What’s in a joke?

In Kimberly-Jean Manchester’s letter (8/2/05), Ms. Manchester quoted me as saying that polish jokes are funny –the full quote was that the “while Irish jokes or the proverbial Polish jokes are funny.” Why did I include the word “proverbial”? Because if you look at the history of jokes, the same jokes are used worldwide in a variety of English speaking counties, but with a slightly different punch-line. For example, doing an online search I found a list of jokes which includes the following: Polish loan shark lends out all his money, skips town. Now, if you take a Polish joke from the states, you will usually find the exact same joke in Canada, but it would read: Newfy (people from New Foundland) loan shark lends out all his money, skips town. Similarly, in England, the joke would be about an Irishman and in Ireland, about a Kerryman (from County Kerry). The key to the joke is that it is not about the person, but the joke. Like chips ‘n salsa: the chip is just a delivery vehicle for the dip! Conversely, the “key” to a Jewish, homosexual, or African-American joke is to hurt a person and put down an ethnicity. But that’s just the opinion of one Irish-Polish American.

Also, I am concerned that Ms. Manchester did not disclose the fact that she is related to Rev. Manchester. Its seems to me that, if Roman Manchester had the same concern for Native Americans that Ms. Manchester wishes for Poles, then there would not have been a back-and-forth in the Providence Journal.

Racisim and Sports’ Names

In regards to Roman Manchester’s letter to the editor (7/22/2005), I believe he was very articulate, but may have missed one element of the issue. Yes, there are sports’ teams named after Native Americans and, yes, there are sports’ teams named after Euro-Americans. The difference is the issue of power.

It is irresponsible to use terms that make disempowered persons uncomfortable. The Washington Redskins are probably the best example of a team name that is insensitive. On the other hand, while the term Yankees does come from the Dutch language, Euro-Americans are so assimilated into society that the term is not offensive. Linguistically, it’s the same reason that African-American or homo-sexual jokes are not funny (they are offensive) while Irish jokes or the proverbial Polish jokes are funny. Of course, there sociological conditions in which humor and team-names can change over time. I would argue that the name Boston Celtics would have been offensive at the time that Boston was awash in NINA (No Irish Need Apply) signs, but now the name is an embracement of the immigration history of Boston.

I believe what people need to keep in mind is that the Boston Celtics are not called the Boston Micks, the New Orleans Saints are not called the New Orleans Frogs, the Green Bay Packers are not called the Green Bay Working Class, the Milwaukee Brewers are not called the Milwaukee Drunks, the San Diego Padres are not called the San Diego Pedophiles, etc. Names can be offensive; sometimes it’s not racial or ethnic: the Washington Bullets decided their name was too insensitive for a city that was often the statistical murder-capital of the country, so they changed their name to the Washington Wizards in 1998 (the same year that the first Harry Potter book was released, a coincidence?).

So yes, the Yankees are a racial term for Euro-Americans and yes, using the phrase “Tribe cut down to size” can be insensitive. Chances are that most English Americans aren’t offended by the term Yankee, but rather see the term as an embracement of their heritage. Similarly, I doubt a Scandinavian-Americans in the Midwest are offended by the term Minnesota Vikings… because they have been sociologically assimilated. Hopefully, some day Native Americans will feel and, in fact, be so assimilated that there will no longer be any questions of insensitivity.

Corpus of Hate

“It is hard to make a revolution, it is harder to sustain it, even harder to win it —
but then, after you have won, then the real challenge begins.”

In the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, Karl Lueger, a proto-fascist in Hapsburg Austria, sought to become mayor of Vienna, a city known for its liberal cosmopolitanism. Lueger appealed to working class anxieties, resentment, and Catholic and xenophobic Anti-Judaism. The Austrian Emperor tried to prevent Lueger’s election several times, but popular opinion in support of Lueger was so strong that the Emperor himself had to concede. Once in office, Lueger supported his working class base with patronage, public works, and constant demonization and ridicule of the “wealthy Jews.”

An anecdote from the period tells that Lueger was once casually talking with a poor Jewish man. One of his supporters was agahst to see Lueger himself engaging with such a “devil”. Lueger stopped, stared at his supporter sharply, and declared, “I determine who’s a Jew.” While Lueger may have only taken his rhetoric somewhat seriously, many others truly did believe in his words about the “Jewish problem.” Adolf Hitler, who was living in Vienna at the time, is said to have been inspired by Lueger’s example. Through his promotion of a core base of supporters, the introduction of patronage and public works, and the constant demonization of the “Jewish problem,” Lueger achieved municipal power, and set a modern European precedent to achieve power through ridicule, demonization, and harassment of minority groups, in his case, Jews.

In the US, various politicians at different times in our history demonized people with darker skin, resulting in lynch mobs and legalized codes of segregation. Jews, people from Southern Europe and Ireland, and Catholics (North Providence itself was shrunk to its present size in 1879 when portions of the town with large Italian populations were “donated” to Providence to maintain Yankee purity) also faced harrassment. On the West Coast, Asians from China and Japan were harrassed, during WWII ultimately leading to the Japanese internment camps. During parts of the Cold War, people (many artists) with opinions or attitudes percieved as “soft on (or friendly to) communism” were ridiculed, labeled pinkos and traitors.

