Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Jokes on Massachusetts

Nathanael Robinson has an interesting post at Cliopatria on the function of "Massachusetts" in political rhetoric, linking to an article by Paul Waldman. I confess, I'm not entirely sure I see the issue, although perhaps that's because I'm a Texan and have heard more than my share of Yankee jokes (the butt of them used almost always to be New York, the first state that comes to mind to most Texans when thinking of Yanks; I wouldn't be surprised, though, if, given 9/11, that more-or-less permanently switches to Massachusetts, which is a good candidate for being the second state that comes to mind). And I really don't find the attempt to turn the senator joke into a 'former governor of Texas' joke funny at all, because it doesn't make any sense at all. What other right-wing former governors does Texas have? Ann Richards? Massachusetts, on the other hand, rightly or wrongly has a reputation for liberal senators that goes back at least a couple of decades. And so I find Bush's joke less puzzling, and thus less unfunny. As less unfunny as Yankee jokes can be, at least. (I never did find them very funny in the first place; but when a Canadian refers to Americans in general as Yankees (as they sometimes do) I still automatically bristle. If you ever want to start bar fights in Texas, go in and start calling the natives 'Yankees', and you'll get more bar fights than you can handle.) And I don't really see that redneck jokes about Texas would be all that damaging - Texans make them about themselves all the time - unless they were said by someone from Massachusetts.

But one does have to wonder about the prudence of candidates making such jokes in the first place. It certainly doesn't help any Texas Democrats in the long run if the Democrats are remembered as making snide jokes about Texas; and I wouldn't be surprised if something similar were the case with Republicans and Massachusetts.

What it reminds me of is just how different the states are. We tend to downplay the differences among the various states; but in fact they're rather considerable, and have been for a very long time, long before people started messing up the election color scheme with this red-state/blue-state business. (The traditional coloring is just that the party in power gets blue and the challenger gets red; but that was messed up by pundits after 2000, who locked in the colors to the parties.) States really are to some degree distinct cultural units, however often we may forget it. And what political jokes about Massachusetts or Texas one can get away with would depend on how those jokes play in other cultural units besides those states. It would be interesting if someone did a study of this. I hypothesize that jokes about Texas would often tend in those other states to be taken as implicit jokes about all the "red states"; whereas jokes about Massachusetts (or Vermont in the Howard Dean case) would often tend to be taken as just about Massachusetts (or Vermont). If we're going to start making redneck jokes about Texas, what do people in Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, etc. take that to imply about Louisiana, Alabama, Oklahoma, etc? Do New Yorkers or Marylanders take offense at Massachusetts jokes? This would actually be very, very interesting to know - it's one of those cases where I'd be as fascinated by being proved wrong as by being proved right.

By the way, I voted today; so expect a post in the next few days on which candidates I didn't vote for (because that's about the shape of this election, isn't it?): my one partisan post.

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