Little Changes

I first went to Germany in the early 1990s. I’d been to Switzerland with a history tour group, but this was my first time more or less on my own in a foreign country. It is amazing how quickly your language skills improve when you are trying to sort out if the meat-in-a-can is something like stew or hash, or if it is a version of Alpo dog food. You also learn which bakeries are open when, and which ones have the really, really good stuff.

I only had class four days a week, so one day I’d train hop (ah, the student rail pass, how I loved you) and go exploring. I had a great deal of fun, learned a lot more than I did in class, and became fond of German humor, including tee shirts. Helmut Kohl was Chancellor at the time, and not entirely popular. There were shirts that showed him ironing his trousers. The phone was ringing, and he had the iron to his ear saying, “Hello? Kohl here. Hello?” Or the Chancellor with a cabbage for a head. Another that tickled my funny bone wasn’t political. Mandatory recycling had just started, and one of the shorts had the “green dot” symbol in the middle and said, “Ich glaub an Recycling. Ich war einmal ein Pfand.” I believe in recycling. I was once a deposit bottle. There were others from the famous Loriot cartoon collections, more obscure political jokes, and so on. You could find these all over the place.

The past few years, I’ve not seen nearly as many of the funny shirts. The ones I did see were all regional humor, like sailing jokes up on the North Sea (I got a coffee mug, should have gotten the one about taxes), or “The Black Forest at Night” sort of thing. No political jokes. No one makes fun of Angela Merkel or the head of the EU on tee-shirts.

I suspect part of it is the rise of the Internet and memes. Why pay twenty dollars for a tee-shirt when you can post a meme?

Part of the lack stems from having politicians who cannot laugh at themselves. Ross Perot joked that he’d be a good president, “Because I’m all ears.” Regan teased that “I won’t hold my opponent’s youth and inexperience against him” when debating Walter Mondale. I have never read or seen Angela Merkel, Pres. Obama, Jeremy Corbin (Labour UK) and others joke at their own expense.

I also have a feeling that the political climate has gotten too serious to risk wearing something that broadcasts your opinions, especially if those opinions differ from the official government policies. We see it in the US as well, where certain kinds of ball caps or tee-shirts get people threatened or assaulted. I can just imagine what might happen if someone went walking down a street in, oh, parts of Berlin with the Chancellorin in a hijib and “Mutti Multikulti” on a shirt.

If we can’t laugh at politics and at differences, what comes next? Well, I suspect most of us have an unhappy suspicion of what comes next. Life has become deadly serious for too many people. “[Person] is literally [evil]” or “[Person] will destroy our freedoms and wants to turn the country into [bad thing/place]!”

We find humor in other people and in the foibles of life. If we can’t see the humanity in people we disagree with, how long until we stop seeing them as people? I’m not talking the denigrating, insulting “humor” that all too often passes as comedy today. I’m thinking about shared experiences, seeing the follies in everyone’s lives.

Like one of my favorite Loriot Zodiac cartoons. Two mice and a cat are at a cocktail party, and the cat sniffs and says, “I’m not a crab [Kreb {Cancer}], I’m a lobster.” One of the mice whispers, “Social climber.”

13 thoughts on “Little Changes

  1. How many optometrists does it take to change a light bulb? One… or two. One… or two.

    • Q: How many theoretical physicists does it take to open a door?

      True story:

      The classroom across the hall from my office was converted from a simply class to one with projectors and media equipment a few years ago. At that point, electronic access was installed. Aside from the administrative assistant for the department, only people teaching class in that room could access it via the magnetic strip on their university id.

      One day between semesters I returned to my office to find about four or five faculty members, all theoreticians, standing in the hall. Upon inquiry, I learned they were waiting for someone from the departmental office to come let them in. I reached over and turned the knob. The door opened. Because classes weren’t in session, the door turned out to be unlocked.

      A: None. It takes an experimentalist. We all had a good laugh, and yes, I did ask them how many theoreticians it took to open the door.

  2. How many mezzo-sopranos does it take to change a lightbulb?
    Two. One to change the bulb, and one to ask “isn’t that a little high for you to reach?”

    It’s so difficult now to poke gentle fun at certain people or poltics. If there’s no release valve allowed, pray tell, what happens when the pressure must give? I dread that day.

    I blame the English teachers of the last 45 years for this. In an effort to make all language political or progressive, several key elements got trashed:

    Comparative literature

    Time to have school children read the more uncomfortable parts of “Gulliver’s Travels,” the stories of Laputa and the land of the Houynoums.

