My two older kids, Paden (11) and MJ (9), talked in the backseat of the car about some show they had been watching. I can't remember the show (Lego, Disney, or whatever), but suddenly my kids relayed a joke from the show about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I was so concerned about this that I stopped the car to talk to my family for a minute. Our discussion centered around one simple idea; somethings aren't funny and they never will be.
Our culture lost sight of that fact a long time ago, and I am as guilty as anyone else at finding inappropriate jokes funny. But lately I have been missing holidays. Let me be clear, I'm not saying I miss extra days off from work. I miss reverence for great ideas, great people, and great events. Our combined need to outwork everyone and prove our irreverence leaves us with a fast paced life rich with entertainment and distraction but lacking important context and meaning.
One of the reasons that I love Washington D.C. so much is the presence of so many memorials and monuments to American historical events and heroes. You walk amongst the massive structures and eternal flames and remember what others did to protect the idea that is the American dream. You feel the importance of the contributions of great Americans to our way of life. Arlington National Cemetery moves me in ways that it is difficult to describe, as does the Vietnam Memorial and the World War II Memorial. You are continuously reminded that there are sacrifices, deeds, and events that are so important we must take pains to remember them always. They must forever be a part of our self understanding.
When God led the nation of Israel across the Jordan, Joshua commanded each tribe to elect a strong man to walk out into the dried river and grab a large stone. They were to carry those stones, one for every tribe, on their shoulders to the place where they made camp that night. Why? To serve as sign:
“In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off, These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
Reverence must be taught and it must be protected. We don't have holidays in the United States as much as we have predetermined days off from work and school. Honoring both Lincoln and Washington required too much time off from important things, so let's have a President's Day and act like all presidents are worthy of the same honor. After all, Lincoln and James Buchanan held the same office so they deserve the same respect from the people of the United States. What is the real difference between George Washington and Herbert Hoover? They were both President. It is not like anyone was really taking the day to honor those men. Reasoning from our irreverence, a flaw in our national character, not only diminished our appreciation of Washington and Lincoln but diminished us as well.
What personal pains do we take to honor MLK Day, Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, etc. They are long weekends, big movie openings, and chances to shop. Those days off are a needed chance to enjoy recreation in the midst of long work hours, but we are missing something important when events that formed us as a nation become the punchlines to jokes on children's shows.
This is nothing new. Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. Thomas Hibbs wrote Shows About Nothing, where he demonstrated the nihilistic nature of TV shows like The Simpsons and Seinfeld, in 2000. Scholars like Postman, Hibbs, and many others have been warning us that our need to be entertained combined with our reduction of all things to the same level of triviality (a la Seinfeld) would have a dramatic impact on our public discourse. It is only now becoming clear how right they were.
Russel Brand talked about an incident that got him fired from a British TV comedy show. The day after 9-11 he did a sketch where he portrayed Osama Bin Laden. The joke was he was asking the American people to get over it. After all, that happened yesterday. It is time to move on now. Brand admitted the skit was a terrible idea and that he only did it because his heroin addiction made him incapable of conceiving of how painful his “joke” must have been to others. I've done my own share of hurtful stupid things, so I'm not slamming Brand. In fact, the interviewer most confused me. She repeatedly made comments about the “bad timing” of the joke.
I would tell her the same thing I told my children in the car. There is no good timing for jokes about things that are not funny. There is no comic gold to later mine in tragedies on the scale of 9-11 or the assassination of President Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth shot one of the great U.S. presidents in the head as he sat next to his wife watching a play. There is no sufficient time to pass that we can see these things in a humorous light.
Our desperation to be in on the joke must end by an act of discipline. There will always be people that look to show their bravery by their irreverence. (I recently saw Leonardo DiCaprio referenced as courageous for being willing to violate himself with a candle on camera for The Wolf of Wall Street. Courage indeed.) They aren't held back by things as common and provincial as courtesy and respect. A university professor I know recently posted his shock on Facebook at finding a website hosted by young Christians with the sole purpose seemingly to prove that they could be as disrespectful and dismissive of objectively important things as anyone else. Apparently they accomplished their worthy goal. Well done!
And just like my kids in the car, there will always be well meaning people that laugh at them. So then, there must always be adults willing to teach their children that some things aren't funny even if that means enduring the scorn of the perpetually irreverent that are so often celebrated in our culture.
Some things aren't funny, and they never will be.