Two things happened this week that reflect very poorly on the judgment of Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean and his supporters.
The first was The Joke. The second was his apology for The Joke.
Let’s take them in turn.
You all know the story.
Mr Jean was at a Wildrose forum in Fort McMurray. He responded to a complaint about the lack of government support for seniors in Fort McMurray with this:
“Let’s be honest. I’ve been beating this drum for 10, 11, 12 years now, so I will continue to beat it, I promise. But it is against the law to beat Rachel Notley, so …”
The audience broke into laughter and applause and he couldn’t finish his sentence…thank god.
Mr Jean quickly apologized for his joke—many times as it turned out—but the public, which split into two camps, won’t let it rest.
One camp is horrified that the leader of the Official Opposition would make a joke about violence against women.
Stephanie McLean, ND Minister for the Status of Women said the joke was “totally unacceptable” and “out of touch” with what Albertans expect from their leaders.
PC MLA Sandra Jansen said politicians are elected to solve these issues not make light of them. She said that in 2015-16 more than 10,000 abused women and their children ended up in shelters and 8,076 women and 8,283 children were turned away due to lack of space.
The other camp says it was just a joke, lighten up already.
A Facebook comment suggested if women wanted to be treated like men they’d have to “take it on the chin”; bringing to mind The Honeymooners, a 1950s sitcom in which Jackie Gleason always got a laugh for waving his fist in his wife’s face and saying: “One of these days Alice—POW. Right in the kisser!”
Why are we so fussed by all this?
Sociologist Rose Coser says humour and laughter “are among the strongest signals of social solidarity and togetherness”.
Cultural sociologist Giselinde Kuipers says humour sets out moral and social boundaries—its pulls some people in and shuts other people out. “He who laughs belongs,” she says, “He who doesn’t is excluded.”
And that’s why we can’t let it go.
The leader of the Official Opposition gathered his supporters to him and created a sense of “solidarity” by making a joke about beating up a woman, not just any woman but the most powerful woman in Alberta.
Those of us outside of the Wildrose circle were dismayed while those inside the circle rushed to Mr Jean’s defense and blamed the outsiders for not having a sense of humour.
If this is all about having a sense of humour then Mr Jean and his supporters should remember that the TV audience quickly tired of Jackie Gleason and his tag line “POW, right in the kisser”. The sitcom was cancelled after one season having lost the ratings war to the crooner Perry Como.
If “POW, right in the kisser” didn’t fly in 1955 it certainly won’t fly 61 years later because no matter how you try to dress it up, jokes about beating up women are never funny.
Mr Jean quickly apologized for the joke.
He gave Ms Notley full credit for the steps she’d taken on the seniors file saying:
“Now I have to compliment that woman and I shouldn’t have said what I said because I truly admire her for that…[it was] not necessarily in her best interest, because she could have easily just let that go as it was and blamed the previous government. She did not, so I think Rachel Notley deserves a round of applause.”
Think about that for a moment.
In the space of five minutes Mr Jean admitted he’d made little progress on seniors’ issues in 12 years (this encompassed the entire time he was an MP in the Harper government). He implied the Notley government wasn’t doing enough for seniors when he knew this wasn’t true* and then he flip flopped saying he admired Rachel Notley for the way she tackled seniors issues even though it wasn’t in her best interest to do so.
To cap it off he prefaced his praise of Notley by calling her “that woman”—a phrase made famous by Bill Clinton when he denied having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky.
The Joke shows Brian Jean in an unscripted moment. He reached out to his supporters with a deeply troubling joke that would do the 1950s era Jackie Gleason proud but left the rest of us wondering what it will take to move the Wildrose Party into the 21st century.
*See for example Hansard May 25, p 1148, May 10, p 869 and May 3, p 801 where Seniors Minister Lori Sigurdson describes additional government funding to repair and replace seniors housing, add 2000 long term care beds, home modification programs to let seniors “age in place” and a pilot project providing seniors with transportation so get groceries and see their doctors.