Lack of laughter is no joke

Felipe Fernández-Armesto on the real punchline of his diplomatic incident

January 6, 2011

In a tiny way, I have caused a diplomatic incident. It happened at a recent gathering at New York's Instituto Cervantes - one of the admirable centres the Spanish government maintains around the world to display the glories of Spain's languages and literatures and to contribute to the diffusion of knowledge of Spanish culture.

The occasion, designed to bring academics and diplomats together before the general public, was the commemoration of the wars of independence that began, or intensified, 200 years ago, and split the ocean-spanning Spanish monarchy of the time into many fissile states. It is always dangerous to ignite memories of fratricidal struggles. But, on the whole, most of the participants began the event confident that we could commemorate our conflicts while celebrating our common heritage.

Then my bêtise intruded. I was supposed to be representing the Spanish point of view on a panel alongside colleagues speaking from Mexican, Colombian and Venezuelan perspectives. Although the current governments of Colombia and Venezuela are at loggerheads over almost every matter of mutual interest, I expected a civilised and friendly exchange.

I had many gracious remarks prepared, as well as some attractive arguments. I planned to say that these were not wars of Spaniards against Americans, but civil conflicts of complexity and fluidity; that none of the participating groups had a monopoly on virtue; that the wars were disastrous for Spain and the new republics alike; and that our future would mark a return to fruitful collaborations such as enriched and enlarged the Spanish-speaking world in the 18th century. But I was over-ambitious. I wanted to acquaint my audience with some of the latest scholarship, including the importance of environmental conditions in shaping the outcome of the wars. And - fatally - I tried to inject a note of humour into the proceedings.

Venezuela, I proposed, should dethrone Simón Bolívar as the nation's official hero and replace him with the yellow fever-bearing mosquito, on the grounds that the insect did more to defeat Spanish armies than the so-called "Liberator". I thought this was mildly funny. The audience found it uproarious. So did the representatives of some of the other republics, especially Colombia. The Venezuelans failed to see the joke.

Their delegation rose haughtily and stalked out of the room. The Venezuelan minister-counsellor at the United Nations, who was too awkwardly seated to join the walkout, stood and interrupted me as I mumbled an embarrassed apology. I immediately yielded the floor to him. Among his denunciations of me, he said that if I had intended a joke it was not funny, and that a serious academic and diplomatic gathering was, in any case, not the place for jokes.

Before stomping out himself, without listening to my contrite attempt at a reply, he also said that he looked forward to the book-length version of my argument. I am afraid I mistook this for a joke of his own, and made matters worse by laughing.

To understand how badly I had misjudged my sally, readers must understand that if Bolívar is special in much of South and Central America, where he is immoderately revered, his cult in Venezuela amounts to idolatry. Hugo Chavez grandiloquently calls his country "the Bolivarian Republic". This strictly meaningless phrase is now Venezuela's official name. In default of any ideology of his own, Chávez has proclaimed "Bolivarianism" as the ruling ethos of the state. The term, like all the most evasive rhetoric, is of a vacuity so perfect that you cannot hear its rattle.

Chávez is always comparing himself to Bolívar. He has threatened to waste his country's resources on erecting the world's biggest monument to the Liberator (even though there are already so many statues of Bolivar in Venezuela that you could hardly throw a brick without hitting one). Criticise my hero, criticise my alter ego, criticise me.

I want Venezuela to succeed, and hate to see its noisy little leader make the whole country look stupid by investing so much emotion in a flawed hero. I thought the best way to suggest a change of policy was by turning my challenge into a joke. Common laughter bridges diplomatic chasms. Shared humour is the foundation of lasting sympathy. I can think of no more precious resource, after goodwill, honest candour, mutual respect and accurate data, in diplomatic encounters.

As for academic circles, in conferences and classrooms, the value of a joke is beyond price. There is no education without entertainment. If I can keep an audience laughing, I can hope realistically that some of what I say will stick in their heads and get them thinking. In the absence of humour, all I can hope to do is send them to sleep.

By denying humour a place in our work, the Venezuelan minister-counsellor would condemn us to failure. By reacting pompously to a joke, he and his fellow chavistas exposed their regime's poverty of spirit. Give me a regime that can laugh at itself, or welcome its citizens' laughter, and I will show you an agreeably habitable state. In the absence of laughter, I detect the presence of tyranny.

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