The Hitchens Repartee: a veritable metaROAR!
Bravo Christopher: I love your banter!
So, here's more of you...
From City Journal, (Winter 2007)
FACING THE ISLAMIST MENACE
Mark Steyn’s new book is a welcome wake-up call.
In the prologue to his new book, America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, Mark Steyn sarcastically alludes to two people whom, in different ways, I know well. The first is novelist Martin Amis, ridiculed by Steyn for worrying about environmental apocalypse when the threat to civilization is obviously Islamism; the second is Jack Straw, formerly Tony Blair’s foreign secretary, mocked for the soft and conciliatory line he took over the affair of the Danish cartoons. The dazzling fiction writer and the pedestrian social-democratic politician are for Steyn dual exemplars of his book’s main concern: the general apathy and surrender of the West in the face of a determined assault from a religious ideology, or an ideological religion, afflicted by no sickly doubt about what it wants or by any scruples about how to get it.
I might quibble about Steyn’s assessment—Amis has written brilliantly about Mohammed Atta’s death cult, for example, while Jack Straw made one of the best presentations to the UN of the case for liberating Iraq. But it’s more useful to point out two things that have happened between the writing of this admirably tough-minded book and its publication. Jack Straw, now the leader of the House of Commons, made a speech in his northern English constituency in October, in which he said that he could no longer tolerate Muslim women who came to his office wearing veils. The speech catalyzed a long-postponed debate not just on the veil but on the refusal of assimilation that it symbolizes. It seems to have swung the Labour Party into a much firmer position against what I call one-way multiculturalism. Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed the shift with a December speech emphasizing the “duty” of immigrants to assimilate to British values. And Martin Amis, speaking to the London Times, had this to say:
- There’s a definite urge — don’t you have it? — to say, “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.” What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation—further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan. . . . Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. . . . They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs—well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people.
I know both of these men to be profoundly humanistic and open-minded. Straw has defended the rights of immigrants all his life and loyally represents a constituency with a large Asian population. Amis has rebuked me several times in print for supporting the intervention in Iraq, the casualties of which have become horrifying to him. Even five years ago, it would have been unthinkable to picture either man making critical comments about Islamic dress, let alone using terms such as “deportation.” Mark Steyn’s book is essentially a challenge to the bien-pensants among us: an insistence that we recognize an extraordinary threat and thus the possible need for extraordinary responses. He need not pose as if he were the only one with the courage to think in this way.
The most alarming sentences that I have read in a long time came from the pen of my fellow atheist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, at the end of a September Los Angeles Times column upbraiding American liberals for their masochistic attitude toward Islamist totalitarianism. Harris concluded:
- The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists. To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization [italics mine].
As Martin Amis said in the essay that prompted Steyn’s contempt: “What is one to do with thoughts like these?” How does one respond, in other words, when an enemy challenges not just your cherished values but additionally forces you to examine the very assumptions that have heretofore seemed to underpin those values?
Two things, in my experience, disable many liberals at the onset of this conversation. First, they cannot shake their subliminal identification of the Muslim religion with the wretched of the earth: the black- and brown-skinned denizens of what we once called the “Third World.” You can see this identification in the way that the Palestinians (about 20 percent of whom were Christian until their numbers began to decline) have become an “Islamic” cause and in the amazing ignorance that most leftists display about India, a multiethnic secular democracy under attack from al-Qaida and its surrogates long before the United States was. And you can see it, too, in the stupid neologism “Islamophobia,” which aims to promote criticism of Islam to the gallery of special offenses associated with racism.
The second liberal disability concerns numbers. Any emphasis on the relative birthrates of Muslim and non-Muslim populations falls on the liberal ear like an echo of eugenics. It also upsets one of the most valued achievements of the liberal consensus: the right if not indeed the duty to limit family size to (at most) two children. It was all very well, from this fatuously self-satisfied perspective, for Paul Ehrlich to warn about the human “population bomb” as a whole, just as it is all very well for some “Green” forces to take a neo-Malthusian attitude toward human reproduction in general. But in the liberal mind, to concentrate on the fertility of any one group is to flirt with Nuremberg laws. The same goes for “racial profiling,” even when it’s directed at the adherents of an often ideological religion rather than an ethnic group. The Islamists, meanwhile, have staked everything on fecundity.
