COLUMN

A tasteless joke and a moral dilemma

When it came to the imprisonment of writers in left-wing regimes, such as China or Cuba, the past silence of PEN was deafening

BARBARA AMIEL May 29 1995
COLUMN

A tasteless joke and a moral dilemma

When it came to the imprisonment of writers in left-wing regimes, such as China or Cuba, the past silence of PEN was deafening

BARBARA AMIEL May 29 1995

A tasteless joke and a moral dilemma

When it came to the imprisonment of writers in left-wing regimes, such as China or Cuba, the past silence of PEN was deafening

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

The first I heard about it was when I received a telephone call in England telling me that Canada’s left-lib intelligentsia had been bowled over by its own sense of gaiety, humor and wit. After suffering through years of earnest, hypocritical cant from most of our media folk, I thought this was jolly good news. It seems that at a benefit evening in Toronto designed to raise money for PEN International, (an organization devoted to helping oppressed writers), the co-host suggested that while prison was a nasty place, some writers such as Barbara Amiel and David Frum (subtext: “right-wingers”) would be helped by being put in prison. This remark was greeted by stamping of feet and applause.

When a letter was organized by David Frum’s sister, Linda, suggesting this was a rotten thing to say at a benefit for imprisoned writers, and that in the absence of an apology from PEN, it would be a good idea to stop funding such an organization, the letter’s readers discovered this incurable funny bone in themselves. “It’s a joke, a J-O-K-E,” said one Great Man of Canadian magazines, while various newspaper columns filled up with diatribes on how humorless Frum and Amiel were. After all, the joke was made by an actress in her role as a slattern from Newfoundland.

Me, well, I shrugged, having long got the measure of Canada’s media elites. Of course, it was a joke—a bad, tasteless joke. As far as I’m concerned, if people want to make bad tasteless jokes, let them. I wondered, though, what the same group might have said if at a benefit for rape victims, a cohost in the role of an Alberta redneck joked that some women, perhaps Judy Rebick and Michele Landsberg, might be a lot better off after being raped and battered a bit. Or if at a Holocaust remembrance, the co-host in his character as a thoughtless gentile joked that a few Jews would be better off in concentration camps.

I would venture to say that if these sort of jokes had been made, then the demand for an apology would have been the mildest reaction of the same writers who are now saying, “We were just kidding, and where’s your sense of humor?” The point of course is not whether the joke is funny or in good taste, but rather the comfort level Canada’s leftwingers have with this double standard. Never mind demanding letters of apology, many of them support and get legislative action when remarks or jokes are directed against any of their shibboleths. Look at the poor old judge who lost his job after, among other things, he joked about a funny light fixture his wife gave him for the office with the switch placed between a man’s legs. “You can turn my switch on any time,” joked the judge and, lo, we had tearful female Crown attorneys on the television screen testifying as to the trauma this joke caused.

No remedy, not even the remedy of removing a person from his job after a distinguished career, is too harsh for what the left perceive as a misdirected sense of humor. But all of a sudden, they become funnier than the Marx brothers (pun intended) when people suggest—not legal sanctions—but simply the

voluntary withdrawal of funding to an organization whose sense of humor and policies are predicated on a bad case of moral equivalency.

Moral equivalency is that wretched business of believing that being fair requires one to be neutral between good and evil. One of the most memorable examples of moral equivalency I remember was taken by Amnesty International in the 1980s. They specifically stated that they would not take a position on the merit of different political regimes because all they were interested in were protecting civil liberties. That is an insane position. When the denial of civil liberties is the raison d’être of certain regimes, this attitude led to Amnesty explaining in its reports—with a straight face—that it counted capital punishment for a criminal offence in France (implemented only after properjudicial trial procedures) as equivalent to an execution in the Soviet Gulag.

The joke at PEN reminds one, and perhaps it is a shame that a joke should have to do this, that we should re-examine a number of fine organizations, of which PEN is only one, and including Amnesty International and Oxfam, and frankly such orders of the Church as the Jesuits, which for the past 30 or so years have been diverted from their original purpose and turned into tendentious vehicles for the left.

No one quarrels with saving left-wing writers oppressed by right-wing regimes, but the silence of PEN in the past when it came to the imprisonment of writers (especially any religious writers) in left-wing regimes such as Cuba or China or the former U.S.S.R. was deafening. That may be changing, now that the political climate is changing since the collapse of the Soviet Union, because the sorts of people who stamp and clap at that little joke at the PEN event are like those organisms of the sea who will go north, south, east or west according to the current of the times, because they are not self-propelled.

Well, I’ve got reasonably thick skin. After all, I’ve been investigated by the Ontario Human Rights Commission which tried to get me censored as a writer at Maclean’s', as editor of The Toronto Sun, I was the subject of a racism investigation funded by some branch of Toronto City Council and, finally, I was locked up for eleven days in a vile political prison in Mozambique, and there was not a peep out of PEN or my peers. To this day, the imprisonment in Mozambique is regarded as good fodder for jokes since (a) I am regarded as a right-wing journalist, and (b) I was imprisoned by one of the left’s favorite regimes.

Well, should I ever make a good joke in bad taste about those writers, I hope they will be able to hang on to their wonderful sense of humor. As for supporting PEN, my attitude to it has little to do with the now infamous joke. If you like supporting organizations whose credo is moral equivalency, be my guest. I withhold my support, as George Orwell withheld his support of PEN, not because of a tasteless joke but because of a track record with which, in my view, no decent person should be complicit.