Francophilia on the Right

by John Holbo on August 4, 2007

I pose a hermeneutic riddle of sorts. Consider the anecdote in the linked post:

At the end of his presentation, he allowed questions. The first supplicant approached the microphone and hopefully inquired, “Mr. Buckley, what do you think about Rush Limbaugh?” This was during the time when Rush was still something of a rising star. His rhetoric was bombastic, hard-edged, and wickedly funny. Members of the audience shifted forward in their seats expectantly as Buckley answered by telling the following story.

There were two Spaniards sitting in a bar. One asked the other, “What do you think about General Franco?” Instead of answering, the man gestured for his friend to follow him outside. Once on the sidewalk, he motioned for the friend to follow him to his car. They got in the car and drove to a forest. Deep in the woods, he parked the car and beckoned the friend to hike with him down to a lake. At the edge of the lake, he pointed to a boat which they boarded. He grabbed the oars and rowed to the center of the lake. Finally, he sat still, looked his friend in the eyes and paused for a moment. “I like him.” Buckley told the story so brilliantly and created so much suspense, the denouement brought the house down amid gales of laughter and happy applause.

I have to admit it’s funny. But I don’t actually get it. Why does the Spaniard have to drag the guy all the way out into the lake? I guess it’s supposed to be a ‘the leftist made me do it’ thing. But the joke seems to be at pains to refute that reading. Since, after all, how could a leftist force you to like someone?

I just watched Pan’s Labyrinth. I liked it. Belle and I debated whether it had a happy or a sad ending. I think it had a happy ending. But I find it hard to believe that, if you asked someone whether it had a happy or sad ending, they would haul you out into the middle of a damn lake and tell you it had a sad ending because [PLOT SPOILER]

… that likeable Captain Vidal got killed.

This reminds me of something Reagan said. He was at some dinner with the last living member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and he remarked, ‘too bad he fought for the wrong side.’ Ah, yes I remembered correctly.

I guess it seems as though, if you thought your political philosophy committed you to supporting Franco, that isn’t a consequence that you would choose to dwell on. That’s the sort of thing that you might confide, in confidence, in the middle of a lake. But that would be a very different sort of situation.



LizardBreath 08.04.07 at 6:35 pm

I’m not getting your confusion. Isn’t the point of the joke (and of Buckley’s implied feelings about Limbaugh) that the liking is natural and unforced, because by golly who wouldn’t love Franco, but fear of tyrannical and intolerant leftists drives one to be secretive about it? It’s not a funny joke, but it seems to me to be an obvious one.


thag 08.04.07 at 6:39 pm

I would have said that the joke about Franco was:
no matter how many precautions you take, it is never safe to say anything bad about him.

You go through all of this rigamarole, but at the end of it, you are still talking with someone who could get you killed if you say the wrong thing.

That’s how deeply insidious the fear can be under totalitarian regimes.

And I would say that’s what Buckley meant, too: you may think that this is a safe audience in which I can tell you what I really think, but I’m no fool, and I know it is not safe.

Whether the audience’s laughter meant that they understood that message from him, or just laughed because the ending was unexpected, I cannot say.

Given that it was an audience of conservatives, I would imagine they probably did not understand him.


ogged 08.04.07 at 6:40 pm

I’m not sure it has anything to do with leftists at all: he likes it, but it’s a guilty pleasure.


thag 08.04.07 at 6:42 pm

and there you have it:

with three replies in, we have cleared up the riddle pretty conclusively.

I mean, why did you even think it was open to any ambiguity?


ejh 08.04.07 at 6:50 pm

It’s an extremely old joke, which was previously set in Moscow (I’ve also heard a Warsaw version) and told about Stalin. Quite likely others as well. The way I heard it, it was a tourist (or journalist) asking a local.

The point of the joke, in fact, is that we assume that the local is going to say that he doesn’t like Stalin (or Franco) and has to go to enormous lengths to tell the outsider this. The reality, however, is that despite all the dictator’s efforts, just about everybody hates him. (I don’t know how Buckley told the joke, but for the joke to work it would have to be during the era of Franco.)


