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Playing it for laughs.


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Remember that scientific survey of jokes conducted a couple of years ago in Britain? The idea was to find the funniest gag on Earth, as well as the most popular joke in various countries. Try this one:

A general noticed one of his soldiers behaving oddly. The soldier would pick up any piece of paper he found, frown and say: “That’s not it” and put it down again. This went on for some time, until the general arranged to have the soldier psychologically tested. The psychologist concluded that the soldier was deranged, and wrote out his discharge from the army. The soldier picked it up, smiled, and said: “That’s it.”

That’s it. In 2001, that was the funniest joke in Germany. What a difference a couple of years makes. Now it’s 2003, and not only is nothing in Germany funny, but as of last week it’s Italy’s turn to play president of the European Union. And to the EuroPress, that’s no joke at all.

For weeks, as Anti-American sentiments flourished in Brussels and Greece’s six-month term driving the EU neared its end, the liberal press had been hanging buckets over the doorways of the European Union, waiting for Silvio Berlusconi, the center-right prime minister of Italy, to walk in and take his seat.

The Left already despised Berlusconi. Liberation reflected the sentiment of much of the French, German and Belgian press: compared to his political rival, Romano Prodi, the bland, low-fat president of the European Commission, Berlusconi was a sort of Euro-cowboy, a man who might say almost anything! They hated his politics, his money, his legal problems, his character, his intelligence but most of all, his government’s signature on the letter from the European nations that defied Paris and Berlin and backed Bush in Iraq. At the New York Times, they used to have a way of describing people like Berlusconi, people they couldn’t control, people who weren’t particularly concerned with gaining the approval of the Times’s editors. They called them “not serious.” Berlusconi, to the Euro Left, was not a serious person.

Nevertheless, he made his presidential debut in Strasbourg, where, as the IHT reported, members of the bastard child of all parliaments listened to his call for improving economic conditions, strengthening ties with the U.S., and dealing with the draft constitution. In a rowdy Q&A session afterward, left-wing Greens and Socialists held up placards, chanted, called Berlusconi things like “Attila the Hun” and ridiculed his country and his legal problems, all in an effort to goad Berlusconi into living up to their hopes and dreams.

According to a report in the Corriere della Sera, the best they could get was a lame quip directed at a hectoring Socialist named Martin Schulz. Berlusconi, whose TV network in Italy used to show endless reruns of Hogan’s Heroes, said Schulz should look into a showbiz career because he would do well playing a Nazi prison camp guard — referring apparently to Sgt. Schultz, the zeppelin-shaped camp fixer in the TV series, which is now being made into a movie in Italy. Berlusconi was casting aspersions, literally. Schroeder demanded an apology.

As jokes go, it wasn’t great, okay? But Berlusconi had done the unthinkable: He’d cracked wise in public to Germans about the Second World War. You can kid a German about the French and about Americans. But it is verboten to make fun of the Germans because of their unfortunate 20th-century history. It just isn’t mentioned. So the reaction to Berlusconi’s dumb remark was deafening. As the Guardian reported, virtually every newspaper and government official in Europe rounded on him. They were so happy to be so angry, yet sad to be so disappointed. Prodi told a reporter he just knew Berlusconi would blow it. For the papers on the left, such as Le Monde, it was a golden told-you-so moment. For the papers on the right, such as the Daily Telegraph, it was a rare chance to marinate in sanctimoniousness.

The story wouldn’t die. Day after day, the Nancies of Europe howled. To Martin Jacques, writing in the Guardian, Berlusconi was “the most dangerous political figure in Europe”. To Der Tagesspeigel, Berlusconi was just too stupid to know better. To the Frankfurter Algemeine, he was a man out of control. To the Independent, it was the end of the rotating Euro presidency, in case some other lunatic politician might want to go full-Berlusconi. The angry Germans were so appalled at being called, um, funny Germans that, according to the Telegraph, they’ve begun banning the German language — the very language spoken by Adolf Hitler himself! — by erasing bad words, like luftwaffe.

These kinds of events, rich in hysteria and meaninglessness, illuminate the more preposterous aspects of the European Left and their strange “Union”: It’s not a state. It’s a bureaucracy in search of a government. It takes itself far too seriously because it lacks anything but the most annoying kind of authority. But most of all, Europa, as a political entity, is a crazy invention propelled by pure sentiment.

The annoying Mr. Schulz, for example, feigned psychological injury — a kind of whiplash of the ego — but then, according to the Berliner Zeitung, he claimed he had deliberately egged on the Italian in order to reveal the nature of the beast that is Berlusconi. Like a cluster of school nurses, the politically proper European media gathered and worried over Schulz, obsessing daily, like La Repubblica, on whether Berlusconi had “apologized” or merely “expressed regret.”

By the end of Berlusconi’s first week at the top of the EU, reported Belgium’s Le Soir, he was still regretful, but unapologetic, while, according to the Suddeutscher Zeitung, his junior ministers took pot-shots at Germany’s cardboard caricatures and their cartoonlike outrage. Bild’s retaliatory headline: “Spaghetti head!”

The Berlusconi affair illustrates how completely humorless and thin-skinned the European political elite and their media have become, especially since the war in Iraq. A few days of so much hand wringing and continental outrage sucked all available humor out of the air. Even the Telegraph, normally the paper least like to fall into self-parody, didn’t know what to do when presented with a news story about the well-pierced young woman who, in front of God and everybody, stuck out her tongue — and in return got zapped in the tongue-stud by a bolt of lightning, which of course rendered her mute for three days. The paper editorialized on the dangers of body jewelry.

But the lesson for Americans is that at least for the moment we have found our natural European allies — and they aren’t British after all. They’re the happy Italians. They don’t care about European pomposity, they dress better than the Germans, they eat better than the French, they drive better than anybody, and they make stupid jokes about American TV. They’re just like us!

ITEMS
The BBC v. Blair steel-cage rumble match continues. Parliament said Alastair Campbell did not “sex up” an intelligence dossier after all, according to the Guardian, but the BBC insisted they would stand or fall on the word of their single-source scooper, Andrew Gilligan, who reported the allegation against Campbell. Meanwhile, Barbara Amiel, in the Telegraph, tells Britain it’s time to just take the BBC out back and shoot it, before it strikes again.

The African uranium story glows in the dark for those, like the Suddeutscher Zeitung, who are pleased to claim Bush was lying in his State of the Union address. To the Independent, the apparently false information that Saddam was trying to export nuke fuel from Niger is a “smoking gun” [moratorium, please] that shoots holes in Blair’s credibility.

How will the French get to work? French mimes, magicians, clowns, and those guys who pretend they’re statues are all going on strike. They want more time on the dole between gigs, reports Le Figaro. The paper calls the strike “suicidal” — but they’re only actors!

Several readers wrote to correct my assertion last week that the BBC charged “hundreds of dollars” in licensing fees. The annual fee is approximately $180.

 


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