With the latest issue, Contexts has added a humor column ("The Fool") for its back page. The author is Harry Green, whom I've never heard of before and who is described as "once a promising sociologist." He has apparently moved from that to being now on the Contexts masthead as its in-house "humorist." I don't know how one scores that gig, but presumably it's through some kind of personal connection to The Guys In Charge. But does cronyism have to imply cornyism? The Guys In Charge surely do know some clever jokesters, right?
Apparently not, or at least not any who were willing to step up to the plate for Contexts Comedy. Green's humor column is bad--and not bad in the so-bad-it's-good way, but bad in the so-bad-that-it's-really-horribly-claw-out-your-eyes-and-burn-your-ASA-membership-card bad way. Seriously, I think I've shed most of my illusions about the capacity for Mainstream Sociology to embarrass itself, and yet I found this embarrassing.
The premise of the column is that there are reports of terrorists lurking in American sociology, and Green has been commissioned to investigate. Armed with the chief ordnance of lazy humor writing--bullet points--he reports evidence of various suspicious characters in the discipline. One example of the kind of Harry-hilarity that ensues:
Harvard University. You never see any of its sociologists at ASA meetings. What do they spend their time doing? And where did this place get so much money if not from Saudi oil? And what is Harvard President Larry Summers if not a lackey of the New World Order?Worse, despite the idea that Contexts is at least supposed to have a pretense of being accessible to the person on the street, most of the attempts at humor are based on in-jokes that not only do you have to be in the sociology fold in order to get, but are obscure enough that they won't even be accessible to the average sociologist. An example:
Douglas Mitchell, University of Chicago Press. "You're only as holy as your beard is long." God-fearing, born-again Christians don't have beards that long--except of course for my Uncle Ebenezer, of Hogfarts, West Virginia.Or, hey, if convulsions of laughter have not yet compromised your ability to read, try this one:
Central Florida University. That's right. We had never heard of it either. Jeb Bush is up to something down there. Eminent environmental sociologist Riley E. Dunlap disappeared from Washington University at Pullman three years ago, said to be "abroad." Now, suddenly he is teaching at Central Florida. Operatives are not usually in training camps for this long, so he must have been studying something especially diabolical--like eigenvalues.The editors of Contexts, in their comments at the beginning of the issue, note that they plan to work on having accessible articles even though "you have probably never seen the terms sociology and good writing in the same sentence." Of course, around the academy, you would probably also not often hear sociology in the same sentence as "technically sophisticated" or "intellectually rigorous." And sociologists themselves are selling cartoon mugs that poke fun at the discipline's irrelevance to society. But if we are going to have bad reputations in so many ways, can't sociologists at least allow the world to think that, at the end of the day, we might at least be clever and funny? Or do we have to use our discipline's magazine to dispel whatever delusions anyone might have about that?