LizardBreath 08.04.07 at 6:51 pm

2 would work, except in the Limbaugh context — I don’t see how to map it onto Buckley’s attitude about Rush. (Is the idea that Buckley’s so afraid of the totalitarian control liberals have over him that even in a safe space he’s still going to say he doesn’t like Rush? Maybe, but it doesn’t seem to fit Buckley’s tail-twisting personal style.)


thag 08.04.07 at 6:56 pm

But Buckley *didn’t* like Limbaugh.

And it’s the totalitarian control that dittoheads have, which Buckley never liked, either.

(I’m not trying to say Buckley was a good guy, or that they disagreed on many policy issues, but Buckley never liked that style of populism).


LizardBreath 08.04.07 at 7:17 pm

So, Buckley is insulting the audience, by saying “I don’t like Rush, but I’m afraid to say so even in front of an audience that invited me to speak, because you dittoheads are so powerful and in such lockstep that you’ll hurt me for saying so”? Mmmmmaybe.


LizardBreath 08.04.07 at 7:18 pm

That is, it fits the structure of the joke better, but it seems to oddly describe the relationship between Buckley and his audience. All right, maybe the joke was confusing.


s.e. 08.04.07 at 7:34 pm

“…the last living member [sic] of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade”

Well, no.

But you thinking Pan’s labyrinth had a happy ending is even more odd.


Christopher M 08.04.07 at 7:35 pm

I guess there must be some ambiguity since people have such different interpretations. But when I read it, the point seemed obvious. Buckley was saying: We all know that one doesn’t admit to liking Rush Limbaugh in polite company. [For Buckley and his audience, “polite company” = mainstream, elite, liberal opinion]. But here’s a secret: I actually like him.



bi 08.04.07 at 8:25 pm

All of you are wrong. Buckley is saying that he likes Rush Limbaugh _because_ Rush is just like General Franco.

Chicks dig jerks, and Buckley digs dictator-wannabes. QED.


Ben Alpers 08.04.07 at 8:27 pm

This is an old joke. I’ve heard it told about Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Often it’s the dictator himself who goes out in disguise to see what his fellow countrymen think of him.

And the point, I always thought, is exactly what ejh says @#5: you think that the informant is taking extraordinary measures to say something critical, but it turns out that the dictator is so hated that such measures need to be taken to say something positive about him.

Another variation of the same joke has Stalin, in a disguise, attending a film screening in Moscow. Before the film begins, a huge picture of Stalin fills the screen, the Hymn of the Soviet Union swells over the sound system, and everyone rises and cheers. Stalin is impressed by the display of apparent affection, but, not being used to rising for himself, he stays seated. When the song ends, the man next to Stalin leans over and whispers to him: “We actually all feel the same way you do, comrade. But really, it’s safer to stand!”


JP Stormcrow 08.04.07 at 8:36 pm

I am less interested in Buckley’s professed view of Rush than the fact that he was doing his usual job of providing cover for the haters.

Lars-Erik Nelson said it best:

Bill Buckley exists to wrap up peoples’ base, greedy, low-life, mean and nasty views into high-faluting language so that they don’t have to go around thinking they are just mean, stupid and nasty, but instead have a philosophy like Buckley’s.


Matthias 08.04.07 at 11:13 pm

Another variation of the same joke has Stalin, in a disguise, attending a film screening in Moscow. Before the film begins, a huge picture of Stalin fills the screen, the Hymn of the Soviet Union swells over the sound system, and everyone rises and cheers. Stalin is impressed by the display of apparent affection, but, not being used to rising for himself, he stays seated. When the song ends, the man next to Stalin leans over and whispers to him: “We actually all feel the same way you do, comrade. But really, it’s safer to stand!”

The amusing thing about that is that Stalin actually did stand and applaud for his own speeches.


