New York magazine’s Sept. 11 issue has arrived, and it’s a real treat. The whole issue has been turned into an encyclopedia of Sept. 11-related entries, including everything from "freedom fries" to "Abbottabad," and many of them penned by wonderful writers. Mark Lilla’s in there, as is Eliza Griswold. I haven’t read them all, but one caught my eye in particular: Jim Holt’s entry for "Humor."
Holt’s a whip-smart journalist who wrote an incivise little book about the philosophy of jokes ("Stop Me If You’ve Heard This") a few years ago. His entry here asks whether it’s okay to make jokes about the attacks, and settles it straight away: Yes. If the Jews can joke about the Holocaust, then sure as hell we can joke about 9/11. As he puts it: "There are those who say that some things are too terrible to be joked about. Nonsense. If Jews can make jokes about the Holocaust—and they do make jokes about the Holocaust—then Americans can make jokes about 9/11."
To be fair, some of the jokes he offers aren’t funny at all; they come off as grossly insensitive. Which, in fact, is how many Holocaust jokes come off still. This raises the issue of what, exactly, makes jokes about tragedies–be it the Holocaust, Sept. 11, slavery, or any other horrific crime–work. To answer that question, I turned to another new book, Rudolph Herzog’s recently translated "Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany."
Herzog (a German himself, and son of the famed director, Werner Herzog) focuses on a certain kind of Holocaust joke–ones made by non-Jewish Germans at the time of the actual Holocaust. What’s fascinating and so critica, about his study is that he shows how these jokes reveal the moral failure of German society. Their jokes, he argues, reveal their full knowledge of what Hitler was doing to the Jews, and served primarily as a way to lighten whatever reservations they may have had. They were intended to assuage their own guilt, not attack the powers that be. And in so doing, they cauterized whatever resistance moral Germans might have otherwise mustered.
Many of the jokes Herzog digs up do not make fun of Jews, but the Nazis themselves. But what’s unique about them is the way they trivialize Nazi atrocities, if not quite damning the victims themselves. Here’s an example: "I took an excursion to Dachau, and boy what a place it is! Barbed wire, machine guns, barbed wire, more machine guns . . . But I tell you: Nonetheless, if I want to, I’ll get in."
But if Herzog rightly points out the moral depravity of these jokes, he shrewdly shows that, in another context, Holocaust jokes were utterly necessary–foremost, for Jews themselves. Many Jews told jokes about the camps, even while in them, and they also did so as way to lighten their own psychic burden. But as the direct target of Nazi crimes, they were entitled to; non-Jewish German bystanders could not claim that right. Any time people have been oppressed, they’ve often joked about it, so much so that we even get the term from it: "gallows humor."
So what can this tell us about 9/11 jokes?
For one thing, it seems that who’s telling the joke matters most. Americans, even ten years later, still seem the chief arbiters of deciding what jokes are appropriate and what ones are not.
The target of the joke is also critical. Terrorists are low-lying fruit, and probably the most-widely accepted butt of any 9/11 joke. The problem is that the line between jokes about terrorists and jokes about Muslims generally is not fully drawn for many Americans. Jokes about one can easily slide into jokes about the other, which is not acceptable.
And jokes about the victims? I’d argue they’re just as grotesque today as they’ll ever be. Think about it this way: would you laugh at a gas chamber?