Over at the Atlantic this morning, there’s an interesting piece about an academic study on humor; specifically, dark humor about current events. Using Hurricane Sandy and some choice jokey tweets about last year’s storm, researchers chronicled the points at which the funniness of it all crested, fell, and, after a safe distance, became both funny and not funny once again.
The researchers divided the surveys into “during crisis” and “after crisis.” The day before the storm made landfall, people thought the tweets were pretty funny—they didn’t yet know it would be a tragedy. Over the next nine days, as people learned the extent of the damage, perceived humor declined. Participants found the tweets least funny 15 days after Sandy’s landfall.
Then, it slowly started to be “okay” to find humor in the situation again, leading to a high point of humor 36 days after landfall. Humor fell again after that, and researchers saw another low point 99 days after the disaster. The study also showed that during the first dip in perceived humor, participants found the tweets more offensive.
If you’re a supporter of Israel–a phrase so loaded it launches kerkuffles even in the most docile auditoriums of the Upper East Side–or a supporter of the integrity of academia or maybe just someone who is fatigued by bullshit, you’re probably not yet laughing at the farcical storm that made landfall on Monday when the American Studies Association announced its academic boycott of Israel.
If there’s one joy to be wrung from the soak it’s that the incident stirred some of our best public intellectuals to their lecterns. (If you haven’t, please enjoy the works of Professors Leibovitz, Chait, Goldberg, and Wieseltier.)
Only a few days in, even though the magnitude of the damage is not yet understood, none of this is funny. It may never be funny. Wieseltier addresses this (and Judith Butler).
But finally there is nothing funny about this. There are first principles at stake in this stunt. Butler instructed that an academic boycott “militates against the spirit of censorship and the practice of calumny that would cut off debate and engage in debased caricatures.” I suggest she put down her Levinas and pick up her Orwell. It is precisely the spirit of censorship, and of conformity of opinion, that animates a boycott of academic institutions. In a sterling letter to the ASA, a group of distinguished American scholars noted this, and protested that “scholars would be punished not because of what they believe—which would be bad enough—but simply because of who they are based on their nationality. … This is discrimination pure and simple.”
The founding text for American Studies is considered to be Main Currents in American Thought by Vernon Louis Parrington. 85 years ago, it won him the Pulitzer Prize. (Eugene O’Neill also won the Pulitzer Prize that year for Strange Interlude, a four-hour play about insanity and the daughter of an Ivy League that was censored and widely banned.)
Parrington’s seminal text ordered that the direction of his studies follow “the broad path of our political, economic, and social development, rather than the narrower belletristic.” In other words, ignore the beautiful letters and the pathos. Be open. I doubt Parrington would find this funny either.