Wow, Steve Irwin the croc-hunter’s dead. I’m sad, in a way, because he was an appealing character, and here at DexterNation we’d rather not see anyone, especially the appealing, made dead by stringray attack.
That said, I’m also amused, as I imagine everyone who’s not a friend or family member of the croc-hunter is. It’s just too funny not to be amused. I think it’s that I can actually hear his voice, in my head, narrating his interaction with the stingray up to the moment of the lethal wounding. In fact, I can ever hear him narrating his death: "oigh, now that really stings …"
The situation — being amused at a tragic incident — reminds me of a question I got last year not long after Hurrican Katrina.
"Dear Dexter," I was asked. "Hurricane Katrina–can we joke about it yet?"
I remember the line with which David Letterman, a few weeks after September 11, opened the first crack in the Hoover Dam that was the taboo on joking about the whole thing. "Okay, so can we joke about this now?" he said. Other comics followed. Shazia Mirza, the world’s only observant Muslim female stand-up comic, made her career on the wings of a 9/11 joke: "Hi, my name is Shazia Mirza … at least that’s what it says on my pilot’s license." The Onion came through swimmingly, as it usually does when tragedy’s afloat, with articles like "Hijackers Surprised to Find Themselves in Hell," which reported the sodomizing of 9/11 hijackers by a "thorn-cocked" arch-demon.
Actually, I don’t remember the Letterman line. What I remember was somebody on a radio or TV show, or in the next booth over at The Waffle House, saying that Letterman said something like that. I don’t know that he said it (I haven’t been able to googlify the specific quotation). And even if he said it, or something like it, I’d hesitate to call it "the first joke" about 9/11. It was the first joke, at best, to emerge from the gleamingly sterile test kitchen of the corporate media, where every joke is measured, censored, finessed and sent twice through the George Foreman TurkeyJerkyer to insure it has all the nutritional goodness and robust flavor of a microwave-safe Twinkie pot pie.
The rest of us, of course, were joking within hours, or minutes, of the collapse of the World Trade Center. I made jokes about nuking the Middle East; about how easy it must be to get laid if you’re a member of the NYPD or the FDNY; and about the pain of not having someone–as I didn’t–with whom to have "apocalyptic, ohmygod it’s the end of the world" sex.
Were my jokes justified? I think so. The temptation is always there, it’s true, to use jokes to recover the normal that came before; to evade confrontation with the new reality and the accommodations that it demands; to displace one’s fear and anger onto a group of people who aren’t responsible for your hurt by virtue of sharing a skin tone or religion or ethnicity with the baddies. That said, it’s okay to want to get back to a new, wiser kind of equilibrium, and joking is part of how we do that. No one should choose to live so exquisitely sensitized to suffering and injustice that they stop joking.
So I’m not proud of every joke I made then, but I’m not terribly ashamed either. Names can hurt, but sticks and stones and hijacked airplanes and broken levees can hurt a lot worse. Yeah, maybe I crossed the line into a bit of generalizing/stereotyping of Middle Easterners, but I didn’t stone anyone, and though I certainly trivialized the deaths and the suffering of the survivors, I did so discreetly, and I expiated my guilt by writing two bad poems, crying in front of four ad hoc memorials, and going to two candlelight vigils.
Which is to say, in answer to the question, that we’re joking already and it’s okay, though it’s not above criticism (only the best jokes, and jokers, and reality TV stars, get that kind of immunity). People tell jokes about pretty much everything; as long as they’re not doing much harm they shouldn’t be demonized.
With awful tragedies, the jokes tend to focus, first, on the people who’ve done something blameworthy. There were so few jokes about the tsunami, for instance, mostly because of the massive body count, but also because there weren’t many obvious villains (though I’m guessing there was some gallows humor in Sri Lanka when it was learned that the tsunami spared the life of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the terroristic Tamil Tigers).
With Hurricane Katrina, there are plenty of villains. So I didn’t feel ashamed, for instance, pointing out to my younger brother that Michael Chertoff, director of the Department of Homeland Security, looks like Jafar, the evil sorcerer from Disney’s Aladdin . Nor will I apologize for laughing at a reference I saw to FEMA director–and former director of the International Arabian Horse Association–Michael Brown as "the horse whisperer."
The Daily Show went after the administration for its greater attention to doing damage control on the president’s image than on, um, the catastrophic damage wrought by the hurricane. The Onion has, um, risen to the occasion with a nice bit on the racist subtext of some of the news coverage. It’s headlined, "White Foragers Report Threat Of Black Looters."
