January 28, 2008

Another Year, Another SOTUS

So a rabbi walks into a bar in New York City with a duck on his head. "Where'd you get that?" the bartender asks. "Brooklyn," replies the duck. "There's hundreds of 'em."

That's a pretty good joke and useful for deconstructing the nature of humor. It has the familiar elements: surprise, absurdity and conflict. We're surprised that the duck answers instead of the rabbi. The absurdity and conflict arise because we can't quite make sense of a duck commandeering a rabbi and going to a bar. Your mind races to comprehend a situation made of nonsensical elements and for some reason it makes you laugh.

The idea of George W. Bush mounting the podium and delivering his seventh State of the Union address (which the Washington Post calls "probably" his last - why probably? oy vey) has some of the same feel of a silly joke. If the element of surprise is now gone, the sense of absurdity and conflict is as vibrant as ever. One way or another this country wound up under the bumbling leadership of Chance the Gardener. For seven long years, going on eight. We all have our comical parts to play: Bush will pretend to be giving a serious speech in which he's interested, and the people sitting in the House's chamber will pretend to take him seriously, and then lots of TV pundits will weigh in and dissect another dumb oration which describes a world which doesn't even exist. It is all an exercise in mass delusion and everyone involved knows it's a delusion and they all do it anyway.

If the United States seems completely nuts these days (and it does), I think this process explains how we got there. Our everyday lives are like the rabbi, the duck and the bartender. It is an absurdist farce that is so far out of whack with rationality that we can no longer even get our minds around it. We intuitively sense that the President, instead of reciting a serious speech written by other people who at all costs want to avoid saying anything even remotely connected to reality; about lots of things the President barely grasps; instead of all that, we know that Bush would much rather prepare for his oration by eating Texas-style chili for about three days and then walking around the floor of the House asking esteemed Members to pull his index finger and see what happens. If he did that, we would have a better sense of who and where we are. It wouldn't be so funny, but it would change the joke. The bartender would ask the rabbi where he got the duck, and the rabbi would answer: "What duck?"

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