Political correctness also existed back in the USSR, so nostalgically remembered by the Beatles. The basic concept was the same as in today’s West, but the interpretation was different.
Far from being proscribed, jokes about racial minorities, Jews, women and cripples were actively encouraged.
The political correctness the authorities enforced really was political. Hence a joke about communism or any of its figureheads would act as a starting gun for a race.
The listeners, including the joker’s close friends, would fall over themselves rushing to report the offender to the KGB (or its precursors).
The winner of the race would receive an accolade, doing his career no harm. The losers could well be prosecuted under Article 58.12 of the USSR Criminal Code, covering ‘not reporting counterrevolutionary activity’.
Colloquially called ‘knew but didn’t tell’, the Article left much leeway for the prosecution. Its strict letter provided for a maximum punishment of six months in prison, which in those days only qualified as a mild rebuke.
But if the spirit moved the prosecutor, he could link Article 58.12 to others, including those calling for the capital punishment or, more usually, a tenner in the camps (which for all practical purposes amounted to the same thing).
In my post-Stalin youth the Article changed its number, and it got to be evoked less frequently. Yet a political joke laughingly told in boozy company could still be punished by imprisonment or, more often, expulsion from a university or sacking from a job.
It’s refreshing to see how rapidly today’s West is moving in the same direction.
Jokes aren’t yet treated as treason against the state, although that may come in due course. For the time being they’re only punished if they betray the diktats of the modern ethos.
Nor is criminal prosecution practised yet, though we shouldn’t hold our breath. Yet an unfortunate joker may already suffer a campaign of public opprobrium and concomitant career repercussions.
Two current cases, one Russian, the other British, illustrate the point.
Chronologically, the first one involved Shamil Tarpischev, president of the Russian Tennis Federation and admittedly an unsavoury character.
Russia’s pre-Vlad president, Yeltsyn, was a tennis buff, and Tarpischev was his favourite coach. As such he belonged to the presidential coterie that differed from a mafia only in insignificant details.
Proximity to the godfather, at that time Yeltsyn, was both a necessary and sufficient condition for advancement, and Tarpischev advanced all the way to the post of Sports Minister.
Now if you’ll allow some background, the sports establishment in the USSR was run by the KGB. The reason is self-evident: world-class athletes by definition had to travel the world, which was the highest privilege ever afforded a Soviet citizen.
Hence the ranks of athletes had to be heavily infiltrated by those whose mission in life was to enforce loyalty and ideological purity. Thus every Soviet sports ‘delegation’ travelled in the company of numerous KGB minders under the guise of interpreters, team doctors, administrators, tour guides and whatnot.
The USSR Sports Committee effectively was a KGB department, and the fusion of sports and secret police was maintained when history ended and Democracy vanquished.
Except that by then the secret police itself had fused with the criminal underworld to such an extent that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began (Col. Vlad, he of a $40 billion fortune, is a prime example of this amalgam).
The mafia potential of sports is endless, what with betting on results being rife in most Western countries. Tennis in particular, as an individual sport with heaps of funding in it, offers a perfect arena for throwing matches for money.
Followers of the sport must have caught a whiff of many such scandals, typically featuring Eastern European and Russian players. US authorities certainly did when in 1993 they denied Tarpischev an American visa for his alleged links with organised crime.
Though he vehemently denied the charges, the poor chap missed the Olympic games in Atlanta and narrowly made the semi-finals of the Federation Cup, even though he captained the Russian team.
All this is par for the course. Let him travel to the Crimea, I say. Tarpischev deserves everything the West can throw at him.
But he doesn’t deserve the censure to which he was subjected simply for a joke – stupid, unfunny, but still only a joke nonetheless.
Speaking on a Russian TV chat show, Tarpischev referred to the Williams sisters as ‘Williams brothers’, alluding to the masculine power of their game.
A worldwide scandal erupted, and the WTA banned Tarpischev from women’s tennis for a year, fining him $25,000 into the bargain.
Serena Williams, whose body shape doesn’t resemble any man of my acquaintance, issued a public statement describing Tarpischev’s joke as racist. Having read the text of his remarks, I found no references to race, but then of course any offence to a black person is ipso facto racist in our politically correct world.
After all, didn’t our own courts rule that a racial offence is anything the offended person says it is? Hence, if the Williams sisters feel insulted, then anyone saying, for example, that Serena looks overweight or that Venus’ game is in the doldrums is a racist.
Come on, ladies, a joke is a joke. Tarpischev will never make it as a comedian, and he’s a nasty bit of work, but surely in this instance Serena and the WTA have overreacted?
Now Jimmy Carr has made it as a comedian, in spades (no racially offensive pun intended). His stock in trade is jokes treading a fine line beyond which humour ends and savagery begins.
It’s a matter of personal taste, but I like him. Though I wouldn’t be able to defend this view, for me a joke is funny or not. I apply no other judgement to it, although others are perfectly within their right to do so.
Thus I laugh when Jimmy says, for instance, “They say there’s safety in numbers. Go tell that to the six million Jews.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t laugh, but I do. Moreover, though others may not find this joke humorous, only a self-righteous moron… sorry, I meant ‘modern’ would attack Jimmy for endorsing, or even trivialising, genocide.
This time he got in hot water over a joke about Pistorius. Talking about a lavatory queue, Jimmy quipped:
“So frustrating. All I’m saying is I can see it from Oscar Pistorius’ point of view. That’s not the controversial bit. Here it comes… I blame her. If she hadn’t been in that disabled toilet none of this would have happened.”
An explosion of public indignation ensued instantly. Thank God all the characters in that tragedy were white. Had they been black, Jimmy would be branded as a racist, with career-ending implications.
We all hold certain things to be off limits for jokes. However, exactly what those things are may cause a divergence of opinion.
I might suggest that jokes about Christianity, coming in a non-stop stream from every stand-up venue, overstep the limit. But the gods of old civilisations invariably become the demons of new ones.
New civilisations demand new gods, and hence today’s deification of political correctness. How long before it dawns upon us that, largely for that reason, our civilisation isn’t worthy of the name?