My guess is that we won’t reach true catharsis, as a nation, until the South Park fellas finish their episode–which my sources tell me they’re already hard at work on–on the hurricane and its aftermath. No one else has the right mix of courage, crudity, insensitivity, brutality and brilliance to mine the humor available directly from the victims and from the mind-blowingly rapid devolution of America from erect techno-hyperpower to flaccid banana republic. It’s all so absurd, frightening, awful, depressing, tragic, and traumatic–and therefore hilarious.
Interestingly, in light of the South Park reference I made, the South Park guys actually did a bit on the croc-hunter, a few years ago, in which he was mangled by a crocodile. Andrew Sullivan suggests that with his death, we now have substantial evidence of a "South Park Curse." He writes:
It’s getting just a little weird. They ridiculed Saddam, and he was deposed. They depicted Mel Gibson as a deranged sado-masochistic anti-Semite, and … well, now we know. They took on Tom Cruise, and he went down the Paramount plughole.
There’s no real curse, of course. The South Park guys are just a bit more far-seeing than the rest of us. They saw that the US wasn’t done exploiting Saddam Hussein as the New Hitler, because he was too easy a scapegoat, and they also saw how ridiculous it was to hold up a tinpot dictator like him as a serious threat to civilization. Thus Saddam as boyfriend of the devil. They saw the crazy in Gibson much more clearly than the rest of us did, and they sensed that crazy is as crazy does. It can’t control or limit itself. As for Tom Cruise, I don’t see that they were ahead of the curve on that one. The Tom Cruise-is-gay rumors have been around forever, and he’d already begun his descent into the crazy by the time they did their "out of the closet" episode. So props for the ballsiness of saying it, but no props for foresight — and the episode wasn’t really that funny either, so no props for humor either.
As for the croc-hunter, It didn’t take a prophet to recognize that a guy who was devoting his life to putting himself in dangerous situations with deadly animals was fairly likely to suffer serious injury from one of those quite dangerous animals sooner or later. What would have been prophetic was if South Park had had him injured by a stingray.
Anyway, what’s interesting to me about the reaction to the croc-hunter death is that it actually doesn’t follow the pattern I was addressing vis a vis Hurricane Katrina. We’re not trying, after Irwin’s death, to restore normalcy after a traumatic event. We didn’t know him; we haven’t been traumatized. Instead, we’re trying to process the fact that we’re amused and/or feel vindicated by his death, and those reactions trouble us because they conflictwith who we believe ourselves to be.
This was pointed out to me by my WHBFF (Wicked Hot Best Friend Forever), who has an amateur interest in mass psychology. Our country, she explained to me, is so turned on bythe croc-hunter’s death because it affirms our sense that there’s order to the universe. It titillated us that he got away with so much for so long, but it also secretly upset us, because the world isn’t supposed to work that way. People who do dangerous things are supposed to get hurt — not get rewarded with fame and fortune. Now that he’s gotten his comeuppance, we’re satisfied. As for our titillation needs –we’ll just find someone else to titillate us for the next while, and secretly hope that eventually they get what’s coming to them. Which they will, at which point we’ll be vindicated again.
If you think I’m being too cynical, consider this passage from an article on his death:
ALLENWOOD Reptile expert Clyde Peeling said Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin will be remembered as an entertainer who probably did more than anyone else alive to share the fascination with reptiles with the public.
"He was a showman, not a scientist," Mr. Peeling, who owns Reptiland on Route 15 just north of Allenwood.
…"He’s had a lot of criticism, but he’s entertaining and he has stimulated more interest reptiles than anyone else, driven people to zoos," Mr. Peeling said. "But we’ve always had a problem with the way he handled venomous snakes."
Important to note this, of course, because after all what’s more important, when commenting onthe news of a tragic death, than to make sure the public recognizes the distinction between what Irwin the "entertainer" did and what Mr. Peeling the "scientist" does. Great priorities there, buddy. Schmuck.
Consider too this bit, which is at least more honest in its ambivalence, if not too much more humane:
My teen-age daughters were upset yesterday to hear that Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter guy, was killed. They grew up watching this guy messing with wild animals.
I never liked him, though. I think he was a little too cavalier … as much as he claimed to respect the animals, I don’t think he did … well, not enough.
When he was on TV, I used to find myself rooting for the crocodile, the big snake or the tarantula to win … never figured on a sting ray.
I feel sorry for his family, but this guy had been asking for it for a long time …