Lynn Gazis-Sax 08.05.07 at 12:29 am

My reading of the joke was the same as #2.

But you thinking Pan’s labyrinth had a happy ending is even more odd.

I saw it as a happy ending (if somewhat ambiguously happy). The girl passes the test and takes her place as a fairy. (Of course, this only works if all the fairy stuff is real and not a product of the girl’s imagination.)


dr 08.05.07 at 12:43 am

Pan’s Labrynth has a happy ending just in case Sisyphus really can be happy while walking down the hill, but that would mean that fascism isn’t really bad, which is absurd.

As for the other joke, I too had heard a version that featured Stalin rather than Franco. I thought that the point was that under Stalin’s totalitarianism expressing any honest opinion, even a positive one, was extremely dangerous. That reading doesn’t shed much light on Buckley’s use, though, so it must be wrong.


omar shanks 08.05.07 at 1:01 am

I concur with dr’s reading of the joke. The “funny thing” about totalitarian regimes is that they not only ruthlessly suppress any sentiment they don’t like, but that their likes, and especially their dislikes, are fancifully arbitrary.

That said, I suspect a great number of the people who laughed at Buckley’s joke didn’t get it either, but figured since he told it, it must be really, really witty.


thag 08.05.07 at 1:34 am

the tide is turning in my favor!


Counterfactual 08.05.07 at 1:44 am

I suggest the point of the joke is that if the person just said they liked Franco out in public, the listener would likely believe he was just saying that because he had to say that with all these people, including possible secret police, around. It was a fascist country after all. It is only after taking all these elaborate precautions to make sure the speaker will be heard by no one but the listener is the listener prepared to believe what the speaker says. And then the speaker says he likes him. The joke is funny because the set-up makes you think, of course, that the speaker is going to say he does not like him.

And for the people who have posted that the point was that Franco was so unpopular you had to hide favorable feelings for him, I have to think that you are not aware of the Catholic conservative take on Franco, which Buckly shared, and which was … shall we just say not very negative. Buckley would not be telling a joke with the point that Franco was almost universally despised.

And how it fits in with Rush is that this is Buckley’s way of saying, I know since he he is conservative, I am conservative, and you are all conservative, you expect me to say I like him, and I am; but I want you to know that I am saying it because that is how I really feel, not just because it is expected of me. There ya go, the whole thing explained :)


lemuel pitkin 08.05.07 at 2:17 am

2 is correct, I think. For the Limbaugh application, I agree with 8, altho 11 is plausible too, I suppose.

As for the Abraham Lincoln brigades, there were half a dozen living veterans at an anti-war rally I attended in Central Park in 2002. What ever happened to those rallies, anyway?


John Holbo 08.05.07 at 2:19 am

I at least considered the #2. The problem is just that he is then mocking Rush. So I guess the take-away, on that reading, would be that the Red State poster didn’t get the joke. (And that was Buckley’s point, maybe.)


John Holbo 08.05.07 at 2:21 am

I was wondering about the Abraham Lincoln brigade thing. Because my memory was that he was the last member, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense with the dates. Maybe he was the oldest member or something. He was the something-est member of the Brigade.


thag 08.05.07 at 2:40 am

Well, if the concern against #2 is
“but surely Buckley couldn’t be such an arrogant, condescending bastard as to mislead the audience and talk over their heads while actually despising them–”

then, res ipsa loquitur, baby. This is Buckley.

And I completely agree with 14. He’s a vicious piece of work. He is always happy to use people who advance his ends–whether Limbaugh, Limbaugh’s audience, Reagan, or Bush–but the agreement on points of policy (e.g. no taxes on rich people) never gets in the way of his certainty that he is above them and they are below him.

And, yes, it is only too perfect that the Red-Stater still doesn’t get it.


s.e. 08.05.07 at 2:54 am

Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
799 Broadway # 227
New York, NY 10003
The Archives of the ALB.

Bernard Knox is still alive
The veteran I used to talk with, and the father of someone a few of you know, died in the late 90’s.


