Sweet Land of Lunacy

Note: The humor I refer to here is not the slashing sarcasm that we endure too often today. It is the smiling, chuckling, sometimes knee slapping jokes and stories we used to pass around.

“The bloody flag is raised. These savage soldiers. They come right into our arms to cut the throats of your sons…. Let us march that their impure blood should water our fields.” These gory lyrics are from a translation of the French revolution marching song La Marseillaise which later became their national anthem.

“Stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni.” That is from the American Revolution marching song.
Not to oversimplify. There are many reasons why the American Revolution worked and the French version did not, but I can’t help but think the American funny bone was a useful appendage in the process. The founding fathers and mothers were serious about their work to be sure, but they also had a sense of humor about their predicament. When a snooty British Doctor Richard Shuckburgh called their rag tag militias “nothing but a bunch of Yankee Doodles,” they turned the insult into a
comedy song. They marched to it and in the end the joke was on the British.

The American sense of humor is as deep as any characteristic we possess.
It sometimes gets us into trouble, but it often gives us insights and strength to deal with our difficulties.

Even in our darkest hours Uncle Sam seems to have a twinkle in his eye and a twitch at the corners of his mouth. Speaking of Sam, is it odd that a cartoon personification of a rawboned Yankee has become as venerable as our American eagle? Can you imagine France’s Napoleon, Germany’s Hitler, Russia’s Stalin being represented by a funny paper character? Couldn’t happen.

Americans have usually carried a solid and active sense of humor as part of their arsenal of tools and weapons against demagoguery chicanery, and our own national foolishness. Yankee Doodle was the first, but not the last time we marched to the beat of a comic verse. In the Civil War the most notable song, of course was The Battle Hymn of the Republic. But the inspiration for that dignified hymn to freedom sprang from Julia Ward Howe’s hearing the Union troops singing “John Brown’s body lies a moldering in the grave,” and probably its companion lyric, “We’ll hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree.”

On the other side of the line the Southerners were singing “There’s buckwheat cakes and injun batter, makes you fat or a little fatter. Look away look away, look away Dixie land.” And “The Georgia militia eating goober peas” (peanuts).
In the dark days of slavery black people chuckled to themselves as they sang about “the blue tailed fly” which eventually did in Ol’ Massa.
The vital supplies of World War Two often carried a comic face scribbled on the carton and a friendly message that “Killroy was here.” What that means nobody knows, but it could bring a small smile in the midst of the grimness of war.

How indebted are we to our sense of humor? The man who saved us from self-destruction, one of our two greatest presidents gave us his perspective. After intoning one of the immortal speeches of history, the Gettysburg Address Lincoln was in a deep and characteristically morose mood. He felt personally the weight of the dead buried at the cemetery he had just helped to dedicate. On his way home someone told him a joke. He laughed. Blue nosed critics jumped all over him for such unseemly behavior following so solemn an occasion. Lincoln said, “They do not realize under the burdens I carry if I could not laugh I would die.”

We marched through France in World War one singing, “Mademoiselle from Armentiers hasn’t been kissed for forty years, hinky dinky parlez vous.” We weathered W.W. II singing how you “got to accentuate the positive.”

We hunkered down in the great depression saying to ourselves among other things. “What is a depression? A depression is a dent. A dent is a hole. A hole is nothing. And if you think I’m going to get worried about nothing you’re crazy.”

One of our best known writers Mark Twain was a humorist. He left us pearls of wisdom such as these. “It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve quit at least a thousand times.” And, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Mark Twain left us this clue to our national character and strength. Twain said, “No dictator is really down until he can be made fun of.” True it is the one thing tyrants cannot abide is to have their dignity ruffled. Ruffling puffed up dignity and puncturing the pompous have always been one of the rights we claim as Americans.

But the biggest American joke is this one. Europeans of the late 18th century thought it was hilarious. They scoffed and chuckled over this American lunacy. It was buffoonery and tomfoolery. They weren’t buying any of it. Even today, even in America there are people who think this is a ridiculous idea. It is in fact the greatest joke and the greatest idea in this sweet land of lunacy. The joke is this. Common people, run of the mill just plain folks are smart enough to manage their own lives and to operate their government. It is, as any elitist aristocrat or officious bureaucrat knows, a loony idea. But for almost two and a half centuries now the joke has been on them. May it ever be so.