Mark Steyn believes that demography is destiny, and he makes an immensely convincing case. He stations himself at the intersection of two curves. The downward one is the population of developed Europe and Japan, which has slipped or is slipping below what demographers call “replacement,” rapidly producing a situation where the old will far outnumber the young. The upward curve, or curves, represent the much higher birthrate in the Islamic world and among Muslim immigrants to Western societies. Anticipating Harris in a way, Steyn writes:
- Why did Bosnia collapse into the worst slaughter in Europe since World War Two? In the thirty years before the meltdown, Bosnian Serbs had declined from 43 percent to 31 percent of the population, while Bosnian Muslims had increased from 26 percent to 44 percent. In a democratic age, you can’t buck demography—except through civil war. The Serbs figured that out—as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ’em. The problem that Europe faces is that Bosnia’s demographic profile is now the model for the entire continent.
This is a highly reductionist view of the origin and nature of the Bosnian war—it would not account, for example, for Croatian irredentism. But paranoia about population did mutate into Serbian xenophobia and fascism, and a similar consciousness does animate movements like the British National Party and Le Pen’s Front Nationale. (Demographic considerations do not appear to explain the continued addiction of these and similar parties to anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism.)
Nor can there be much doubt that the awareness of demography as a potential weapon originates with the Islamists themselves. Anybody who, like me, has publicly criticized Islamism gets used to the accusation that he has “insulted a billion Muslims.” A vague but definite threat underlies this absurd charge, and in parts of Europe it already intimidates politicians. Gilles Kepel, the French scholar of Islam, once told me that when he lectures in North Africa his listeners often ask how many Muslims live in France. If he replies that he believes the official figures to be mostly correct, scornful laughter erupts. The true figure, his listeners say, is much higher. France is on its way to becoming part of the dar-al-Islam. It is leaving the dar-al-Harb (“House of War”), but without a fight. Steyn has no difficulty producing equally minatory public statements from Islamist triumphalists. And, because his argument is exponential, it creates an impression of something unstoppable.
Yet Steyn makes the same mistake as did the late Oriana Fallaci: considering European Muslim populations as one. Islam is as fissile as any other religion (as Iraq reminds us). Little binds a Somali to a Turk or an Iranian or an Algerian, and considerable friction exists among immigrant Muslim groups in many European countries. Moreover, many Muslims actually have come to Europe for the advertised purposes—seeking asylum and to build a better life. A young Afghan man, murdered in the assault on the London subway system in July 2005, had fled to England from the Taliban, which had murdered most of his family. Muslim women often demand the protection of the authorities against forced marriage and other cruelties. These are all points of difference, and also of possible resistance to Euro-sharia.
The main problem in Europe in this context is that many deracinated young Muslim men, inflamed by Internet propaganda from Chechnya or Iraq and aware of their own distance from “the struggle,” now regard the jihadist version of their religion as the “authentic” one. Compounding the problem, Europe’s multicultural authorities, many of its welfare agencies, and many of its churches treat the most militant Muslims as the minority’s “real” spokesmen. As Kenan Malik and others have pointed out in the case of Britain, this mind-set cuts the ground from under the feet of secular Muslims, encouraging the sensation that many in the non-Muslim Establishment have a kind of death wish.
Steyn cannot seem to make up his mind about the defense of secularism in this struggle. He regards Christianity as a bulwark of civilization and a possible insurance against Islamism. But he cannot resist pointing out that most of the Christian churches have collapsed into compromise: choosing to speak of Muslims as another “faith community,” agreeing with them on the need for confessional-based schooling, and reserving their real condemnation for American policies in the war against terrorism.
This is not to deny Steyn’s salient point that demography and cultural masochism, especially in combination, are handing a bloodless victory to the forces of Islamization. His gift for the illustrative anecdote and the revealing quotation is evident, and if more people have woken up to the Islamist menace since he began writing about it, then the credit is partly his. Muslims in one part of England demand the demolition of an ancient statue of a wild boar, and in another part of England make plots to blow up airports, buses, and subway trains. The two threats are not identical. But they are connected, and Steyn attempts to tease out the filiations with the saving tactic of wit.
