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Thinking About Stephen Colbert and Amos Oz With the Meter Running

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Illustration Credit: Amos Biderman

A surprising chill hit me as I emerged from the local airport upon my return home. Home? Champaign, Illinois is home? So why did I squirm, as if caught unawares, when the moderator at the Vancouver Writers Fest asked me the previous evening, “What does home mean to you?” The answer is often very simple. Home is where I live with my family.

I burrowed through my bag, taking out the light jacket I’d brought with me for my two-day sojourn in the Canadian city. It wasn’t all that cold there, but dark skies and rain accompanied me from the moment I landed until when I took off again.

“A 30-degree [Fahrenheit] drop in 24 hours,” said the cabdriver, who must have seen me struggling with my jacket as I was walking toward her.

“Good evening,” I said. “Yes, I left two days ago wearing a T-shirt.”

“They say this winter’s going to be really cold,” she continued. “Do you know how they can tell around here that’s it going to be a brutal winter?”

“How?” I asked the driver, who knew by my accent, skin color and maybe even by the way I walked that I wasn’t a local and never would be one. “How do they know?” I asked again, knowing very well she was going to tell me the same story I hear every fall, according to which the severity of the upcoming winter can be determined by the activity of the squirrels as they collect food in advance of the season.

“They know from the way the squirrels have been running around lately,” she concluded. “I really can’t remember when I’ve seen them so active, I swear.”

The kids are probably asleep at this hour, I thought to myself, hoping that maybe they’d waited up for me anyway. They knew I was landing at 9 P.M. and maybe they’d decided to hold out so they could give me a hug and say good night before going to bed. The trip from the airport takes half an hour, about the same time it takes a plane to get from Chicago to Champaign.

“So, where did you come from,” asked the driver, “before taking the connecting flight from O’Hare, I mean.”

“Vancouver,” I replied.

“Wow,” she said, “That’s a long flight.”

“It’s four hours from Chicago.”

“So where exactly is Vancouver?”

“In Canada,” I told her.

“Ah, that’s what I thought,” she said. “I hope you had a good time there.”

“I did,” I said. “A very good one.”

A good time? The festival was a success, warm and pleasant, and I met writers from around the world. So maybe it was the bad weather that had put me in a bad mood – or maybe the topic of the panel I was on, which dealt with writing and humor? How sad it was to talk about humor. I talked about the importance of humor in transmitting messages. I quoted phrases that may have been uttered by Oscar Wilde (no one can have any doubts when quoting Wilde; he probably said everything, including the curses hurled at anyone quoting him).

“Humor is the weapon of the weak,” I found myself intoning from the podium, wondering what those words actually mean. Is humor a weapon or a shield in the hands of the weak? Maybe using humor as a weapon puts its user in a weaker position, an inferior or subordinate one?

I also found myself quoting Amos Oz, who said the difference between the left and the right is that the right has no sense of humor. I wondered about that: How is it that right-wing TV channels, which have the upper hand, always seem angry, even furious, behaving as though they are the persecuted and oppressed ones, riling up the viewers? How is it that the harshest criticism of the fascism flourishing around us is expressed in nightly entertainment programs, and that the knights waging war against the regime are the comedians?

Does the polished humor of Stephen Colbert speak to members of the oppressed classes? Or do they prefer to identify with the fury of Sean Hannity on Fox News? Is sophisticated satire intended only for the privileged? Can humor move people to action, as in speeches by Steve Bannon – or does it work as a sedative for liberals, for the middle classes that only want to hear that their status is not at risk?

“I’ve only flown once in my whole life,” said the cabdriver. “Oh boy, what a day that was. Four flights in one day: Bloomington to Atlanta; Atlanta to Jacksonville, Florida, where I took my granddaughter; then back to Jacksonville and Atlanta, and then Atlanta to Bloomington. When I drove from Bloomington back to Champaign, I felt like my head was exploding.”

“Yeah,” I said, “four flights in one day is a lot.”

“All in a day and I didn’t like it, man, I really didn’t. You see, my daughter lives in Jacksonville and she had just had a new baby. My older granddaughter, who was 5 then, tried to kill the baby. ‘So what do you want me to do about it?’ I asked my daughter. She said, ‘Please come and take her for a while.’ So I flew there the next day. It was an emergency, you understand; the kid was trying to kill her 1-week-old sister. I took her, my sweet granddaughter, and brought her back with me. I needed to straighten her out, you see? I was no longer the nice grandmother. I had to be tough so she wouldn’t kill her sister.

“It was hard. She cried all night, saying she wanted her mommy, that she wanted to go home. But I didn’t give in. Finally, she stopped crying. It took me a long time until I felt she was ready to return home. I had to teach her discipline, you understand. No coddling, no mother, no father – only me and my fiancé in the house. They came to get her seven months later. It’s been a year since then and she hasn’t tried to kill her sister even once.”

“Wow,” I replied. “Seven months without her parents?”

“Without anything,” said the cabdriver. “You understand, sometimes kids need to be straightened out.”

“Right...” I replied, really hoping my kids hadn’t gone to bed yet.