I dreamed a dream of potato blood

A humble – though very idiosyncratic – potato farmer became an unexpected local internet sensation thanks to a video that took social media by storm. But should we endorse the brand of humour he we was greeted with?

Got spuds?
Got spuds?

Right. So it's been roughly a fortnight since the now-viral potato farmer has hit the social networks to loud and often contrasting furore. It's safe to say that the fire and ire it instigated was quenched just as quickly as it sprang up and that most of us have now returned to our daily routines as if nothing had ever happened. It's a reminder of just how ephemeral these internet sensations are. Jeering online mobs disappear almost as quickly as they show up and before you know it, there's something else to poke our fingers at, 'Like' and 'Share'.

For those of you who have been living under a rock over the past couple of weeks - or rather, have done the sane thing and actually made it a point to enjoy the long-awaited sunshine away from PCs, smartphones and tablets - let's recap what we're talking about here.

Jansen Dongen - a Dutch company "involved in everything related to packaged potatoes, onions and carrots" - chooses to make a short documentary about the Maltese potato. Making their way to a picturesque local farm with a film crew in tow, they find a young farmer to speak about his trade. The man is clearly passionate about what he does. Claiming in no uncertain terms that the Maltese potato is the "best potato around the world", he goes on to say that his "life is potato" and that he even carries "potato blood in [his] veins".

And in what is perhaps the most striking line in the video - which, patronisingly enough, is subtitled... badly, to boot - he even rhapsodises that "you can taste the sea, the church and the sun" every time you tuck into a bit of patata Maltija. 

Having been uploaded last March, the video only made waves a couple of weeks ago (clearly, the Dutch company underestimated the insidious marketing power of social network mockery) and... well, spawned the kind of reaction you'd expect from a video that contains the line "I have potato blood in my veins". But the kneejerk mockery that is elicited by the video isn't all that interesting: it was entirely expected, and save for the fact that it occasionally resurrected the old pepe/hamallu language divide, it bears little commentary.

But there's potentially lots to be said about how many internet users, in fact, rallied to the young farmer's defence.

In defence of the defenceless?

The basic line of reasoning among those seeking to defend this suddenly popular (infamous?) potato farmer could be summarised thus: 'You should be ashamed of yourselves for poking fun at someone who is clearly passionate about what he does. Potato farming is hard, backbreaking work, and we are the ones who get to enjoy the fruits of his labour. And stop making fun of his English, too...'

Whichever side of the fence you were on... the fact that fences were being erected in the first place seems noteworthy in and of itself. Dr Jean-Paul De Lucca,  Philosophy lecturer at the University of Malta, placed himself firmly in the defensive camp, spurned by an invitation to a local television programme on the matter which he refused.

"At first I couldn't quite figure out why this virtual phenomenon merited a programme on television. I turned down the invitation, but then I continued thinking about it and the following morning I woke up feeling bad about not having gone to 'defend' that young farmer, who had suddenly been made out to be a sort of village idiot - in a country where some idiots are often raised on pedestals and God forbid anyone pokes fun at them."

De Lucca finds little worthy of mockery in the video. In fact, riffing off the ideas of pioneering English philosopher John Locke, he found the video to be a sobering reminder of the kind of simple dignity a farmer must enjoy when working his land... precisely the kind of peaceful sense of fulfilment most of us are alienated from.

"In one of his treatises, Locke gives an interesting example related to work: when one ploughs a field, his work "mixes" with the earth and therefore the worker has a rightful claim to part of that land or of the profits made from the sale of its crops," De Lucca writes, elevating the potato farmer's seemingly quirky comments about his life 'being' potato or having "potato blood in his veins".

"When he says that he feels that potatoes are in his veins, he is using a beautiful naturalistic metaphor evoking passion. When he says that he sees the sea, the sun and the church in his potatoes, he is saying that the broader context of his life - that which makes him who he is - finds itself in the fruits of his labour. In his work there is his life. His life mixes with his work without placing him in a bubble. This is the dignity of work. How many of us can speak of their work in this manner?"

