When Foreigners Were Funny
As you get older, the world starts to pass you by. This is sad, but inevitable. The world — its manners and fashions, its demographic and geostrategic facts — changes steadily, but you don't change much after you reach adulthood. I have expressed elsewhere the idea that at age 20, a human being is pretty much "done" — cooked all through.
Your circumstances might change quite dramatically, of course. You might even get rich and famous in your old age after a lifetime of penury, like Patrick O'Brian, when the lonely, barren furrow you have been plowing all your life suddenly, on account of some change in the climate of public taste, brings forth a bumper crop. You yourself, though — your personality — isn't going to change much after twenty. The older I myself get, in fact, the more I incline to the view Hazlitt arrived at in his own later years, that the core essentials are fixed at birth.
I was mulling on these melancholy truths the other day while browsing in Orwell's essays. The particular thought I was mulling was, that foreigners are no longer funny. I miss that — I mean, I miss laughing at foreigners. To find foreigners funny nowadays is totally contrary to public taste. I believe that in the U.K., making fun of foreigners is actually criminal, if done as part of a public performance.
I don't think Orwell wanted laughing at foreigners to be against the law, but he seems to have disapproved of it as part of the blinkered insularity of his fellow-countrymen — part of that complex of English attitudes Orwell was half in love with, and yet at the same time despaired of, and which he thought might cause Britain to lose World War Two, which was under way, or obviously imminent, at the time of the essay that got my attention.
That was the essay "Boys' Weeklies," written in 1939 and published in Cyril Connolly's Horizon the following year. In it, Orwell scoffed at the attitudes he found in the "fifteen- or twenty-thousand word school story" that was the principal and characteristic feature of those periodicals. The school in these stories was of course an old-fashioned boys' boarding school.
(Do you mind if I just pause to marvel at a society in which 12-year-old boys looked forward to reading a 50-page story every week? … Thank you.)
Naturally the politics of the Gem and Magnet [names of two popular boys' weekly magazines] are Conservative, but in a completely pre-1914 style, with no Fascist tinge. In reality their basic political assumptions are two: nothing ever changes, and foreigners are funny. … The assumption all along is not only that foreigners are comics who are put there for us to laugh at, but that they can be classified in much the same way as insects.
Orwell goes on to give a sketch of the entomology:
Frenchman: Excitable. Wears beard, gesticulates wildly.
Spaniard, Mexican, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.
Arab, Afghan, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.
Chinese: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail.
Italian: Excitable. Grinds barrel-organ or carries stiletto.
Swede, Dane, etc.: Kind-hearted, stupid.
Negro: Comic, very faithful.
Orwell's essay drew a spirited reply from Frank Richards, the author of most of those school stories.
… As for foreigners being funny, I must shock Mr. Orwell by telling him that foreigners are funny. They lack the sense of humour which is the special gift to our own chosen nation: and people without a sense of humour are always unconsciously funny.
Richards raises Hitler and Mussolini as instances of performers who would be laughed off an English platform, yet were taken seriously by their own humor-challenged people. Knowing now what great wickedness Hitler did, it's hard to see him as a comic figure; but I have never been able to watch film footage of Mussolini in full bluster without smiling. Il Duce was indeed preposterous.
Does anything remain of the large sensibility behind Frank Richards' remark, though? In the age of Political Correctness and the rampant, uncontrollable, insatiable desire to be offended, can one still say that foreigners are funny, without losing one's friends, job, and reputation?
That foreigners are funny was certainly a cherished belief of the English well into the later twentieth century. To a child of the mid-1950s, foreign languages were funny. My playfellows and I used to amuse ourselves by pretending to converse in foreign-ese in public places — on buses, in stores. We would gabble away in nonsense syllables, with many foreign-style gesticulations and exaggerated facial expressions, for as long as we could keep it up without breaking into giggles.
[A reader of this article as originally posted notified me that in Britain at any rate, something of this sensibility has survived into the 21st century. All is not lost.]
Our parents, meanwhile, were chuckling at Michael Flanders' and Donald Swann's "Song of Patriotic Prejudice," which, after abusing the Scots, Irish, and Welsh, casts a contemptuous glance at the rest of the world:
And crossing the Channel, one cannot say much
For the French and the Spanish, the Danish or Dutch.
The Germans are German, the Russians are red,
The Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed!
Nor was all this xenophobia peculiar to the English. In its heyday in the 1970s, National Lampoon came out with an issue devoted to foreigners. The star piece, whose title itself is worth a moment's reflection, was P.J. O'Rourke's "Foreigners Around the World," an irreverent (to put it very mildly) and obscene catalog of common stereotypes and prejudices about various kinds of foreigners.
The Lampoon removed that piece from its website sometime in the 1990s, and I feel sure P.J. would much rather not be reminded of it. (Sorry, guy.) Just to give you a flavor, here is the beginning of the entry under "English":
Racial Characteristics: Cold-blooded queers with nasty complexions and terrible teeth who once conquered half the world but still haven't figured out central heating. They warm their beers and chill their baths and boil all their food, including bread. An intensely snobbish group, but who exactly they're snubbing is an international mystery. Lately they've been getting their comeuppance world power-wise, as their shabby, antiquated, and bankrupt little back alley of a country slowly winds down like the ill-crafted clockwork playthings of which their undersized children are so fond …
It gets worse. Way worse — reading through it again, even I found myself mildly shocked. (If you are quite sure you have the stomach for it, I have reproduced the whole thing here.)
