Don’t shake Nixon’s hand

There is picture of me shaking hands with President Nixon. I’m sixteen and in a skirt so short it should be illegal. He is looking right at the camera, with the frozen smile he made a hundred times that day as a selected slice of the citizenry of Kansas was paraded before him. I’m looking away. In spite of the honor of meeting a U.S. president, I already do not like this one and I will come to like him even less as we both grow older.

Richard Nixon, three days after resigning on 9 August 1974My parents could not have been more proud. Much to my embarrassment they hung the photo in the front hall of our house, leaving me to shrug and smile lamely whenever my own friends saw it. Then it got buried in a box for a few decades, and emerged here in my home a few months ago.

The decades make you more philosophical. This is a piece of my personal history, I thought.  I should embrace all the oddball steps along the path I’ve trod. So up went the photo, albeit in a far corner of a room upstairs.

Now, let me be clear. I think Nixon was a frequent liar, who tried to distance himself from a my-wining-justifies-any-behavior scandal called Watergate to which he had no moral objection. I know that he was foul-mouthed, rude and paranoid. This might describe a lot of politicians to some degree, it is true, but I think Nixon was on the far end of that spectrum and I don’t like him for it. I don’t think he was a nice or an honorable man.

Vietnam_WarWhat is worse, there is some evidence that he worked to derail the Vietnam peace talks in order to get elected in 1968. This would make him indirectly responsible for thousands of deaths and an uncountable amount of human suffering. Again, one might argue that many leaders could be accused of such. With great responsibility comes large consequences for poor decisions. But derailing peace talks to get elected? That has to be on the very low end of poor decision making.

Then, we get John Ehrlichman’s revelations from this past week. Nixon hated the hippie movement. In fact, it was his comments about such that turned me off so thoroughly the day the photo was taken. I don’t doubt that he was racist (and probably everything else -ist). The virtues of tolerance, diversity and inclusivity never appeared to be part of his make-up. He may or may not have specifically designed the war on drugs to target blacks and anti-establishment youth, but at the very least it was a bonus to him. This story has the ring of truth to it in that he was notably pragmatic as regarded his own political career. Not only did he not like either group, he also recognized how unlikely either was to ever vote for him.

IMG_2180So I look at the photo and consider taking it back down. These recent revelations stir up the anger and frustration I used to feel, and explain why a younger version of myself thought a man like Gerald Ford was a big improvement. It turns out that I wouldn’t dislike another president so vehemently until Ronald Reagan got elected. Mercifully, I don’t have a picture of me and Reagan to agonize over.

There is something to be said for keeping your own history, honoring your own memories and what those moments meant to you. There is also something to be said to for deciding “I have heard enough about this clown, I don’t ever want to see his face again.”

Which emotion trumps?  Oooopppps, bad word choice. My subconscious must be doing a little free association. Let me rephrase the question. Do I ban his image from my home? Or maybe I should just cut out the part of the photo containing Nixon, and leave my sixteen year-old-self shaking hands with an unseen apparition?

Duct Tape and Christmas Cards

For years I wrote one of those newsy Christmas letters. I tried to keep mine short and down-to-earth but one year I apparently went too far. In an effort to not be pretentious, somewhere in my narrative I used the word “shit”.

“There are a dozen or so words that should not appear in any Christmas greeting,” my husband laughed when he read the letter. “I’m pretty sure that ‘shit’ is one of them.”

joannaIt was too late, the letters had been mailed, and if friends or relatives were offended that year they didn’t mention it.  I’m fairly certain that I can think of at least a dozen words that would have been worse, and you probably can too. Still, now that I’m older and wiser, I try to extend holiday greetings that don’t make anyone wince.

Fast forward to 2015, when I have been asked by a few people what I think of some Louisiana family’s attempt at a funny Christmas card that involved putting duct tape over the mom and daughter’s mouths. Outrage abounds, and I get why. There are probably a dozen or so things that should not appear in your Christmas family photo and duct-taped family members is one of them. However, people can make any stupid joke they want on their own holiday cards. In this case, the mom and female photographer both thought the photo was funny.

I admit that there was something oddly creepy about the duct tape on the little girl. It would have been less offensive if they’d just used mom and dad for the joke. Had these folks been my friends, I might have mentioned to them that their cards were a little tasteless, but then again not. I still think of Aunt Trudie, who stalwartly pretended she never noticed my little profanity.

What I wouldn’t have done, if I’d received the card, is laughed. I personally don’t find jokes that make fun of groups of people (including women) particularly humorous. Because of that, I’ve been accused most of my life of having no sense of humor …. which is odd because I think I’ve got a great one. I find lots of things funny — irony, puns, some sorts of silliness and certainly my own shortcomings. I just don’t find making fun of other people to be funny, at least when it involves any kind of mean streak …. and it is amazing how much humor is grounded in that.

I’ve wasted a lot of breath over the years trying to explain that there is a difference between the humor of those normally at a disadvantage (about those who have the upper hand), and humor on the part of those with the upper hand (that makes fun of the disadvantaged). When those who hold the power (be it by size, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental capabilities or wealth) demean those who don’t, there is an ugly element of repression and aggression there.

I realize that this is a subtle distinction to some, and yes there are grey areas. Also at some point the joke is just plain mean no matter who makes it about whom. I’d put any Christmas card involving duct tape over anyone’s mouth in this latter category. In other words, this one is still not funny even if the women are gloating and the males have their mouths taped shut. It’s in bad taste no matter how you do it.

fractal 3I’ve noticed that being told to lighten up is a standard response to those unwilling to be part of mean-spirited humor. I wish there was an equally pithy response. Somehow, “heavy up” doesn’t work. That’s a shame, because in much of what passes for funny, we could use a heavier sense of the message behind the laughter. That heaviness might help us all distill the hurtful from the mirthful.

As for gentle humor, bring it on. I don’t think the world can have too much of that.

For other slightly offbeat looks at Christmas, see my posts “Christmas is Not about Love, but“,   “The Future of Christmas” and “The Women of Christmas.”