What kidding around about sexual predators and innocent teens says about us. And them.
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.)
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.
Photograph of David Letterman by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images.