Today, juniors at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will walk into their class — Human Behavior in the Social Environment — and be asked to explain the behavior of the one man behaving more like Archie Bunker than the leader of local Democrats.
Paul Smith and his joke that wasn’t.
“Why do we act the way we do?” asked Valerie Radu, who teaches the course. “Humans don’t behave in a vacuum.”
Speaking of vacuums, Smith’s joke time-machined us backwards about 60 years, when “Leave It to Beaver” was the norm. At last month’s Hamilton County Democrats’ board meeting, Smith, 75, boyishly tagged onto the agenda a short prescription for men who want a happy life.
The answer? A have a woman who cleans, cracks a good joke, tells the truth and likes sex.
Oh, and according to the joke’s last line, it takes four different women to do this work.
(Thanks, Paul. Great one. I’ll tell this joke around the dinner table to my wife and daughter.)
Notice the verb, used throughout the joke. To have. It’s possessive. As in: to have a new lawnmower. To have a new bowling ball. To have a woman.
“I have no comment,” Smith said Monday afternoon.
It’s a low-grade Greek tragedy almost when the leader of the political party designed to champion women’s rights is still stuck with a barely-Reconstructed sense of humor.
Hard to think Smith would have done this had he known the outcome.
That’s the problem: Smith’s seemingly inability to understand the foolishness of this joke and his refusal to apologize.
“I think it was tasteless,” Radu said. “But I don’t know his life experience.”
Radu and I drank coffee together yesterday morning. An old friend, she combines the intellectualism of a professor with the street smarts of an activist. She’s brilliant, but not high-brow. She took the high road with Smith’s joke, refusing to condemn him and instead pointing to the complexities of the human spectrum.
“You can’t fill in the blank from just one comment,” she said. “People are much more complicated.”
Radu’s class deals with theories and ways of knowing. When I look out at the world, how much of my view is influenced by my maleness (gender theory), my whiteness (racial theory) and the money in my wallet (class theory)?
Generally speaking, women’s ways of knowing are quite different from men’s. Same is true for straight and gay, black and white, abled and disabled. When given ample room for each view to have equal and safe footing — like at a large dinner table — the world grows. Rich with diverse thought and expression.
Ways of knowing the world. Not one way, but many.
“How do you know what truth is?” Radu asks her students on the first day of class.
Which brings us to the question: What does Paul Smith know?
That would be the question to ask at next month’s Democrat meeting. At the bottom of the agenda, someone ought to re-write the joke.
Follow for a happy political life:
1. It’s important to have an understanding that your own experience is not the only valid one.
2. It’s important to have a sense of humor, but not at the expense of others.
3. It’s important to listen to others, especially when hundreds of them are saying the same thing to you.
4. It’s important to know when to apologize (see No. 3).
5. If you can’t, then resign.
Tuesday’s online-only column is based around sharing a meal or drinks with someone in Southeast Tennessee or North Georgia. Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the metro columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. A graduate of Red Bank High, Cook holds a Master's Degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English literature degree from University of Tennessee-Knoxville. For the last twelve years, Cook has been a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...