Henry (not the famous one) 08.05.07 at 3:31 am

Moving remembrances from Knox. Which brings to mind how Jessica Mitford used to describe herself, when pointing out that she saw (and said) that Howard Fast was a hack even before he left the Party: she was a premature anti-Fastist.

As for the joke, I agree with 4.


Gene O'Grady 08.05.07 at 3:55 am

I was going to mention Knox, but, although he fought in Spain, he was not American and did not fight in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade but in one of the other units of foreign fighters (to coin a phrase).

And I also believe Pan’s Labyrinth has a happy ending.

And I should mention that, although I have never met him myself, Knox is fairly unusual in having few enemies for a classicist, particularly a Yale classicist.

And as for last living etc. — at the celebration of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake this year there was still one guy who remembers it — and he took the day off work to come to the party.


JP Stormcrow 08.05.07 at 3:58 am

A similar Stalin-era story (that I assumed was an urban legend) was where everyone kept clapping and clapping, afraid to be the first to stop. Turns out that Solzhenitsyn relates it as true in Gulag Archipelago. I’m still somewhat skeptical that it happened, it is too pat, but it is a story in the same vein of the jokes above.

Then after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”


Randy Paul 08.05.07 at 4:20 am

Good thing I read the post. I thought you were talking about right-wing lovers of France.


Randy Paul 08.05.07 at 4:21 am

Sorry, should have inserted based on the title I thought you were talking about right-wing lovers of France.


Matt Kuzma 08.05.07 at 4:38 am

Me too, Randy Paul. I was very confused when we started into a story about Rush Limbaugh and Spaniards.


bad Jim 08.05.07 at 6:43 am

Counterfactual (20) is of course correct. The point of a joke is to make people laugh.

A similar joke, related by Freud: at a formal dinner party, a man was passed a bowl of Hollandaise sauce, dipped his fingers in it and ran them through his hair. Noticing his neighbors’ dismay, he apologised, “I’m so sorry! I thought it was mayonnaise.”

As to what Buckley had in mind, who knows? I suspect that he told the joke to avoid an uncomfortable question. Such a famously sesquipedalian snob may not have enjoyed Limbaugh, and may have considered him a competitive threat, but he wouldn’t have wanted to alienate the enthusiasts.


ejh 08.05.07 at 11:09 am

And for the people who have posted that the point was that Franco was so unpopular you had to hide favorable feelings for him

That’s the point of the joke: it doesn’t follow that it was true, especially as it very obviously wasn’t literally true.

I have to think that you are not aware of the Catholic conservative take on Franco

Living as I do in a Spanish town that survived a very long Republican siege, I have to say I’m not unaware of it.


Kevin Donoghue 08.05.07 at 12:52 pm

How old is the joke? I seem to remember reading it in Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin (1964), with Walter Ulbricht going around in disguise, testing his popularity. (KGB Colonel Stok, who fancies himself as a comedian, explains to the Michael Caine character that he gets his material from the arrest reports of the unfortunate jokers.) Any earlier references?


chris y 08.05.07 at 2:20 pm

I first heard this version in 1972 (el Caudillo was still alive, sort of), in a crowded bar in Barcelona, and it was quite clear that the teller’s intention was that anyone who admitted to liking Franco in public was liable to lose all his friends, family and credit. It was a joke because the telling made the listener suppose that the guy was afraid of the secret police, not public opinion, until the punchline.

This says two things about the state of Spain in Franco’s last years: firstly, that it was taken for granted that anyone without a vested interest was opposed to the regime; secondly, that the state had given up on even trying to control low level disaffection, reserving its attentions for active opponents.

What Buckley thought he was saying remains a mystery to me. Probably he just didn’t get it.


Ignacio 08.05.07 at 4:00 pm

I’m with # 1 and # 11.

The surreal part of this story is, to me, why the majority of the audience would laugh spontaneuously if Buckley were equating loving Rush to loving Franco.