If it's not funny, then why are we laughing?

But the fact remains: even if it's beautiful on some level, the 'potato blood' image remains funny. The question is, should the two be mutually exclusive? Can we still laugh at this farmer without, ultimately, disrespecting his noble work?

Writer and stand-up comic Matt Bonanno answers this question with a resounding 'yes'.

"I found it amusing because it's a funny-looking man with a funny accent talking about having potato blood in his veins and dreaming about potatoes. It's a surrealist's playground, and a great example of something the global young online community pounces on like a grumpy cat," Bonnano says in reference to the ubiquitous frowning cat 'meme' that has taken the web by storm and doesn't seem to be letting up.

Bonanno describes the reaction of the "self-styled champions of the weak" who rallied in defence of the farmer as being something of a 'comedy faux pas', in the sense that not only do they not get the joke, they also end up doing more harm than good.

"They think they're protecting the more vulnerable members in society from mean bastards like me who view everything as fair game for comedy, but in actual fact they're being incredibly patronising. By assuming people like the 'Potato Man' wouldn't find the video funny themselves, while possibly loving the attention, they dehumanise them, all so they can feel good about themselves."

"For humour to be effective," Bonanno adds, "everyone should be a potential target, without discrimination".

Fellow comedian, director and actor Malcolm Galea, contrary to Bonanno, believes that the video's strongest detractors were those who "were laughing at the farmer's English".

"This is actually a complicated issue that arises from our being a post-colonial country - and a very small one to boot. Consequently, our national self-esteem is very low and we're mortified whenever we feel that someone is embarrassing us on a national level. As a post-colonial country, we also feel a certain pressure to speak English properly, without realising that there's no such thing as proper English anymore - if there ever was in the first place," Galea says, commenting on how the tables were turned when the video ended up on international online forums like reddit.com.

"The flip-side to a low national self-esteem is excessive pride. Therefore whenever some foreign TV host or marketing campaign makes fun of us, we become indignant as a whole and we overreact as a nation. Similarly, when we realised that some people around the world were also making fun of the potato farmer, we suddenly rallied around him because - dammit - he's one of us..."

When one goes away, another one pops up

But though very few things are more 'local' than the Maltese potato, the arena of internet ridicule does not, in fact (to echo Bonanno's words) discriminate between nations. In fact, at the time of writing a viral video is currently doing the rounds - and being auto-tuned into songs, and all the rest of it - which carries similar notes of social prejudice as our very own potato farmer.

 

It's the story of Charles Ramsey, the overnight hero from Cleveland who rescued three neighbourhood girls from a sexual predator who was keeping them imprisoned in his attic. A news interview with the brave and colourful gentleman soon went viral too - not for nothing, either: it came with gems like "When a little, pretty white woman runs into the arms of a black man, you know something wrong."

In an 'open letter' on her blog (since republished by The Guardian), Eris Zion Venia Dyson tells Ramsey "...for your act of heroism, you are met with extreme scrutiny dredged in jest. Joke after joke for telling your truth, as plain as you knew how... the 911 operator who engaged you with disdain, disbelief, and sheer aggravation reaffirmed that "you don't have to be white to support white supremacy". So if you don't "look" like a hero, "speak" like a hero, "dress" like a hero, wear your "hair" like a hero... then you're just another person used to build the comedic chops of aspiring YouTube/Twitter/Facebook/Instagram sensations."

It seems as though on the internet, going the extra mile is risky business.

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Janice Sant
An american relative of mine, a world famous palm/hand surgeon, brought his grandfather- an illiterate 95 year old to Malta to see his birth place for the last time. I was amazed when he told me that his 'illiterate' grandfather would have made an excellent surgeon cause he could do wonders with his hands! So much for those whose only 'know how' are the 'inglizati u l-paprati'.
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NIGEL DUNKERLEY
Some people speak very good English and they are not able to drive a nail into the wall - otthers speak poor English and have many other capabilities that the elite don't. Thanks to all the farmers who work so hard so we can find potatos at the grocery.

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