I still think—or should I say hope?—that the sheer operatic insanity of September 11 set back the Islamist project of a “soft” conquest of host countries, Muslim countries included. Up until 9/11, the Talibanization of Pakistan—including the placement of al-Qaida sympathizers within its nuclear program—proceeded fairly smoothly. Official Pakistani support for Muslim gangsters operating in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and India went relatively unpunished. Saudi funds discreetly advanced the Wahhabist program, through madrassa-building and a network of Islamic banking, across the globe. In the West, Muslim demands for greater recognition and special treatment had become an accepted part of the politically correct agenda. Some denounced me as cynical for saying at the time that Osama bin Laden had done us a favor by disclosing the nature and urgency of the Islamist threat, but I still think I was right. Both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have had to trim their sails a bit. The Taliban will at least never be able to retake power by stealth or as a result of our inattention. Millions have become aware of the danger—including millions of Shi’a Muslims who now see the ideology of bin Laden and Zarqawi as a menace to their survival. Groups and cells that might have gotten away with murder have wound up unmasked and shut down, from Berlin to Casablanca.
Of course, these have not been the only consequences of September 11 and its aftermath. Islamist suicide-terrorism has mutated into new shapes and adopted fresh grievances as a result of the mobilization against it. Liberalism has found even more convoluted means of blaming itself for the attack upon it. But at least the long period of somnambulism is over, and the opportunity now exists for antibodies to form against the infection.
Steyn ends his book with a somewhat slapdash ten-point program for resistance to Islamism, which includes offhand one-line items such as “End the Iranian regime” and more elaborate proposals to get rid of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Authority, and (for some reason) NATO. His tenth point (“Strike militarily when the opportunity presents itself”) is barely even a makeweight to bring the figure up to ten.
Steyn is much more definite about the cultural side of his argument, in other words, than about the counterterrorist dimension. If I wanted to sharpen both prongs of his thesis, I would also propose the following:
1. An end to one-way multiculturalism and to the cultural masochism that goes with it. The Koran does not mandate the wearing of veils or genital mutilation, and until recently only those who apostasized from Islam faced the threat of punishment by death. Now, though, all manner of antisocial practices find themselves validated in the name of religion, and mullahs have begun to issue threats even against non-Muslims for criticism of Islam. This creeping Islamism must cease at once, and those responsible must feel the full weight of the law. Meanwhile, we should insist on reciprocity at all times. We should not allow a single Saudi dollar to pay for propaganda within the U.S., for example, until Saudi Arabia also permits Jewish and Christian and secular practices. No Wahhabi-printed Korans anywhere in our prison system. No Salafist imams in our armed forces.
2. A strong, open alliance with India on all fronts, from the military to the political and economic, backed by an extensive cultural exchange program, to demonstrate solidarity with the other great multiethnic democracy under attack from Muslim fascism. A hugely enlarged quota for qualified Indian immigrants and a reduction in quotas from Pakistan and other nations where fundamentalism dominates.
3. A similarly forward approach to Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe, and the other countries of Western Africa that are under attack by jihadists and are also the location of vast potential oil reserves, whose proper development could help emancipate the local populations from poverty and ourselves from dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
4. A declaration at the UN of our solidarity with the right of the Kurdish people of Iraq and elsewhere to self-determination as well as a further declaration by Congress that in no circumstance will Muslim forces who have fought on our side, from the Kurds to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, find themselves friendless, unarmed, or abandoned. Partition in Iraq would be defeat under another name (and as with past partitions, would lead to yet further partitions and micro-wars over these very subdivisions). But if it has to come, we cannot even consider abandoning the one part of the country that did seize the opportunity of modernization, development, and democracy.
