Maybe They Are All From Chelm

Now would be a good time to have a charitable thought for pundits, bloggers, opinion columnists – yes, and policy professors – for whom the last month has been incredibly challenging, harder than any time in the last decade. When the world behaves like a parody of grownup affairs, and people with positional authority are one-upping each other with insanity suited to an especially shark-jumping Simpsons episode, the spectacle is immune to both ridicule and analysis. What is there to say when Michelle Bachmann, an actual live paid professional elected US Representative, claims S&P downgraded US credit because the debt limit was increased [ht: Steve Benen] and she isn’t laughed out of the room?

Here’s a conjecture worth exploring: there has been a hitherto unnoticed inexplicable emigration from the city of Chelm, perhaps over decades, and the Chelmniks have suddenly found each other in places like Iowa, formed clubs, and over tea (in glasses, of course), organized to enrich American culture with theirs. Chelm, if you haven’t heard of it, is a town of fools in old Jewish Russia, or maybe Poland, that hosts innumerable jokes like the following:

A farmer of Chelm was constantly confusing his horses, and would feed one twice and not feed the other, or work the same horse two days in a row rather than alternating them. His wife said, “why not go to the rabbi and see if he can help you?”

“Rebbe, I’m at my wits’ end. Look at my horses; they are so alike I keep mixing them up. Can you see a way to tell them apart?”

“Yitzhak, I’m not an expert in horses, but I do see your problem; those horses are very much alike!” The rabbi walks around and around the horses, looking at them from every angle. “Wait a minute, I think I see something! If you stand right here and look straight across them when they’re standing still, you can see that the black mare is just an inch taller than the white stallion!”

It’s hard to take Rick Perry or Grover Norquist as holy Jewish fools from the shtetl, but try saying the following in a heavy stage Jewish accent, and I think you’ll agree I’m onto something:

“So it’s unemployment you’re worried about suddenly? Tax cuts for the rich! Take two, and some chicken soup, and everyone will have a good job. [rimshot]”

I’m not sure why the current lunacy is being wrapped up in Christian fundamentalist stuff; maybe it’s letting out the string on the goyim, maybe it has something to do with the reactionary Christians’ politics about Israel. I know, the theory needs work, not least because what the Rethugs are about is infused with an insouciant, deaf-and-dumb, cruelty to victims and the innocent that is unknown in Jewish humor. Maybe readers can help make this hang together, because I have no theory B or C that survives a straight-face test any better.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.