By Nolan Weber
Yep, the people of Iraq are so backward and unenlightened. Wait, that didn’t sound right, did it? I will put money down that all the trip wires of your social conscientiousness just felt a violent yanking sensation. So let me reform that previous statement: Southerners are so backward and unenlightened.
But why is that statement socially acceptable? By the same token, that dig could easily be swapped for the ubiquitous “In Mother Russia. . .” joke. This sort of double standard about which countries can be made the subject of humor bothers me like a drunken Irish man bothers the bartender.
Indeed, why has Western society seen this collective development? It makes sense that cultural jabs concerning Western Europe and the United States are commonplace. At this point in history, these are the winners—the reigning champions of the international struggle for monetary and military supremacy. As a consequence, it is like making fun of the Yankees or the Lakers; they win so much cracking a joke is mitigated by the obvious reality of their political dominance.
On the flipside, nations like Sierra Leone and Algeria cannot be made the subject of such jest. Formerly colonized countries such as these lost this round of history. For a citizen of the “first world” to make fun of a nation that has been the victim of imperialization would be adding insult to injury. To that end, I can see the moral appeal in decrying humor generated at the expense of a state in the Global South.
However, the fact Russians and Southerners can be the butt of almost any joke fails to make sense to me. Certainly from a comparative perspective, their country lost. Consider Russia for a moment.
At its highest point in history, the best title to which Russia could stake its name was a distant second to the world’s superpower. While the USSR may have had a comparable number of nuclear warheads, Russia suffered from such a great dearth of toilet paper the government had to strategically stock bathrooms when foreign envoys came to visit. To rub salt in the wound, the United States induced flash crony capitalism upon its economy—a practice that, no doubt, has aided the re-emergence of authoritarianism.
Think of the ebbs and flows of purges that riddle Russia’s history. Recall the gulags that devastated the social and political foundation of humanity. Without question, history has not been kind to Russia. Yet no one bats an eye when someone passes off a makeshift Yakov Smirnoff bit.
The South also serves as a conversational punching bag, yet, by all accounts, has suffered political ostracization and economic manipulation equal to any fallen challenger of the United States. Indeed, de facto banishment from the federal stage of politics for more than a hundred years coupled with Reconstruction efforts left to plantation-class whims, at least in part, doomed the South to social runt hood. How would you feel if the United States, after losing its War for Independence, still suffered constant social berating by England?
I bet you would not care for it. However, the South—in a supposed age of cultural relativism—gets beaten over the head constantly.
I stand legitimately perplexed by this issue. What is it about these two countries that makes them fodder for backhanded colloquial criticism? I am compelled to say they have reached a sort of minimum threshold of economic development so one does not feel like they are making fun of a homeless person. But I really have zero point of reference. Instead I ask you, the reader, for your thoughts. What is it about the South and Russia that makes them such easy, socially acceptable targets?
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