5. Energetic support for all the opposition forces in Iran and in the Iranian diaspora. A public offer from the United States, disseminated widely in the Persian language, of help for a reformed Iran on all matters, including peaceful nuclear energy, and of assistance in protecting Iran from the catastrophic earthquake that seismologists predict in its immediate future. Millions of lives might be lost in a few moments, and we would also have to worry about the fate of secret underground nuclear facilities. When a quake leveled the Iranian city of Bam three years ago, the performance of American rescue teams was so impressive that their popularity embarrassed the regime. Iran’s neighbors would need to pay attention, too: a crisis in Iran’s nuclear underground facilities—an Iranian Chernobyl—would not be an internal affair. These concerns might help shift the currently ossified terms of the argument and put us again on the side of an internal reform movement within Iran and its large and talented diaspora.
6. Unconditional solidarity, backed with force and the relevant UN resolutions, with an independent and multi-confessional Lebanon.
7. A commitment to buy Afghanistan’s opium crop and to keep the profits out of the hands of the warlords and Talibanists, until such time as the country’s agriculture— especially its once-famous vines—has been replanted and restored. We can use the product in the interim for the manufacture of much-needed analgesics for our own market and apply the profits to the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
8. We should, of course, be scrupulous on principle about stirring up interethnic tensions. But we should remind those states that are less scrupulous—Iran, Pakistan, and Syria swiftly come to mind—that we know that they, too, have restless minorities and that they should not make trouble in Afghanistan, Lebanon, or Iraq without bearing this in mind. Some years ago, the Pakistani government announced that it would break the international embargo on the unrecognized and illegal Turkish separatist state in Cyprus and would appoint an ambassador to it, out of “Islamic solidarity.” Cyprus is a small democracy with no armed forces to speak of, but its then–foreign minister told me the following story. He sought a meeting with the Pakistani authorities and told them privately that if they recognized the breakaway Turkish colony, his government would immediately supply funds and arms to one of the secessionist movements—such as the Baluchis—within Pakistan itself. Pakistan never appointed an ambassador to Turkish Cyprus.
When I read Sam Harris’s irresponsible remark that only fascists seemed to have the right line, I murmured to myself: “Not while I’m alive, they won’t.” Nor do I wish to concede that Serbo-fascist ethnic cleansing can appear more rational in retrospect than it did at the time. The Islamist threat itself may be crude, but this is an intricate cultural and political challenge that will absorb all of our energies for the rest of our lives: we are all responsible for doing our utmost as citizens as well as for demanding more imagination from our leaders.
Hitchens' response to some "allegations"...
AN ATHEIST RESPONDS
By Christopher Hitchens
Washington Post, Saturday, July 14, 2007
It's uncommonly generous of Michael Gerson ["What Atheists Can't Answer," op-ed, July 13] to refer to me as "intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind," since (a) this might be taken as proof that he hardly knows me and (b) it was he who was so kind when I once rang him to check a scurrilous peacenik rumor that he was a secret convert from Judaism to Christian fundamentalism.
However, it is his own supposedly kindly religion that prevents him from seeing how insulting is the latent suggestion of his position: the appalling insinuation that I would not know right from wrong if I was not supernaturally guided by a celestial dictatorship, which could read and condemn my thoughts and which could also consign me to eternal worshipful bliss (a somewhat hellish idea) or to an actual hell.
Implicit in this ancient chestnut of an argument is the further -- and equally disagreeable -- self-satisfaction that simply assumes, whether or not religion is metaphysically "true," that at least it stands for morality. Those of us who disbelieve in the heavenly dictatorship also reject many of its immoral teachings, which have at different times included the slaughter of other "tribes," the enslavement of the survivors, the mutilation of the genitalia of children, the burning of witches, the condemnation of sexual "deviants" and the eating of certain foods, the opposition to innovations in science and medicine, the mad doctrine of predestination, the deranged accusation against all Jews of the crime of "deicide," the absurdity of "Limbo," the horror of suicide-bombing and jihad, and the ethically dubious notion of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice.
