Monday, January 5, 2015

Because There's Nothing Funnier than Mass Starvation

Those of you who know Curmie personally will agree, one trusts, that his sense of humor is often sardonic, occasionally vulgar, and not infrequently somewhat short of PC. That doesn’t mean that there are no limits, however. The British network Channel 4 seems to want to pretend otherwise.

The Famine memorial on the north side of the River Liffey in Dublin
Apparently someone in that corporation thinks a comedy series set in Famine-stricken Ireland, and titled “Hungry,” would be good for big yucks. A more repulsive project would be difficult to imagine. There are those in Ireland—Curmie knows more than a few personally—who refuse even the nomenclature of “Great Famine,” as that term suggests a lack of food, and there wasn’t. 

Even in the deepest depths of the potato blight in the 1840s, literally tons of produce were being exported from Ireland, even as a million people died of starvation and twice that many emigrated to England, Australia, and North America, often on over-crowded “coffin ships,” with desperate and emaciated families clinging to the slightest hope of mere survival. The world’s population has increased more than five-fold since 1840; Ireland’s population has yet to return to pre-Famine numbers.

What is important here is that the British were directly responsible for the lion’s share of the suffering of the Irish people. That’s not just me saying that, but in fact every serious historian of the period—even the English ones—will agree. True, the reliance on a single crop, especially one which had notably failed less than a generation earlier, played a role, but the devastating effects would have been profoundly ameliorated if not rendered insignificant had the British cared even a little bit for people they insisted were their subjects.

The British response—or, rather, lack of response—to the Famine was predicated on the three cardinal attributes of chauvinism: nationalism, classism, and religious prejudice. Those whose lives were destroyed were poor, Irish, and Catholic; those whose arrogance and narcissism condemned them to starvation were rich, English, and Protestant. (English Protestants settled primarily in the Pale, the area around Dublin; the overwhelmingly Catholic west, where the Famine hit the hardest, was “beyond the Pale.”)  Curmie won’t bore you with the relevant postcolonial theory, but let’s just say that common sense if sufficient to understand the corporation’s protestations about the series being analogous to “Dad’s Army,” “Blackadder Goes Forth,” and “M*A*S*H” are strained at best.

Niall O’Dowd dismantles that comparison:
British show “Dad’s Army” is about participants in the Second World War defense of Britain, “M*A*S*H” about American soldiers in the Korean war, and British show “Blackadder Goes Forth” about the British Army in World War One.

None of these series are about defenseless millions who either starved to death or were forced to flee in Famine coffin ships. The proper comparison is the Holocaust, and we haven't seen too many comedies about that have we?

In the Korean context the proper sitcom would be one about the suffering of millions from famine conditions there because of the Kim Jong Il dynasty.
Really, though, O’Dowd understates the case. It’s not merely that the proper parallel for the Famine is indeed the Holocaust, it’s who’s producing and watching the show. Just as it was OK for George Carlin to tell Catholic jokes, or for African-Americans to refer to each other using the n-word, a purely Irish production of a Famine sitcom might be in bad taste, but it wouldn’t be utterly abhorrent.

“Hunger,” however, would be about the Irish, but with an intended English audience. You remember the English, Gentle Reader… the very folks who perpetrated the atrocities? This isn’t merely the equivalent of a comedy about the Holocaust; it’s more of a German comedy about Auschwitz, a Japanese comedy about the Bataan Death March, an American comedy about the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing.

True, the writer behind this project, Hugh Travers is Irish, and the Limerick-based Rubberbandits comedy team have defended the proposal, yammering predictably about how “this is why Beckett and Joyce left the country.” What nonsense. First off, there’s a long tradition of Irish writers parodying their own nation, pandering to English audiences wanting their stereotypes confirmed rather than challenged: Thomas Shadwell, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Dion Boucicault, and George Bernard Shaw all come to mind. And now we have a no doubt talented but virtually unknown writer adding his name to the list. Curmie would certainly not suspect that young Mr. Travers wants to be controversial, because there’s no such thing as bad publicity. No, surely not. That would be cynical, after all. Perish the thought.

More to the point, whatever discontent Joyce and Beckett may have had with Irish society was specifically with the power structure, especially but not solely the Church, which in their day, far more than in the present, was a hypocritical hegemony of posturing and power plays. However iconoclastic those two writers may have been, however willing to explore the darker side of humor, I find it difficult to believe that either would have endorsed a project quite this boorish. They may have seen peasant life as insignificant (no more or less than any other life), but intentional cruelty towards the common people was not in their brief.  And addressing social issues for the sake of shedding light on them or solving them is not the same as doing so to prove one’s own irreverence.

Be it noted: there are some extremely funny moments in a number of plays, books, and movies set in equivalent spaces—think of Roberto Benigni’s brilliant “Life Is Beautiful,” for example. But Benigni’s father was imprisoned in a concentration camp, so there is that essential kernel of truth, and the humor of the film is centered on the first—pre-capture—half of the story. The second half of the film has moments of irony, and indeed of humor, but no one would ever call it a comedy. Moreover, we’re talking about a single film, not a series.

The British version of freedom of speech isn’t exactly the same as the one on the western side of the pond, but there are more similarities than differences. Basically, Travers and Channel 4 can proceed with the project if they so choose. They have the legal right to do so, and I am not suggesting otherwise. But freedom of speech is a two-way street: they can do what they want, and you and I, Gentle Reader, can call them fecking gobshites for doing so. (And there’s a petition, too.)

Really the world is admirably arranged.

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