Monday, May 23, 2016

Godwin's Law versus the Wodehouse Rule

The corollary to Godwin's Law holds that whoever first makes a Hitler comparison in a debate loses.

But it's probably also a good rule of thumb that whoever first makes an apt Wodehouse reference in a debate automatically wins.

In today's NY Times, Matthew D'Ancona risks the Godwin corollary in order to take advantage of the Wodehouse rule:

"There is a magnificent passage from P.G. Wodehouse's 1938 comic masterpiece 'The Code of the Woosters' that is often cited as definitive evidence of Britain's exceptional immunity to demagogues, autocrats, and Trumps.  Confronted by Roderick Spode, tyrannical leader of the Black Shorts, Bertie Wooter lets rip:

"'The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone.  You hear them shouting 'Heil, Spode!' and you imagine it is the Voice of the People.  That's where you make your bloomer.  What the Voice of the People is saying is: 'Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?'

"One of the many reasons that Bertie's outburst is so enduringly funny is that he is normally such an equable gent.  His exasperation is the voice of Englishness recoiling from the sheer vulgarity of the would-be autocrat."

D'Ancona goes on to disclaim, but not quite 100%, the evidently suggested Hitler to Trump analogy.  But, in contrast to the optimism behind seeing Bertie's rant as definitive and unanswerable, he adds: "If a figure like Mr. Trump can stand at the threshold of the Oval Office in a freedom-loving country like America, then we must assume the reverse: It could happen anywhere."

He then goes on to note Wodehouse's later naivete about giving radio broadcasts from a German prison camp, based on not understanding that "his celebrated comic language was being annexed by the Third Reich to gloss over a terrifying reality."  D'Ancona concludes, in relation to the currently high levels of Trump-mockery in the U.K.: "Britain must not make Wodehouse's error, believing that a gift for repartee provides everlasting immunity [from] vicious autocrats."

Without myself running afoul of Godwin's Law, let me draw a different conclusion from the above-quoted Wooster passage. While derision and belittling laughter don't work against bullets, they can be powerful tools indeed against bullies, and against bombastic would-be autocrat types.  Indeed, in many settings they work better than anger (a point that Bill Clinton's seemingly good-humored, and yet sharply pointed, 2012 convention speech deftly showed).  In 2016, if done astutely and effectively, they might prove to be Trump's political (and even psychological) kryptonite.

Wooster for President!  (Since Jeeves is surely uninterested in the job.)


Paul said...

I'm always delighted to see Bertie quoted anywhere but the claim that "he is normally such an equable gent" fails to capture the man. Bertie's equanimity is interstitial and fleeting - most often dread, anxiety and panic make him their own.

Daniel Shaviro said...

Good point. Fear of disaster is always looming for poor Bertie, nor can he readily handle what most of us would deem garden-variety crises (engagement misunderstanding, overbearing aunts who have no real power over him, etc.)