February 16, 2004

Finding Humor in Unlikely Places

Posted by shonk at 01:51 AM in Literature, Politics | TrackBack

Apparently the mid-winter doldrums have gotten to be too much for the College Republicans at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Connecticut, so they’ve decided to liven things up by protesting affirmative action with a whites-only scholarship :

The application for the $250 award requires an essay on “why you are proud of your white heritage” and a recent picture to “confirm whiteness.”

“Evidence of bleaching will disqualify applicants,” says the application.

Now, some may take offense to this, but in my opinion, it’s pretty damn funny. I mean, come on, “[e]vidence of bleaching”? And I, personally, would love to read the essays they get. You know a few will be wacko white-supremacist screeds, which, admittedly would be a little scary, but I’d be willing to bet that most would be hilarious, because the essay writer would either be treating the whole thing as a joke or trying like hell to be serious and as a result writing the most stilted, artificial crap imaginable. Hopefully, someone will rise to the challenge, write a good satirical piece and win the whole thing.

Now, some of you may not find a lot of humor in this. You may be wondering what, exactly, I find so funny about these right-wing reactionaries and their racist programs. Well, here’s what’s funny: a few decades ago, people started noticing that black people were underrepresented among college graduates; instead of doing something productive, like raising the standards in high schools, or tying teacher salaries to performance instead of tenure, or, heaven forbid, saying “maybe this whole ‘public school’ paradigm needs to be re-thought”, those people decided to start accepting and giving extra money to under-qualified black students. Which isn’t funny, in and of itself; it’s actually quite tragic, because two of the primary consequences of this approach were to engender racial jealousy on the part of whites and to ensure that the qualifications of every black college graduate were viewed with suspicion by those paying attention to what was going on. No, what’s funny about this mess is that otherwise intelligent people take it so damn seriously, to the point where they get spitting mad when somebody says “Hey, this doesn’t make any sense”. Now, this scholarship thing isn’t, to me, as good as affirmative action bake sales, which take the thing to its logical conclusion, a sort of reductio ad absurdum, but it’s still good for a chuckle.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced the College Republicans at Roger Williams or anywhere else have enough of a sense of humor to laugh about this whole thing. In my experience, College Republicans are a pretty dour lot, unable to take a joke and usually the first ones to run to the dean when someone plays a joke on them. At least, that was my experience in undergraduate, where the president of the College Republicans was a seriously uninteresting person with no trace of a sense of humor.

Oddly enough, this president of the College Republicans at my otherwise fine undergraduate institution was from Olathe, Kansas, which is the municipality represented by Kansas State Senator Kay O’Connor, who made headlines in 2001 for her opposition to women’s suffrage. That’s right, she’s not only a voter herself, but a state senator, and she’s opposed to women’s suffrage. Her reasoning:

I’m an old-fashioned woman. Men should take care of women, and if men were taking care of women (today) we wouldn’t have to vote. I’m sorry women have not been taken more care of. We have gotten the short end of the stick.

Sadly, this isn’t the sort of irony that’s funny; rather, it’s the sort that makes me want to punch a wall. Women have indeed gotten the short end of the stick throughout much of history, but I wouldn’t say that the 19th Amendment was one such instance.

Speaking of fools, the estate of James Joyce is certainly giving O’Connor a run for her money. They’ve threatened legal action for any public readings of Joyce’s work at the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Bloomsday. For those that don’t know what Bloomsday is, it’s the name given to June 16, 1904, the date on which the action in Joyce’s Ulysses (whose primary character is Leopold Bloom) takes place. As pointed out in the above-linked post:

Public readings do not displace commercialised use of Joyce’s work, so the estate does not lose income from their occurrence. Of course, the estate is technically within its ‘rights’ (though this does indicate reasons for reforming European copyright law) but such vigorous enforcement is unnecessary and distasteful.

I would go a step further than that, and assert that public readings of Ulysses would probably encourage additional purchases of the work, which is a famously difficult read but is quite lyrical and funny when read aloud. In fact, the Joyce estate may well be hurting sales by raising such a fuss about what is intended to be a celebration of the book generally considered the best of the 20th century. Since amazon.co.uk has only sold 2,374 copies of the beast in its history, one might have thought the estate would have taken this into account.

Of course, what’s really ridiculous about the whole thing is that Ulysses actually went into the public domain in 1941, 50 years after Joyce’s death, only to go back into copyright when the EU retroactively extended copyrights to death + 70 years in July of 1995, which surely made for some interesting times in the publishing industry. One might wonder how, exactly, a work can simply be removed from the public domain, but it does provide for an interesting possibility: “readings from certain editions of Ulysses, published or
prepared in the period between 1991 and 1995, could fall outside the
Joyce Estate’s control.”

In a further twist, if current copyright laws had been in effect for the entirety of the last millennium, Ulysses might never have been published in the first place, as it is rife with emulations of other writers’ styles, popular songs and advertising slogans and jingles; literally hundreds of lawsuits might have been filed, rather than the measly one that DJ Danger Mouse currently faces.

Now if only Ms. O’Connor would speak out about how books like Ulysses are eroding our moral sensibilities, I might be able to tie together all the loose strings in this post into some sort of coherent conclusion.