Two stories surfaced this week that have tested the late, great Steve Allen’s famous quote, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” First, Amanda Hess dives into why teenagers love making jokes about 9/11 and finds that (surprise) the jokes aren’t really about 9/11. While those darn kids quoting Loose Change in increasingly absurd contexts may seem irreverent and uncaring to those who watched the towers burn and collapse, it’s merely the latest example of the next generating clowning the olds and asserting their values.
“Truthers seem funny now because young people have the emotional distance to see that their theories are plainly ludicrous instead of morally outrageous—the absurdity of a trutherism blowing one’s mind is a persistent trope—but also because truthers are so singularly obsessed with this now-distant event.”
On the other hand, some of the social media commentary around the U.S. Women’s National Team’s victory in the 2015 World Cup referenced a previous conflict between the U.S. and Japan: the attack on Pearl Harbor. These tweets were universally met with scorn and warranted nary a think-piece (until now, sigh).
So we have two events, 60 years apart, that left thousands dead and dragged America into wars that killed tens (hundreds?) of thousands more. Why is one – the more recent one, no less – a fertile playground for juvenile expression and the other universally seen as comedy-proof? Yes, the racist / xenophobic angle of Pearl Harbor jokes is a huge part of it but I think it might be more nuanced than that.
Better to speak and confirm that you are a fool than remain quiet and risk seeming uninformed
Hess smartly notes that,
“Sept. 11 was something new—a social media tragedy. Suddenly, horrific news footage didn’t just traumatize everyone in the moment; it lived online indefinitely, and so did all the comments and conspiracies and jokes.”
The nature of social media is such that not only are you receiving the latest news and opinions about the latest tragedy 24/7, but that you also have a bullhorn of your own at your fingertips. When a teen says “Who is Osama bin Laden?” really what they are saying is “Yes, I heard the news about Osama bin Laden,” regardless of whether or not they know who he is. For many, the urge to participate in the discussion is greater than the need to be seen as informed.
In 1941, humanity didn’t have the outlets for expression that we do today, so there is only one version of Pearl Harbor. To compare the attack on Pearl Harbor to a sporting event is to denigrate a piece of history that pretty much everybody sees the same way, and so we all feel the dissonance of those comparisons. Nobody agrees about anything around 9/11 – and we’ll never have that culturally unified viewpoint again – but we all feel compelled to weigh in and (most importantly?) we know that others feel compelled to do likewise. This social-media compassion, I believe, is what makes truther jokes, and even more pointed 9/11 comedy – Louis CK (NSFW, obv), Gilbert Gottfried, Chris Rock – possible.