    • The first time I tried to read Gulliver’s Travels, I gave up only a few pages in. Eventually I heard of the Houyhnhnms and read the whole book.

  3. “I have never read or seen Angela Merkel, Pres. Obama, Jeremy Corbin (Labour UK) and others joke at their own expense.”

    I can name other politicians I would lump into this category. Hitler, Stalin, Mao,…True believers in their own righteousness with no sense of humor. Of course, when you can be arrested for criticizing certain policies, this is lack of humor isn’t surprising.

    “what comes next?”

    I would argue that we might already be there.

    • Lefties are exceedingly class and status conscious — anxious and insecure about it, really — and even more conscientious about making sure everyone else knows their status and gives them their “due.” You see this in stories by the staffs and security members of the various White Houses over time. Certain presidents, families, and their higher staff members make sure the lower staff members know their places, do not speak unless spoken to, are berated regularly, etc. They are far too insecure to let anyone laugh at them, including themselves. Other presidents, sure of themselves, crack jokes about themselves and have stories told about them like this:

      Another example that comes to mind is when George H.W. Bush shaved his head because the two year old son of one of his security detail members had lost his hair fighting leukemia. The boy’s dad and some other members of the detail shaved their heads to support the boy, and George HW Bush joined them. It’s not exactly a telling a joke on himself, but it does show he doesn’t take himself so seriously that he loses compassion for others. I have some bones to pick with GHW Bush politically, but he showed genuine class in doing this.

      • “I have some bones to pick with GHW Bush politically, but he showed genuine class in doing this.”

        I can agree with this statement. In fact both Bushs, while I may not have always agreed with them, I respected them. As someone once said, “I would be comfortable with George Bush babysitting my kid, I don’t know that I can say that about any other recent President.” That would apply to both father and son, if I was the one making the statement. I wouldn’t let Clinton or Obama within twenty feet of my kid, and I just can’t picture Trump babysitting.

        Oh and Merkel is a joke, just if you live in Germany it probably isn’t very funny.

  4. On the lighter side:
    German humor, at least in the period 1986-1992 when I was there, was a bit different. Both of us having several beers usually helped. As a new computer language instructor at a NATO base, my German office partner helped me to learn some German language, customs, and culture. One day he gave me some Asterix and Obelix comics. I don’t think the series originated in Germany (quickly checks Wikipedia: aha, France), but these were in the German language. I had never seen Asterix and Obelix before; they were hysterical and they helped a lot. I also watched some American films dubbed or subtitled in German, and Dutch, and on more than one occasion I laughed out loud, only to find I was the only one in the theater laughing. And the translation of some American idiomatic humor into German or Dutch was in itself sometimes hilarious. Germans who had been to America were quickly identifiable because they were conversant with American humor (and our way of speaking in general). This wasn’t as true for the Dutch, because they watched so much American film and TV even without visiting they picked up on a lot of Americanisms.

    When I was in Saudi Arabia, finding an Arab who could connect with us Americans via humor was usually a quick tell that he had been to America, or maybe western Europe. There were Saudis who spoke English but had never been out of Saudi Arabia, and speaking with them was quite different.

    Maybe understanding the other culture’s humor is a measure of one’s fluency and understanding of it.

    • It is, because you have to suss out why something is funny, especially if it wouldn’t be especially humorous back home. Or sort out the background under the joke.

  5. While I do not recall Trump making self-deprecating jokes (‘cofveve’ being left up for hours is close, but not quite) at least I can picture it. “…wake me up, even in the middle of a cabinet meeting.” is something I can’t picture most politicians even considering saying nowadays.

    I am waiting for some of the leftier type to start saying, in the words, “take the country back” so I can use their own line on them, “Why not take keep taking it FORWARD instead?” But then, ox stubborn.

  6. I do not know what sort of joke I would want to have on a t-shirt.

    I get bored of my jokes pretty fast.

    And the audience for a story about the Senate rejecting the current nominee, because the right doesn’t like him on Vince Foster*, and the left doesn’t like him on tolerance for abuse of women**, does not much over lap with the people who see me in t-shirts.

    *Recent coverage has persuaded me that it was a suicide.
    **His advocacy of, can’ t think of the word right now, during his time on Starr’s investigation, does not exactly speak to a ‘Me Too’ spirit.

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