Our sensibilities really have changed. National Lampoon was a popular magazine. I was living in the U.S.A., and was a Lampoon subscriber, when that issue — it was May 1976 — came out, and I don't recall any public fuss. In fact, they reprinted P.J.'s piece in full five years later, in the National Lampoon Tenth Anniversary Anthology, 1970-1980 (from which I have copied it). Still no fuss. Nowadays there would be denunciations from the floor of the Senate chamber.
This was at about the same time as the movie Murder on the Orient Express appeared, with Colonel Arbuthnott (Sean Connery) asking Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney): "Can you give me your solemn oath — as a foreigner?" There you see the old underlying assumption, throughout the Anglosphere: Foreign-ness is a sort of club or friendly society, like the Shriners, with arcane and comical costumes and signs of recognition.
Why aren't foreigners funny any more? The answer is of course: Multiculturalism. When there is a foreign family living in the house next door, and four of the ten people in the office where you work are foreign, it's hard to crack jokes about foreigners without causing offense. It's especially hard in a milieu where the ability to take offense instantly and promiscuously, even when plainly no offense was intended, is regarded as a mark of fine and delicate sensibilities, indeed of moral purity.
To check that multiculturalism is indeed the culprit, let's take a look at places where multiculturalism hasn't taken hold.
My first thought was China, my country-in-law, and a place I know sufficiently well. Do the Chinese find foreigners funny? Certainly they used to. Here is H.E.M. James, lodging at a Manchurian inn with one "Lieut. Younghusband" in the spring of 1886:
We lie on the k'ang wearily reading, listening to the rain and wishing it would cease. Occasionally a small child peeps in with an eye to a lollipop, or a couple of ploughmen who have heard of the strangers' arrival come slouching in to look at us, for the meanest Chinaman needs no introduction to a "foreign devil." They gaze at us curiously and stolidly for a time; then one of them turns to his friend, bursts into a loud laugh as much as to say, "Did you ever see such odd-looking brutes?" spits on the floor, and out they go again.
My wife tells me that, yes, it's OK to laugh at foreigners in China. However, there are two inhibiting factors. One is that during the Mao Tse-tung era, the state propaganda machine pushed an internationalist ethos, with billboards everywhere showing generic Asians, Africans, Europeans and Gauchos all marching forward into the radiant socialist future together over a famous quote from Mao himself: "We have friends all over the world!" Some of that ethos still lingers.
The other inhibiting factor is that Chinese people simply don't think about foreigners much. The country is so big, and so various in itself — "a world within the world," one 19th-century commentator called it — that it offers all the diversity you need, for humor or anything else. From my own viewing of Chinese TV comedy programs, which admittedly is a few years out of date, I would say that the Chinese are so busy laughing at each other, they have little time left over to laugh at the rest of the world. The stereotypes of Chinese from different regions — Shandong people pugnacious, Cantonese gluttonous, Shanxi folk miserly, and so on — along with the oddities of regional accents and dialects, supply endless material for jokes.
A better test case is Japan, which is smaller and more homogenous, and where only one percent of the population is foreign-born. I emailed a friend who has lived for twenty years in Japan. Do the Japanese find foreigners funny? He: "Oh yes. They are always putting on blackface or whiteface, and everyone falls around laughing." Q.E.D.
Have we lost anything, in ceasing to find foreigners funny? Well, we have lost an occasion for laughter, which is no small thing to lose in this vale of tears. Moral priggishness, of which multiculturalism is a species, is always hostile to humor. Puritans don't laugh, except perhaps when watching a witch burn.
We have lost something more important, though. Frank Richards, Orwell's antagonist in that little dust-up I started out with, put his finger on it.
I have lived in many countries, and talked in several languages: and found something to esteem in every country I have visited. But I have never seen any nation the equal of my own.
The first thing you notice about foreigners is that they are different. They speak different languages, eat different foods, often worship different Gods, generally look different. The next thing you notice is that they are, in important respects, not different at all. Their fundamental drives and desires bear a strong resemblance to your own, though perhaps differently prioritized. A Russian novel, a Chinese poem, or a Bollywood movie has a definite flavor of other-ness, but you understand what's going on at the basic human level.
This ambivalence about foreigners, this willingness to admire and esteem them, yet still, like Frank Richards, to prefer your own country and her ways at last, and not feel guilty about doing so — this has been taken away from us by multiculturalism, along with the ability to laugh at foreigners. And that is a much more serious loss, because it is a loss of depth, of real understanding of the human world's complexity and contrariety.
The same man wrote both this poem
The Stranger within my gate,
He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk —
I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
But not the soul behind.
and this one
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!
and both the underlying sentiments were sincere. There is the depth we have lost. Multiculturalism has flattened our souls, taken us from three dimensions to two. You can argue about whether multiculturalism has made us better or worse, but I don't see how you can deny that it has made us shallower. Are patriotism and multiculturalism even compatible? Having chosen the second over the first, have we not lost a dimension?
On the other hand, of course, multiculturalism has opened up wonderful new opportunities for us to feel righteously pleased with ourselves, and to believe that we are morally superior to our parents and grandparents — probably smarter, too. How benighted they were, how crude and tasteless — laughing at foreigners! How much better we are than them!
That's where we have come to. To think that we, and our country, are better than foreigners, and their countries, is shameful and bigoted. That we are better than our forefathers — well, that goes without saying. Who doubts it?