Of course Gerson will -- and must -- cherry-pick this list (which is by no means exhaustive) and patter on about how one mustn't be too literal. But in doing this, he makes a huge concession to the ethical humanism to which he so loftily condescends. The game is given away by his own use of G.K. Chesterton's invocation of Thor. We laugh at this dead god, but were not Norse children told that without Valhalla there would be no courage and no moral example? Isn't it true that Louis Farrakhan's crackpot racist group gets young people off drugs? Doesn't Hamas claim to provide social services to the downtrodden? If you credit any one religion with motivating good deeds, how (without declaring yourself to be sectarian) can you avoid crediting them all? And is not endless warfare between the faiths to be added to the list of horrors I just mentioned? Just look at how the "faith-based" are behaving in today's Iraq.
Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first -- I have been asking it for some time -- awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.
Essentially conceding that philosophy and secularism do not condemn their adherents to lives of unbridled selfishness, and that (say) the Jewish people did not get all the way to Mount Sinai under the impression that murder and theft and perjury were okay, and also that we could not have evolved unless human solidarity was in some way innate, Gerson ends weakly by posing what is a rather moving problem.
"In a world without God," he writes, "this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature -- imprinted by evolution but designed for disappointment." Again, he substitutes the wish for the thought. We very probably are, as he admits, not the designed objects of the Big Bang or of the process of natural selection. But this sober conclusion, objective as it is, is surely preferable to the delusion that we have been created diseased, by a capricious despot, and then abruptly commanded to be whole and well, on pain of terror and torture. That sick joke is one that we can cease to find impressive, that belongs in the infancy of our species, and gives a false picture of reality that we would do well to outgrow.
WHY WOMEN AREN'T FUNNY
What makes the female so much deadlier than the male? With assists from Fran Lebowitz, Nora Ephron, and a recent Stanford-medical-school study, the author investigates the reasons for the humor gap.
BY CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (January 2007)
Be your gender what it may, you will certainly have heard the following from a female friend who is enumerating the charms of a new (male) squeeze: "He's really quite cute, and he's kind to my friends, and he knows all kinds of stuff, and he's so funny … " (If you yourself are a guy, and you know the man in question, you will often have said to yourself, "Funny? He wouldn't know a joke if it came served on a bed of lettuce with sauce béarnaise.") However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: "She's a real honey, has a life of her own … [interlude for attributes that are none of your business] … and, man, does she ever make 'em laugh."
Now, why is this? Why is it the case?, I mean. Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.
All right—try it the other way (as the bishop said to the barmaid). Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be. The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh. Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life. If you can stimulate her to laughter—I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight—well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.
Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift. Indeed, we now have all the joy of a scientific study, which illuminates the difference. At the Stanford University School of Medicine (a place, as it happens, where I once underwent an absolutely hilarious procedure with a sigmoidoscope), the grim-faced researchers showed 10 men and 10 women a sample of 70 black-and-white cartoons and got them to rate the gags on a "funniness scale." To annex for a moment the fall-about language of the report as it was summarized in Biotech Week:
- The researchers found that men and women share much of the same humor-response system; both use to a similar degree the part of the brain responsible for semantic knowledge and juxtaposition and the part involved in language processing. But they also found that some brain regions were activated more in women. These included the left prefrontal cortex, suggesting a greater emphasis on language and executive processing in women, and the nucleus accumbens … which is part of the mesolimbic reward center.
This has all the charm and address of the learned Professor Scully's attempt to define a smile, as cited by Richard Usborne in his treatise on P. G. Wodehouse: "the drawing back and slight lifting of the corners of the mouth, which partially uncover the teeth; the curving of the naso-labial furrows … " But have no fear—it gets worse:
"Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punch line of the cartoon," said the report's author, Dr. Allan Reiss. "So when they got to the joke's punch line, they were more pleased about it." The report also found that "women were quicker at identifying material they considered unfunny."
Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember, this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?
