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When Foreigners Were Funny
As you get older, the world starts to pass you by. This is sad, but inevitable. The world — its manners and fashions, its demographic and geostrategic facts — changes steadily, but you
don’t change much after you reach adulthood. I have expressed elsewhere
the idea that at age 20, a human being is pretty much “done” — cooked all through.
Your circumstances might change quite dramatically, of course. You might even get rich and famous in your old age after a lifetime of penury, like Patrick O’Brian, when the lonely, barren furrow you have been plowing all your life suddenly, on account of some change in the climate of public taste, brings forth a bumper crop. You yourself, though — your personality — isn’t going to change much after 20. The older I myself get, in fact, the more I incline to the view Hazlitt arrived at in his own later years, that the core essentials are fixed at birth.
I was mulling on these melancholy truths the other day while browsing in Orwell’s essays. The particular thought I was mulling was, that foreigners are no longer funny. I miss that — I mean, I miss laughing at foreigners. To find foreigners funny nowadays is totally contrary to public taste. I believe that in the U.K., making fun of foreigners is actually criminal, if done as part of a public performance.
I don’t think Orwell wanted laughing at foreigners to be against the law, but he seems to have disapproved of it as part of the blinkered insularity of his fellow-countrymen — part of that complex of English attitudes Orwell was half in love with, and yet at the same time despaired of, and which he thought might cause Britain to lose World War Two, which was under way, or obviously imminent, at the time of the essay that got my attention.
That was the essay “Boys’ Weeklies,” written in 1939 and published in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon the following year. In it, Orwell scoffed at the attitudes he found in the “fifteen- or twenty-thousand word school story” that was the principal and characteristic feature of those periodicals. The school in these stories was of course an old-fashioned boys’ boarding school.
(Do you mind if I just pause to marvel at a society in which 12-year-old boys looked forward to reading a 50-page story every week? ... Thank you.)
Naturally the politics of the Gem and Magnet [names of two popular boys’ weekly magazines] are Conservative, but in a completely pre-1914 style, with no Fascist tinge. In reality their basic political assumptions are two: nothing ever changes, and foreigners are funny. ... The assumption all along is not only that foreigners are comics who are put there for us to laugh at, but that they can be classified in much the same way as insects.
Orwell goes on to give a sketch of the entomology:
Frenchman: Excitable. Wears beard, gesticulates wildly.
Spaniard, Mexican, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.
Arab, Afghan, etc.: Sinister, treacherous.
Chinese: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail.
Italian: Excitable. Grinds barrel-organ or carries stiletto.
Swede, Dane, etc.: Kind-hearted, stupid.
Negro: Comic, very faithful.
Orwell’s essay drew a spirited reply from Frank Richards, the author of most of those school stories.
...As for foreigners being funny, I must shock Mr. Orwell by telling him that foreigners are funny. They lack the sense of humour which is the special gift to our own chosen nation: and people without a sense of humour are always unconsciously funny.
Richards raises Hitler and Mussolini as instances of performers who would be laughed off an English platform, yet were taken seriously by their own humor-challenged people. Knowing now what great wickedness Hitler did, it’s hard to see him as a comic figure; but I have never been able to watch film footage of Mussolini in full bluster without smiling. Il Duce was indeed preposterous.
Does anything remain of the large sensibility behind Frank Richards’s remark, though? In the age of political correctness and the rampant, uncontrollable, insatiable desire to be offended, can one still say that foreigners are funny, without losing one’s friends, job, and reputation?
The rest is here.