Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Jeff Ross Rule of Politics

When comedians joke about a tragedy, they often will then respond to the groans with "too soon?"  Jeff Ross does this all the time to great effect (I cannot access the relevant videos from Canada so I cannot pick out a suitable one).  Gilbert Gottfried famously made a 9/11 joke no that long after 9/11, and got a heap of backlash.  The classic comedy equation is: pain (yours or other people's) plus time = funny.

When something happens in the political world, the question is how soon is too soon to respond with criticism of the incumbents.  Thomas Mulcair came out immediately after the train tragedy in Quebec yesterday to criticize the government for gutting rail safety.  Is this too soon?  The town is still burning and we don't know the toll yet. 

I don't know, as my immediate reaction to the events in Sandy Hook was to call for gun control.  As in comedy, in politics, everything is in the eye of the beholder.  One is likely to see a politician speaking out too soon if the politician is one you oppose but not if it is one you favor.  Gun control advocates jumped on Sandy Hook because it gave them a ready example of how tragically flawed American gun control policy is.  Gun rights advocates were as quick to jump on this response.  Of course, the messenger has some influence over this as well--Jeff Ross gets away with jokes that others would not because he is aware of "too soon" and plays adeptly with it.

We live in a very quick culture these days where reactions to all events are immediate.  I essentially watched the plane crash in San Francisco yesterday on twitter as it happened. We have long lost our ability to ponder a bit before reaction.  Twitter, facebook, 24 hour networks create pressures/temptations to react quickly.

For politicians, it is a delicate balance between being seen as opportunist, as Mulcair was, and too slow.  We probably should be sympathetic to their plight, but context always shapes this.  For observers of Mulcair, the tempation is to wonder if the fact reaction was part of the broader pattern to pander to Quebec at the expense of the rest of Canada, not just to note that this tragedy happened on the Conservative watch during a time of deregulation.

Of course, I would prefer folks to react too soon than too late.  When it comes to guns in the US, every day is too late, of course, with more dead piling up.  When it comes to re-thinking de-regulation in the light of the Quebec tragedy and those elsewhere, it is probably better to move quickly.  The momentum on deregulation really needs to be reversed not just in the US but in Canada as well.

So, despite my nasty tweet or two about Mulcair's apparent opportunism here, I guess I can see that "too soon" is the least of our problems. 

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