of inferior quality; the difference between:
      “Governor Abbott hates trees because one fell on him.”
      and
      “Maybe Governor Abbott hates trees?”

    • Being a County Judge in Texas actually means that she is part of the County’s Administration, not the Justice System. Sort of like an Alderman for the County.

  6. Granted, I have a overly dry sense of humor (as opposed to Jack’s, which appears to be “liquid” in the sense of being broad, universal almost), but my first (and last) reaction was “the joke is not funny.” I don’t mean it wasn’t appropriate or that it wasn’t sufficiently amusing — obviously many think it was — but that it was one step below what Zanshin called inferior, being just silly. Silly in the sense of being founded on the kind of observation a child makes: “ooh, bad tree! Bad bad tree fell on me.” Serious to the child, of course. But worth a giggle to a grownup (out of the child’s hearing) which puts it in the category of dissing and diminishing the Judge.

    Read too much into it? Nah. It’s a cowardly category, regularly accessed by politicians on both/all sides.

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