The New Yorker’s cartoons have long featured dungeon scenes. I recall one in which an executioner turning the handle of the rack explains to a guard, “Right-tighty, lefty-loosey.” I thought that was pretty funny, simply as a juxtaposition of the quotidian with the outlandish. The latest, in the October 20 issue, shows the executioner telling the victim (again on the rack) “Don’t talk to me about suffering – in my spare time, I’m a writer.”
In my view humorists in general, and cartoonists in particular, deserve lots of slack. A joke can be morally objectionable because it takes a morally obnoxious viewpoint, which is my problem with prison-rape jokes. But since jokes are one way we deal with emotionally charged material, I rarely raise any objection to the topic of a joke, as opposed to its treatment of that topic.
But my reaction to the latest New Yorker torture-chamber cartoon was disgust rather than amusement. The joke is only so-so, but that’s true of lots of cartoons, so that can’t be the problem. And it doesn’t suggest (as prison-rape jokes often do) that the torture itself is amusing, or that the victim deserves it; the joke is about writing, not about the rack.
So what made me queasy? I think it was being reminded that people whose paychecks come out of my taxes and whose orders come from officials whose ultimate superiors I help choose are, or at least were until very recently, carrying out torture. Joking about rope in the home of a hanged man may be good gallows humor. But it’s just plain rude to joke about rope in the home of a hangman.