Possible answers:

(1) They didn’t get what Buckley was trying to say, but laughed anyway.

(2) They really believe it’s obvious, in a contrarian and politically incorrect way, why someone would love Franco (i.e., his status as a pillar of anti-communism, his support of traditionalist Catholicism), just as it is obvious why someone would love Rush.

(3) They think Buckley is appropriating liberal stereotypes of American conservativism (i.e., “crypto-fascists”) in order to mock them and that this mockery is both obvious and funny.

I vote for (1).


ejh 08.05.07 at 4:18 pm

Just out of interest, did you hear the joke in Castillian or Català?


Dan Simon 08.05.07 at 5:53 pm

The context of this anecdote is important. Buckley is speaking during the early nineties–a time when conservatives were feeling vindicated, not just about the Cold War in general, but more specifically about the Cold-War policy of supporting right-wing third-world “authoritarian” dictatorships. Many of these (Argentina, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan) were rapidly democratizing while their Marxist counterparts (Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Zimbabwe) sank deeper into repression and squalor.

As one of the prototypes for the Kirkpatrickian “authoritarian” dictator whose country transitioned fairly smoothly to democracy, Franco would have been viewed with some sympathy by an early-nineties conservative audience. Buckley surely knew this, as he surely knew that his audience would have more than a few Rush Limbaugh fans. Hence, it would have been perfectly natural for him to equate Limbaugh and Franco, in that setting, as two leaders who were bitterly despised except among those unfashionable people wise and farsighted enough to appreciate them.


ogged 08.05.07 at 8:04 pm

So isn’t the probable answer that Buckley heard the joke with meaning 5 but told it with meaning 11?


anon 08.05.07 at 8:25 pm

Meaning 11 sounds right-ish to me — possibly meaning 11 with overtones of meaning 38.

But I bet people _laughed_ just becuase of the simple unexpectedness of it. There are surprising continuities between what is funny to adults and what is funny to a 3-year-old (i.e.: surprise!).

This is one of the most interesting extended discussions of a joke I have ever seen.


s.e. 08.05.07 at 8:42 pm

On the subject of the movie (Buckley doesn’t interest me much); as in most art the conclusion succeeds as an elision or a papering over of contradiction by means of rhetoric and sensibility: and opposed to the either/or of Aristotelian logic.

How does one do justice to the pleasure and even the need for fantasy in a world of cruel political reality? How do you defend intellectual awareness while defending dreams? How do you respect the dreams of a child, and the child herself, while taking seriously the obligations of adulthood?
Guillermo del Toro reminds us that there’s no answer.
It’s the only fantasy movie I’ve seen recently, and definitely the only one full of special effects wizardry, that’s actually made for adults.


chris y 08.06.07 at 9:04 am

37. In English. The guy who told it speaks 5 or 6 languages fluently and others less so, Català is his first language, Castillian is his third or fourth (I forget which), and English his fifth, although he says it’s by far the best language to swear in.

Don’t you just hate people like that?


ejh 08.06.07 at 9:26 am

HJR Murray comes to mind. According to the latest Kingpin:

When Harold J Murray set out in 1897 to write his 900-page “History of Chess”, he decided to learn Arabic in addition to the 12 languages he already knew (which included Icelandic, Old Middle German, Early Anglo-Saxon, Medieval Latin and Sanskrit).


Peter 08.06.07 at 6:19 pm

Another great joke about Franco concerned a Spanish Cabinet Minister being awoken by a phone call one night at 3 am. He answers it to hear the Principal Private Secretary to General Franco calling to say he has “bad news” and “even worse news”. The Minister asks for the bad news first. Well, says the PPS, the Generalissimo has just died! After responding with shock, the Minister asks what news could possibly be worse. The PPS replies: “The Cabinet has just met in emergency session and they have chosen you to be the one to tell him.”


jholbo 08.07.07 at 1:34 am

This has been an agreeably fascinating thread. Thank you all (but also continue to chat, if you care to.)

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