Sadly hate politics is global, often targeting immigrants and minorities. In post-colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, wealthy, white Europeans bemoaned threats from dangerous blacks,” and in Latin America, indigenous and darker skinned people have been harassed and excluded from power for centuries. Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda demonized Indians and Europeans living in the country, forcing them all into exile in the mid 1970s under the philosophy “Africa for Africans”. Amin’s policies forced thousands of college educated individuals out of the country, leading to a massive brain drain which Uganda still struggles with. When the Japanese Military during the Showa Period (1932-1945) expanded across the Pacific, Chinese and Fillipino people were treated brutally and reduced to near slave status, in the name of defending against Western imperialism. Mao’s Cultural Revolution resulted in the murder and harassment of millions of teachers, educators, professors, and religious in the name of “purity.” The former US supported Dominican dictator Trujillo (FDR once quipped, “He’s an S.O.B, but he’s our S.O.B.”) spoke of the need to cleanse the Dominican Republic of “corrupting” immigrants from Haiti. 20-30,000 Haitians, the majority of them poor immigrants, were murdered in 1937. More recently in Rwanda, tensions between the Tutsi and the Hutu tribes resulted in a massive genocide, dramatically portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda. Europe or Asia, North America or South, Africa or the Caribbean, the politics of hate are sadly effective.

A truly liberal society, with equal opportunity, a bill of rights, a strong civic society, active groups and people determined to live in a free and just community, depends on constant vigilance against demonization of people within the community, turning those people into things. It has happened here, on our planet, in our countries, in our towns, many, many times. We
have seen the results, read the statistics of dead bodies, heard of people restricted from higher education, see the difference in treatment between the “superior” and “inferior” people. Constant vigilance and a continued insistence to stop the politics of hate are necessary on our part to prevent repeats of past history. Leftists and Rightists, Religious and secular, all human philosophies, beliefs and ideologies are subject to lurking demon of hate politics. If anything, if tragically, it is a constant reminder for this Catholic that the idea of the Fallen State of Humanity has an awful corpus of empirical evidence to support it. Yet, at the same time, these injustices are the result of human choices. Here’s hoping we start making some good ones.


Mission Aviation Fellowship is an Evangelical airline, dedicated to “delivering missionaries and the Gospel to remote parts of the world.” It additionally provides a valuable transportation service to remote parts Haiti, allowing access for medical professionals and the like, and for that its owners are to be commended. However, I disagree with their argument that Haiti is “dedicated to Satan” due to Voodoo.

Haiti is on the Western half of the island first conquered by Columbus, and was ruled by the French for over two centuries until the Haitian Revolution, in 1800.On the eve of the Revolution, the colony consisted of 40,000 whites, 30,000 mulattos, and 400,000 black slaves, many scourged and beaten, or treated as concubines.

Voodoo is the result of the marriage of African tribals faiths to Catholic Christianity. Many slaves in Haiti learned Christianity from the Jesuits, who offered sanctuary to runaway slaves, and encouraged blacks to fully participate in Church life. “All are equal before God”, the Jesuits declared. For such “heresy,” the Jesuits were expelled.

The subsequent Slaveowner-controlled, “purified” Catholicism was callous in its treatment of slaves. Many began to merge their older African faiths with their newer Catholic Christianity—– easy because of shared ideas about humility before God, a pantheon of saints and spirits (the Haitian lwa), and respect for heritage. Practiced mostly in secret, and ritualistic, Voodoo is passed on from oungan (priest) to disciple, in each generation, a process open to women and men. Voodoo often has been persecuted by elite in Haitian society,though during the Duvalier regime (1956-1986), Voodoo priests loyal to the dictatorship were used to help control the population, much like Slaveowner Catholicism. The “Dark Voodoo” often seen in the movies is a small cult within Voodoo. It is to Voodooism what Satanism is to Christianity.

Many Voodooists firmly believe that Catholicism supplements their faith, and see no contradiction in acculturating the African and the Catholic traditions as one. Some Catholics do take issue with this amalgamation and at various points in Haitian history have acted as they deemed accordingly, including forbidding the speaking of Creole, the Haitian native language, in parochial schools, to restrict linguistic access to the traditions. Yet it is remarkably simplistic to ignore the historical context, and the genuine spiritual yearnings, which lead to the development of Voodoo. Regardless, do your own research, than decide whether this island nation, with a long history of internal struggle and outside exploitation, is married to Lucifer.

Bad history in a name change

Reprinted from The Providence Journal/Evening Bulletin Apr 15, 2002

The on-again-off-again debate over Rhode Island’s name consistantly uses bad history (Richard Lobban letter, March 26). The people who want the word plantation dropped from our official name incorrectly cite the term’s connotation of slavery. The term plantation, however, did not originally have anything to do with slavery. Plantation is an English term to denote the planting of people in new lands.

The Scottish resettlement in Northern Ireland is known as the King James Plantations and the Elizabethan Plantations. Virginia was originally a plantation of English cavaliers in the New World. Providence Plantations refers to the resettlement of people from England and Massachusetts. We need to accurately recognize the source of words before we criticize them or call for renaming our state.