A Republican's first resort when confronted with an offensive statement he or she has made is to attempt to defuse the offense by calling it a joke. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are the most frequent perpetrators of this tactic, each wishing, when it serves their interests, to be recognized as a misunderstood humorist. The bonus of this approach is that you can reinforce the image of your antagonists as a humorless lot, that presumed lack of humor presumably betraying deeper character flaws among the "left" as a class. Today, Rep. Bachmann takes a leaf from the Limbaugh-Coulter playbook by having her flacks insist that her statement in Florida yesterday, in which she described last week's earthquake and last weekend's hurricane as warnings from God to Washington D.C., was just a jest. I haven't heard the original sound bite, but the statement, as quoted in subsequent news stories, does sound somewhat irreverent for the alleged theocrat. If you want to know whether Bachmann actually believes that these natural upheavals were divine warnings, I can only say: I don't know, but I have my doubts. However, I'm not sure how her lack of sincerity mitigates the offense she may have given. She's either told the suffererers that God struck at them merely to warn politicians about excessive spending, or she's treated the occasion of their suffering as the occasion for a joke.
I've long felt that Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern are two sides of the same coin, that the former taps the same wells of irreverence and transgression as the latter. Limbaugh himself might agree that articulating his ideology at the time he started in radio was, in some way, as transgressive as anything a "shock jock" like Stern was broadcasting, and the two titans of all media have in common that enjoyment of offending people that characterizes the internet "troll." It may be that a culture that was ready for Howard Stern was also ready for a pop ideology based on indifference to the opinions or even the well-being of other people. The shock-jock attitude that treats almost anything as material for comedy, and often treats life itself as a big joke, seems related to the life's-not-fair attitude that fuels lumpenbourgeois contempt for "whiners." Does Rep. Bachmann share this attitude? I can't say. Her budding reputation as a theocrat doesn't seem consistent with the fundamental irreverence toward humanity that defines the likes of Limbaugh and Coulter -- and, regardless of his actual politics, Howard Stern. But Bachmann's official response to yesterday's alleged gaffe is somewhat disappointing, not to mention idiotic. Calling a controversial statement a joke is usually intended as a conversation stopper, an assertion that a joker, like the jester of old, is immune from conventional judgment. The more that everything is made out to be a joke, the less conversation we'll have at a time when we need it more than ever.