This is not to say that women are humorless, or cannot make great wits and comedians. And if they did not operate on the humor wavelength, there would be scant point in half killing oneself in the attempt to make them writhe and scream (uproariously). Wit, after all, is the unfailing symptom of intelligence. Men will laugh at almost anything, often precisely because it is—or they are—extremely stupid. Women aren't like that. And the wits and comics among them are formidable beyond compare: Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, Fran Lebowitz, Ellen DeGeneres. (Though ask yourself, was Dorothy Parker ever really funny?) Greatly daring—or so I thought—I resolved to call up Ms. Lebowitz and Ms. Ephron to try out my theories. Fran responded: "The cultural values are male; for a woman to say a man is funny is the equivalent of a man saying that a woman is pretty. Also, humor is largely aggressive and pre-emptive, and what's more male than that?" Ms. Ephron did not disagree. She did, however, in what I thought was a slightly feline way, accuse me of plagiarizing a rant by Jerry Lewis that said much the same thing. (I have only once seen Lewis in action, in The King of Comedy, where it was really Sandra Bernhard who was funny.)
In any case, my argument doesn't say that there are no decent women comedians. There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three. When Roseanne stands up and tells biker jokes and invites people who don't dig her shtick to suck her dick—know what I am saying? And the Sapphic faction may have its own reasons for wanting what I want—the sweet surrender of female laughter. While Jewish humor, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprecation, is almost masculine by definition.
Substitute the term "self-defecation" (which I actually heard being used inadvertently once) and almost all men will laugh right away, if only to pass the time. Probe a little deeper, though, and you will see what Nietzsche meant when he described a witticism as an epitaph on the death of a feeling. Male humor prefers the laugh to be at someone's expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with—and often a joke in extremely poor taste. Humor is part of the armor-plate with which to resist what is already farcical enough. (Perhaps not by coincidence, battered as they are by motherfucking nature, men tend to refer to life itself as a bitch.) Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is. Jokes about calamitous visits to the doctor or the shrink or the bathroom, or the venting of sexual frustration on furry domestic animals, are a male province. It must have been a man who originated the phrase "funny like a heart attack." In all the millions of cartoons that feature a patient listening glum-faced to a physician ("There's no cure. There isn't even a race for a cure"), do you remember even one where the patient is a woman? I thought as much.
Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence (and many women believe, or were taught by their mothers, that they become threatening to men if they appear too bright), it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals. And there is a huge, brimming reservoir of male unease, which it would be too easy for women to exploit. (Men can tell jokes about what happened to John Wayne Bobbitt, but they don't want women doing so.) Men have prostate glands, hysterically enough, and these have a tendency to give out, along with their hearts and, it has to be said, their dicks. This is funny only in male company. For some reason, women do not find their own physical decay and absurdity to be so riotously amusing, which is why we admire Lucille Ball and Helen Fielding, who do see the funny side of it. But this is so rare as to be like Dr. Johnson's comparison of a woman preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs: the surprise is that it is done at all.
The plain fact is that the physical structure of the human being is a joke in itself: a flat, crude, unanswerable disproof of any nonsense about "intelligent design." The reproductive and eliminating functions (the closeness of which is the origin of all obscenity) were obviously wired together in hell by some subcommittee that was giggling cruelly as it went about its work. ("Think they'd wear this? Well, they're gonna have to.") The resulting confusion is the source of perhaps 50 percent of all humor. Filth. That's what the customers want, as we occasional stand-up performers all know. Filth, and plenty of it. Filth in lavish, heaping quantities. And there's another principle that helps exclude the fair sex. "Men obviously like gross stuff," says Fran Lebowitz. "Why? Because it's childish." Keep your eye on that last word. Women's appetite for talk about that fine product known as Depend is limited. So is their relish for gags about premature ejaculation. ("Premature for whom?" as a friend of mine indignantly demands to know.) But "child" is the key word. For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving them a very different attitude to filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle. This womanly seriousness was well caught by Rudyard Kipling in his poem "The Female of the Species." After cleverly noticing that with the male "mirth obscene diverts his anger"—which is true of most work on that great masculine equivalent to childbirth, which is warfare—Kipling insists:
- But the Woman that God gave him,
every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue,
armed and engined for the same,
And to serve that single issue,
lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be
deadlier than the male.
- She who faces Death by torture for
each life beneath her breast
May not deal in doubt or pity—must
not swerve for fact or jest.
