Anyone who's been scoring Letterman v. Palin knows that it has been a ratings boon to both sides: Last week, David Letterman told a tasteless joke. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin flipped out. Letterman apologized. Palin went berserk. Letterman apologized again. Palin accepted his apology on behalf of "young women" everywhere. Letterman's ratings skyrocketed. And Palin is back in the headlines. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
The pertinent facts: During his monologue on June 8, Letterman called Palin a "slutty flight attendant" and joked about Palin's daughter being propositioned by former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and "knocked up" by Alex Rodriguez during a Yankees game. Letterman later insisted the joke was about 18-year-old teen mom Bristol, but the young Palin in attendance at Yankee Stadium that night was 14-year-old Willow, allowing her mom to rage that the late-night talk-show host was contributing to a culture "that says it's OK to talk about statutory rape" and offer up a counterjoke that "it would be wise to keep Willow away from David Letterman."
So what's more offensive, the joke about impregnating teenage girls or the joke about sexually predatory old comedians? Answer: neither.
That's the problem with jokes. They are funny only if you accept the premise, in this case, that Palin is the slutty mother of sluts or that Letterman is a dirty old man with designs on 'tween girls. If you don't accept that premise, the jokes become cancerous hate speech. There's no middle ground here. That's why the umbrage wars invariably escalate when jokes are involved. Jokes—or more correctly, the enemies' jokes—seem to open a window on the other team's id. One side's throwaway one-liner is the other side's heart of darkness.
It's easy to view this whole Palin/Letterman dust-up through the lens of political opportunism: As Kevin Drum remarks, Palin "was just looking for some free publicity, and getting her supporters worked up over a supposed insult from a dissolute member of the East Coast liberal elite played directly into her standard class resentment schtick." Columnist Mike Littwin calls it "a faux-culture-war story that falls somewhere between sublime and ridiculous, which is exactly where we need a headline-grabbing, culture-war story to land." But while I agree that Letterman's comments were stupid and Palin's were probably stupider, I don't believe the umbrage on either side was phony. I suspect each side believes it caught out the enemy in a moment of profound moral truth.
That's why the real point of this newest umbrage war is not whether Letterman joked about the 14-year-old or the 18-year-old daughter (NOW finds both outrageous), whether the "slutty flight attendant" line was sexist (Michelle Malkin is beside herself), or whether Palin is a hypocrite for smiling last fall as SNL offered up far more offensive jokes about her children. The point of the umbrage wars is that both sides insist that the other side is getting away with something. Both sides think that there is a double standard at work here that makes its jokes funny while the enemy spews toxic, dangerous hate.
It's not a joke, says Palin, if it contributes to a culture that treats young girls as sex objects. It's not a joke, say her critics, that Palin is accusing Letterman of the imaginary rape of her teenage child.
Palin herself has long argued that her jokes are benign, whereas her enemies' jokes are threats to her family. In her June 12 interview with Matt Lauer, Palin (while, er, calling Letterman a pedophile) complained that the Obama children are cosseted while hers are trashed and violated:
It's the double standard that's been applied here. ... Remember in the campaign, Barack Obama said "Family's off limits. You don't talk about my family," and "the candidate who must be obeyed" [Obama] ... everybody adhered to that, and they did leave his family alone, and they haven't done that on the other side of the ticket, and it has continued to this day. So that's a political double standard.
To which Margaret Carlson replies that "if you want a 'zone of privacy' around your daughter, do you have her appear on stage with her then-fiancé hinting at prospects of a White House wedding waving to the crowd like Charles and Diana of the Klondike?"
Both sides also suspect that there is a double standard for comedians—that one side is allowed to speak freely while the other is muzzled by politically correct hecklers. Here, for instance, is columnist Pam Meister explaining why Letterman got a pass on Palin while Don Imus was canned for calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos."
The reason, of course, is that an old white guy making any kind of slur against a protected minority group is verboten. But an old liberal white guy making crude sexual jokes about the young daughter of a conservative politician is fine, because who the hell cares what those knuckle-dragging conservatives think? Considering the relative paucity of criticism from like thinkers on the left, who would have been up in arms had a similar joke been made about Obama's children (heaven forbid, I might add), is telling.
Liberals, on the other hand, contend that they are the ones held to a higher standard than the Bill O'Reillys and Glenn Becks, who spew hate like the fountain at Caesar's Palace but who are never called on to apologize, as Letterman just did twice.
Maybe the real problem here is not the double standard, or the perceived double standard, or even the fact that two double standards should ultimately net out into a single unitary standard. Perhaps the hard question we cannot quite answer is whether we want our jokes, slips, and gaffes to be considered mere jokes, or to reveal something deep about character.
Sigmund Freud certainly believed the latter. In his 1905 book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, * he speculated that jokes, like dreams, are like letters from the subconscious and that, like dreams, they express unspoken wishes and desires. He theorized that often—in the case of what he terms "tendentious jokes"—jokes allow us to bypass cultural repression and scratch some deep psychological itch. Freud speculates that dirty jokes are a form of safe sexual aggression—a kind of safe threesome—and that "hostile jokes" are those that "allow us to exploit something ridiculous in our enemy which we could not, on account of obstacles in the way, bring forward openly or consciously." Hostile jokes, according to Freud, also bring the listeners who enjoy our joke to our team. If Freud were alive today, he'd give both Letterman and Palin perfect scores in each of these categories for their most recent efforts.
I would be remiss if I didn't add that Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious teems with the kind of sexist humor that makes Letterman's foray into dirty jokes about sex with Alaskan teens seem tame by comparison. But the enduring point Freud would argue is that one guy's "just a joke" is a sucker punch to someone else's id. We can't ever resolve the question of when "just kidding" becomes bilious psychopathology, because jokes will never fit neatly into just one category or the other. Freud also has a lot to say about the differences between the intent of the jokester and the perception of the listener, something Letterman learned the hard way this week. But in the end, we may be forever doomed to read more into jokes than we do into other types of declarations precisely because jokes originate from—and are directed to—that part of us with no real sense of humor.
Were Freud alive today, he would also tell you that it's no accident the Letterman-Palin fracas ultimately bogged down in mutual self-righteous claims that jokes about sex with so-and-so are simply never funny. But, then, Freud would also be the first to insist that's why these are the funniest jokes of all.
Correction, June 18, 2009: This article originally gave the wrong title for Freud's book. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)