Missing: A simple thing called a sense of humor

Back in the 70s, which lately seems a lot longer than 30 years ago, I wrote a column for a newspaper in Alton, Illinois, the hometown of staunch Republican conservative Phyllis Schlafly.

Phyllis, who made her name traveling around the country urging women to stay home and take care of their husbands, was a natural target for columnists. Her rigid stance on issues, highlighted by the delightful hypocrisy of her actions (the housewife who wasn’t), gave me lots of fodder for columns.

In one column, a lighthearted ditty about graffiti I’d like to see, I joked that I had once found this piece of graffiti in an Alton bar’s men’s room: “Phyllis Schlafly has latent liberal tendencies.”

That one remark brought more pro-Phyllis mail than ever, including a strongly-worded letter from her husband, a local attorney who also served as chairman of a McCarthyesque group called the World Anti-Communist League.

“Do something about this smut-peddler or we will,” he said.

The city editor dropped the letter on my desk with a chuckle.

“One thing you need to learn about these people,” he said. “They don’t have a sense of humor.”

A few weeks later, somebody cut the brake lines on my car. My girlfriend was driving it when the brakes went out and she hit a rock wall driving down one of Alton’s many steep streets. Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt.

“Yeah, they were cut,” said the detective who examined the car. “Hard to tell who did it. You sure do piss off a lot of people around here.” They never found out who did it but I kept writing, kept getting hate mail, kept getting tires slashed on my cars and windows broken out of my house. It went with the territory.

I thought about Alton this past week while wading through a ton of emails, most responding to a column about a boycott of catalogs from Abercrombie & Fitch.

Many emailers expressed their outright disgust over my suggestion the catalogs, which feature a lot of male and female nudity, were just fluff with “bare boobs and butts.”

“How dare you condone this filth,” wrote one. “You are no less than a pornographer yourself.”

Several suggested they would organize boycotts against this web site. “If you pander to pornographers, we will put you out of business.”

Others couldn’t understand how a publication that crusades against exploitation of children on child model web sites could turn around and condone nudity in a catalog that “children might see.”

Yeah, my city editor was right. “These people” don’t have a sense of humor. The only difference is that, these days, “these people” seem to be a lot more people.

The column was written for fun. I find most people’s uneasiness with nudity and sex funny. I also find it hilarious that people pay six bucks for a catalog just so they can look at some bare boobs and butts.

Some people agreed. Some laughed. Some said they were confused. But a lot of people got mad, damn mad.

Too bad.

One of my favorite movies is Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” a spoof that takes no prisoners. Brooks pokes fun at sex, racism, westerns, farts and just about everything else in society.

Sadly, Brooks says he couldn’t make the film today. It wouldn’t, he said, be politically correct. Americans, he adds, have lost the ability to laugh at themselves.

Some say our sense of humor died on September 11, 2001, but the sad truth is that it was gone before that tragic day. A causal remark at the office water fountain can cost someone his or her job or a joke by a disc jockey can cost him a career.

Gender jokes are out. So are ethic jokes. Every word is examined, every phrase parsed, every nuance second-guessed. Step over the line and society demands retribution.

Yet politically correct too often depends on who’s political and who’s correct.

In February 1999, Washington shock jock Doug Tracht, better known as the Greaseman, made an offhand remark about hip hop artist Lauren Hill. After listening to her music, Tracht said “no wonder they drag them behind trucks,” a reference to the dragging death of James Byrd in Texas. The station fired Tracht after complaints from black activist groups. Even though Tracht apologized for his remarks, he couldn’t find a another job in radio for 18 months.

Yet black comedian Chris Rock went on the Today Show and said he wanted to kill Ken Starr and his children during Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton and no one demanded Rock be fired or barred from the stage or movies. Instead he landed plum roles in several new movies.

Like my city editor said, “these people” don’t have a sense of humor.