Men are overawed, not to say terrified, by the ability of women to produce babies. (Asked by a lady intellectual to summarize the differences between the sexes, another bishop responded, "Madam, I cannot conceive.") It gives women an unchallengeable authority. And one of the earliest origins of humor that we know about is its role in the mockery of authority. Irony itself has been called "the glory of slaves." So you could argue that when men get together to be funny and do not expect women to be there, or in on the joke, they are really playing truant and implicitly conceding who is really the boss.
The ancient annual festivities of Saturnalia, where the slaves would play master, were a temporary release from bossdom. A whole tranche of subversive male humor likewise depends on the notion that women are not really the boss, but are mere objects and victims. Kipling saw through this:
- So it comes that Man, the coward,
when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council,
dare not leave a place for her.
In other words, for women the question of funniness is essentially a secondary one. They are innately aware of a higher calling that is no laughing matter. Whereas with a man you may freely say of him that he is lousy in the sack, or a bad driver, or an inefficient worker, and still wound him less deeply than you would if you accused him of being deficient in the humor department.
If I am correct about this, which I am, then the explanation for the superior funniness of men is much the same as for the inferior funniness of women. Men have to pretend, to themselves as well as to women, that they are not the servants and supplicants. Women, cunning minxes that they are, have to affect not to be the potentates. This is the unspoken compromise. H. L. Mencken [see his creed below, in the comments box] described as "the greatest single discovery ever made by man" the realization "that babies have human fathers, and are not put into their mother's bodies by the gods." You may well wonder what people were thinking before that realization hit, but we do know of a society in Melanesia where the connection was not made until quite recently. I suppose that the reasoning went: everybody does that thing the entire time, there being little else to do, but not every woman becomes pregnant. Anyway, after a certain stage women came to the conclusion that men were actually necessary, and the old form of matriarchy came to a close. (Mencken speculates that this is why the first kings ascended the throne clutching their batons or scepters as if holding on for grim death.) People in this precarious position do not enjoy being laughed at, and it would not have taken women long to work out that female humor would be the most upsetting of all.
Childbearing and rearing are the double root of all this, as Kipling guessed. As every father knows, the placenta is made up of brain cells, which migrate southward during pregnancy and take the sense of humor along with them. And when the bundle is finally delivered, the funny side is not always immediately back in view. Is there anything so utterly lacking in humor as a mother discussing her new child? She is unboreable on the subject. Even the mothers of other fledglings have to drive their fingernails into their palms and wiggle their toes, just to prevent themselves from fainting dead away at the sheer tedium of it. And as the little ones burgeon and thrive, do you find that their mothers enjoy jests at their expense? I thought not.
Humor, if we are to be serious about it, arises from the ineluctable fact that we are all born into a losing struggle. Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can't afford to be too frivolous. (And there just aren't that many episiotomy jokes, even in the male repertoire.) I am certain that this is also partly why, in all cultures, it is females who are the rank-and-file mainstay of religion, which in turn is the official enemy of all humor. One tiny snuffle that turns into a wheeze, one little cut that goes septic, one pathetically small coffin, and the woman's universe is left in ashes and ruin. Try being funny about that, if you like. Oscar Wilde was the only person ever to make a decent joke about the death of an infant, and that infant was fictional, and Wilde was (although twice a father) a queer. And because fear is the mother of superstition, and because they are partly ruled in any case by the moon and the tides, women also fall more heavily for dreams, for supposedly significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries, for romantic love, crystals and stones, lockets and relics, and other things that men know are fit mainly for mockery and limericks. Good grief! Is there anything less funny than hearing a woman relate a dream she's just had? ("And then Quentin was there somehow. And so were you, in a strange sort of way. And it was all so peaceful." Peaceful?)
For men, it is a tragedy that the two things they prize the most—women and humor—should be so antithetical. But without tragedy there could be no comedy. My beloved said to me, when I told her I was going to have to address this melancholy topic, that I should cheer up because "women get funnier as they get older."
Observation suggests to me that this might indeed be true, but, excuse me, isn't that rather a long time to have to wait?
Contains excerpts from Hitchens' latest book GOD IS NOT GREAT
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