Don't get me wrong. I like a good joke as much as the next person, but that is not quite enough to allow me to approach "a social and historical study of jokes told in the principal English-speaking countries" with anything like eagerness. It would be profoundly philistine to argue that jokes are somehow above or beyond analysis, but past experience does numbingly suggest that their fleeting essence is not best captured by earnest scholars bearing large conceptual fishing nets.
At least no one can fault Christie Davies for lack of effort. His relentless endeavours to capture and bottle humour for sociological posterity have absorbed his attention for the past 20 years and produced quite enough learned articles and books to wring a cheer from the most parsimonious of research assessment exercise assessors.
Neither is this merely armchair erudition. Davies has travelled the world in search of the ethnic jokes that form his subject matter. He has ransacked the joke sections of folklore archives, ploughed his way through innumerable joke books, and, with what might seem like an almost masochistic commitment to duty, given public lectures on ethnic humour to the very people who are its butts. He has, he tells us, lectured on Irish stupidity jokes in Belfast, Cork and Dublin, on "Newfie" jokes in St Johns, Newfoundland, and on American jokes about Poles in Krakow.
The inner demon that drives Davies to such extraordinary lengths is a determination to slay all those apostles of political correctness who regard jokes about religious and ethnic minorities as a likely cause of prejudice, hostility and even aggression towards such groups. There is, he argues, a dangerous circularity about this conventional liberal view. We hear a joke about, say, Irish stupidity, and then from the joke make the inference that its very existence must depend upon the simultaneous existence of some broader ideological view of the intellectual inferiority of the Irish.
Davies reckons that we can get off this roundabout only by looking carefully at the relationship between two sets of "social facts": the patterns of actual jokes and the social and cultural setting within which they occur.
Consider American jokes about Poles. Even though many of these display a direct and brutal pattern, it is difficult to see them as indicative of any real hostility towards actual Polish-Americans. "If American ethnic jokes about the Poles were an expression of hostility, then we would expect there also to exist a significant body of serious American folklore about the Poles ascribing negative characteristics to them. After all, serious 'ethnic slurs' about other national, regional and ethnic groups are common in America and so, too are serious 'ethnic slurs' about the Poles among their European neighbours."
Further comparative evidence allows Davies to drive the point home. If the Polack jokes were based on real hostility to the Poles as immigrants who might take one's job or house, surely they should have flourished between 1880 and 1920, when there was a huge emigration of poor peasants from the more backward parts of Poland. There was indeed resentment expressed about this influx. But there were no jokes.
We need to be careful here. Davies is not saying that hostility towards a minority group is never found alongside jokes about that group. His contention is more modest: "Conflict and hostility are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for jokes about stupidity." In the same way, jokes about a group being "dirty" may or may not have a "correspondingly serious stereotype and may or may not be linked to prejudice and rejection".
There are other ways, Davies maintains, in which his comparative method can help to fracture the alleged correlation between ethnic jokes and prejudice. Consider the rich repertory of Canadian jokes about Newfoundlanders. Although these certainly impute negative qualities there is, Davies insists, no evidence to suggest that Canadians treat the Newfoundlanders with the kind of disdain, hostility or discrimination that they impose on "many of those truly at the bottom of the ethnic vertical mosaic that is Canada".
There is, though, an even stronger reason for refusing to regard Newfie jokes as evidence of real hostility. Newfoundlanders tell such jokes about themselves. Indeed many of the jokes about dirty and stupid Newfies are actually collected and published in Newfoundland. "The jokes have come to constitute another example of that self-conscious mockery that is also self-promotional, the promotion of the Newfoundlanders as an amiable humorous people."
It is this peculiar capacity of a joke to be simultaneously self-mocking and self-promotional that informs the richest part of this book: a careful, appreciative, even loving, analysis of the similarities between Jewish and Scottish humour. These may seem like strange bedfellows, but Davies needs to persuade us of their affinity if he is to demolish the popular assumption that Jewish humour resorts to self-mockery because it is primarily a response to anti-Semitic prejudice and hostility. He is quite happy to allow that Jewish jokes have emerged from the oppression and persecution of Jews throughout history but firmly opposed to the notion that they therefore provide proof of Jewish masochism. This is where the Scots become useful. "If adversity were in and of itself the force producing a self-mocking humour, then we would expect the humorous runners-up to the Jews in self-mockery to be drawn from other... long-suffering nations, not the secure and striving Scots."
There is only one conclusion to be drawn from this weight of evidence. We should not confuse jokes and serious statements. The ethnic joke is a joke. We should stop taking it too seriously. It does not necessarily rely upon the existence of hostility towards its butt, and neither can it be readily shown to provoke such hostility. Humour is simply not a good way to incite hatred towards another group because the laughter it arouses precludes the possibility of such strong feelings.
This is a highly contentious thesis, but those who might seek to subvert any of its key elements by citing contrary examples have to contend with the formidable weight of evidence that the author assembles. There is, though, one missing dimension. Davies, as we have seen, has an ideological reason for wishing to prove the relative innocuousness of ethnic jokes. He wants to silence some of the glibber and more hysterical pronouncements about the social and cultural consequences of telling and listening to ethnic jokes. He wants to demolish the arguments of the "politically correct". It is, I believe, this unremitting determination that leads him into a dangerous sleight of hand.
Those who feel uneasy about ethnic jokes that demean groups without power or self-esteem may not necessarily do so because they realistically expect such jokes to foster hostility and aggression. Their unease about telling or listening to such jokes may arise from the wholly admirable moral sense that there is something profoundly disturbing - even obscene - about so gratuitously adding insult to injury. The almost culpable neglect of this aspect ensures that one's final reaction to the book is not so much pleasure at a job well done as a slight shiver of distaste.
Laurie Taylor is emeritus professor of sociology, University of York.
Are these jokes a laughing matter?
'Why, McTavish,' the psychiatrist said, 'you seem to have lost your stutter.' 'Yes,' said McTavish, 'I've been telephoning America a lot lately.'
An old Jewish man walks into a jewellers to buy his wife a present. 'How much is this?' he asks the clerk, pointing to a sterling silver crucifix. 'That's 600 dollars, sir,' replies the clerk. 'Nice,' says the man. 'And without the acrobat?'
'How do you get a Newfie out of your front yard?'
'Bring the garbage round the back.'
The Mirth of Nations
Author - Christie Davies
ISBN - 0 7658 0096 9
Publisher - Transaction
Price - £35.95
Pages - 252