What it means when jokes and satire are taken at face value

The political chattering class recently was agog about two incidents. One concerned Mitt Romney expressing concern that airplane windows could not be opened in the event that smoke filled the cabin, something that happened recently on a plane on which his wife Ann was traveling. People took this as yet another sign of a clueless candidate out of touch with reality.

The other was a report that took a true comment by a political commentator that a Romney loss in November would require Paul Ryan, if he were to run for national office again in the future to first wash away the ‘stench’ of his association with Romney, to argue that Ryan had taken to openly refer to Romney as ‘Stench’.

I read the flurry of items about these two stories but did not take either of these reports seriously. I think that even the dimmest of dim bulbs have seen enough news items and films about what happens when an airplane cabin is suddenly depressurized in flight to know that opening a window is an invitation to disaster. And the second ‘Stench” story, though written on a political site by a political reporter and not on (say) The Onion, was obviously tongue-in-cheek.

And sure enough, it emerged later that both stories were not genuine. In the first case, Romney was obviously joking about the windows and in the second, the writer was trying his hand at satire.

But here’s the problem for Romney. He and his campaign are now seen as so inept and dysfunctional that even political reporters are willing to take at face value things that they should be skeptical about. That is not a good position for a politician to be in. It is like the way people could make up jokes about the mangling of English or general ignorance about national and world affairs and ascribe them to Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin and people would assume they were true. It takes away from the gravitas that people expect from their leaders.

Adding fuel to this fire, at a recent rally Paul Ryan recently told a woman who informed him that she was on welfare, “Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Don’t feed fish.”, drawing comparisons with Dan Quayle’s famous botching of that same aphorism, when he said, “If you give a person a fish, they’ll fish for a day. But if you train a person to fish, they’ll fish for a lifetime.”

How hard can it be to recall correctly one of the most trite sayings of all time?


  1. says

    “If you give a person a fish, they’ll fish for a day. But if you train a person to fish, they’ll fish for a lifetime.”

    Make a fire for a man, and you’ve warmed him for a day. Set a man on fire, and you’ve warmed him for the rest of his life.

  2. Randomfactor says

    The lesson to be taken away here is that Willard “Mitt” Romney is incapable of telling a joke.

    No real shame. Lots of people are incapable. (I have a joke I love to tell about that failure)

    In Romney’s case, I think it shows a defect that makes him ineligible for the Presidency. I think the man utterly lacks empathy, and it’s his desperate simulation of empathy that’s shining through when his punchlines are perceived as flat assertions.

    That, or a man who has a dancing horse and seriously plans to build a car elevator while claiming to be “unemployed” is himself a punchline.

  3. brucecoppola says

    Old jokey version: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’re rid of him for the weekend.

  4. sunny says

    After the Bushisms and the Palinisms, I am willing to believe just about anything that comes out of the mouth of the Republican candidate.

  5. stonyground says

    Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for life. Give a man a religion and he will starve to death while praying for a fish.

  6. Tony Sidaway says

    I sometimes follow odd right wing websites–the amusingly dotty ones, not the really horrible ones. Recently Conservapedia placed the following item on the news stream on the right of its main page:

    ‘It appears that American history is deficient in liberal academics. Michelle Obama makes a huge gaffe speaking to the Congressional Black Caucus, “Now, back when our great-grandparents were riding that Underground Railroad…”‘


    Several well-meaning individuals intervened asking why this was viewed as a gaffe, with the usual hilarious results:


  7. Tony Sidaway says

    I liked Terry Pratchett’s hair-raising take on the fish parable.

    “Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day, but set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life.”

    (This is not a recommendation, okay?)

  8. Corvus Illustris says

    The sad thing about the Politico “satire” is that Paul Krugman read it as real and discussed it on his blog at the NYTimes (probably while in the throes of jetlag). Sigh. It’s too embarrassing to think about, let alone post a link. This year’s Big Political Problem is that of distinguishing genuine reports about Romney/Ryan from pieces in the Onion or NewsThump.

  9. satanaugustine says

    Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for one day. Put fishnet stockings on a man and someone will buy him dinner.

  10. carlie says

    Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll blow half his paycheck at Orvis and Bass Pro.

  11. says

    Last Update, 3:17 p.m. Apparently unaware of the unwritten rules of both ethical journalism and satire, an Iranian news agency published an edited copy of a report from The Onion on Friday, without crediting the original or acknowledging that it was fiction.

    The Fars News Agency, which is close to Iran’s powerful Republican Guard Corps, posted its version of the report on its English-language Web site under the same headline used by The Onion for the original four days earlier: “Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad To Obama.”


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