Johannes Man, a student living in London, made an insensitive joke today about crimes against humanity perpetrated by a state.
Man directed the humour against one of his foreign colleagues, making light of decades of oppression and abuse at the hands of a crazed government with no regard for the dignity or humanity of its victims. The joke even implied that somehow his colleague was responsible for his nation’s dubious history and therefore was still tainted by it.
The joke of course was directed at an Australian, and went like this: “I better hide my wallet because you’re a convict,” or something along those perennial lines. After all, the word “convict” hasn’t lost any of its comedic power after two hundred years of formulaic usage.
The hilarious punchline refers to the largest forced exile of citizens at the behest of a European government in pre-modern history,* perpetrated by the British Government between 1787-1868. Man was unaware of the sensitive nature of his scalding wit. “Crippled and unbalanced legal systems forcibly deporting thousands of people is funny right?” he asked.
An English friend supported him. “Australians love it when we point out how ridiculous and horrible English society used to be. But I think they understand. I mean, when the American colonies rebelled we had to send our slaves somewhere. Did I say slaves? I meant criminals. What were we supposed to do? Create a functioning police force or allow our prison system to admit the possibility of reform at any level? Let’s be realistic.”
The Australian who suffered the joke, 21-year-old Bob Guy, laughed politely but apparently found the joke tiresome and unoriginal. He admitted that although he was not a descendant of convicts, and most convicts were sentenced to exorbitant terms for minor property theft, and the total number of convicts sent to Australia never represented a majority of the island’s population at any time ever, the joke still stung a little because a small percentage of the convicts actually were terrible people guilty of horrible crimes.
“That does play on my mind, almost enough to delay the formation of a credible national identity for generations,” said Guy. “But I was hoping to whitewash that with a sort of noble anti-colonial empathy for hopeless criminals like Ned Kelly. Did I say whitewash? I meant, sanitise. We certainly couldn’t have formed a cultural legacy around a member of the police class because that would mean acknowledging class. So the first good-looking young hobo symbolic enough to bear the weight of our aspirations had to do. Hence the morally empathetic and only a little bit criminal but generally hopeless bushranger.”
Guy’s English friends understood his desire to revel in national history, much as they innocently mocked his attempt to do so. “It has just been so sad since our last moment of national glory in World War II,” said an English person, “after which the Empire has slowly withered into something based on inclusion rather than ownership. The closest we get to reviving our past glory and subjugating a mass of dehumanised others is UKip, and that isn’t mainstream enough for us to champion.”
Johannes Man remained confused. “Is the convict thing not true? I read it in a book.”