Sunday, December 28, 2008

Just to piggyback on Steve's comments about the "Barack the Magic Negro" fooferaw, the whole thing reminded me of the attitude a few years back, which was immortalized in pieces such as this 2002 L.A. Weekly article by John Powers, that some seismic shift in the culture had made conservatism more "fun" than its alternative. You may remember the drill: wild men and free-wheeling cats such as Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, P. J. O'Rourke, Dennis Miller, and whoever wrote the last page of The Weekly Standard every issue had a monopoly on political humor because they were in touch with the times and had no inhibitions about saying whatever was on their minds. These were the true heirs to Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and the National Lampoon in its salad days, whereas liberals were too depressed and pre-occupied with upholding the standards of "political correctness" to be funny. In his own spin on Powers's article, Jack Shafer at Slate went so far as detect "right-wing envy" in some liberal writers such as Eric Alterman, note that others such as Christopher Hitchens and Mickey Kaus had kept their reputations as fun guys afloat by veering right, and, in a historical aside that really stung, wrote that "the anything-goes drug-and-sex party that the cultural left threw in the '60s [had] segued into an Amish wake" and asked: "Would Emma Goldman dance with these folks?"

Of course, a lot's changed in the culture since then. If you asked most people where they go to have a good laugh at the political news, I suspect that a lot more of them would say The Daily Show than The Weekly Standard, which has turned into a shrill, never-ending pity party where embittered neo-cons and right wing policy wonks meet to accuse each other of having betrayed The Movement and envision the bright new day to come when Ayn Rand's ghost rises from its grave and chases the Socialist usurper Obama back to the Kremlin. As recently as a year ago last spring, things had gotten bad enough that no less an authority than Ellis Weiner, one of the last people responsible for inserting actually funny written material into the shuddering corpse of the National Lampoon in the late 1970s, came right out with the charges that conservatives--or at least Republicans, a group that, as Weiner pointed out, has all but completely replaced actual conservatives in our culture--just aren't funny. The fans of Limbaugh and Coulter, to say nothing of Mallard Filmore and those precious seventeen episodes of The 1/2-Hour News Hour would beg to differ. After all, didn't Rush say that the thirteen-year-old Chelsea Clinton was ugly? And didn't Coulter once rub her hands with glee at the thought of someone blowing up the New York Times building and killing everyone inside? And didn't Dennis Miller, whose post-9/11 daddy-worship of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney might give a fairly strong hint to how he would have courted the Vichy government, call the French--all of them, every last one, even Sophie Marceau--"scumbags"? C'mon, how much of a humorless stick-in-the-mud do you have to be to not appreciate that level of comedy gold?

The celebration, and the self-celebration, of the Republican gasbag contingent as funny is actually based on a few small misconceptions. Miller himself displayed his firm grasp on one of these when he appeared on The Daily Show a while back. Coming on to do his interview after a segment mocking first Bush and then the Democrats in the House and Senate, Miller congratulated Jon Stewart in having the courage and fairness to make jokes about politicians on both sides of the aisle. Stewart looked at him as if he'd just been complimented on having had the foresight and keen intelligence to put his pants on before leaving the house. The thing is, great satirists tend not to be partisans. They may have core beliefs that makes them inclined to favor a certain side--indeed, their satire is likely to be keener if this is the case than if they're the kind of bland jokers who make a big show of not caring one way or the other. But great comic imaginations need to be unfettered, and there are few straight jackets more restrictive than an ironclad adherence to one political side. In its great days in the early seventies, the Lampoon was famous for going after its "own" side as enthusiastically as it did Nixon, just as Lenny Bruce used to make fun of clumsily sanctimonious liberals in his "How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties" routine, and just as Richard Pryor ridiculed both the white power culture he saw as his enemy and the black street culture of which he was a heroic part. They were comic artists; Limbaugh, Coulter, Miller and company are demagogues.

When Limbaugh first landed, a number of pundits who felt the need to account for his appeal and influence in a way that wouldn't amount to calling a good percentage of the electorate sound like bigots and idiots fell back on the myth that he's a hilarious, lovable demagogue, and even went so far as to argue that liberals could, you know, learn a lot from this guy. Instead, we're now aswamp in "political entertainers" like Miller, who have so little understanding of the basics of comedy that they can only marvel that not every joke on The Daily Show has been vetted by the DNC. That's because people who are genuinely funny who turn their attention to politics will notice a wealth of material on both sides, and they will be unable to force themselves to not make a good joke at the expense of someone they're liable to vote for: that's how being funny works. Miller and company can't understand that, because they're less interested in trying to really be funny than they are in hearing their pre-sold audience explode gratefully in reaction to having its prejudices stroked--by, say, hearing the French called scumbags. The thing is, even if you once had a comic muscle somewhere in your body, after you've done this sort of child's play for a few years, you'll likely find that you can't just turn around and go back to being funny. Muscles atrophy if they're never utilized, and a few years of settling for easy laughs by telling appreciative, mono-browed audiences that the French are scumbags would have turned Groucho Marx into Carrot Top. One of the few amusing ironies associated with the Millers and the Limbaughs and Coulters is that, because Republican "comics" tend to be rabble-rousers whose shtick consists of marrying a list of G.O.P. talking points to a reliable lineup of frat house insults hurled at the usual liberal suspects, they tend to think of anyone who'll make fun of anybody as being liberal, even though attacks on liberal politicians by "liberal" comics tend to be more devastating, because they're likely to make actual points instead of just calling someone a weasel.

The other big misconception is related to the concept of "political correctness", which we all had a good head-scratch over circa 1991 and which is still going strong in the world of Republican comic demagoguery. The fact is, satire works best when it's attacking the powerful, and, especially during Republican administrations, the Limbaugh-Coulter brand of "humor" has been very dependent on the notion, far funnier in itself than anything else these folks have ever come up with, that "political correctness" is the most powerful and oppressive force in our great land, a terrible infringement on free expression and a crushing debasement of the American way of life. When these characters indulge in expressions of racist resentment and fantasies of raining death on their enemies that wouldn't be out of place in The Turner Diaries, anyone who rolls his eyes at the display of childish, misplaced venom is quickly tagged as dangerously, politically correct. If the backlash against political correctness ever had anything real behind it, for a long time now it's basically amounted to the cry, "Hey, if rappers get to say 'nigger', how come I can't, huh?" The only appropriate verbal response to this is probably to ask why, of all the things a human being might complain about, you'd want to zero in on the forces discouraging you from saying "nigger", and have you considered the possibility that the apparent intensity of your desire to be able to say it does not reflect altogether favorably upon your psychological condition, though if you don't feel like saying all that, a blank stare might also be acceptable. If you sample the responses from some high Republican muck-a-mucks to the current controversy, you may just come away with the feeling that the great unspoken fear running through these folks now is that we now be past the point in history where the assured votes of working-class white guys who feel that the world is standing on their necks because they can't say "nigger" whenever the mood strikes them can no longer carry Republican candidates into office, and that thanks to their association with people like Limbaugh, they may not be able to convince most of the world, anytime soon, that this is not a big part of their market share.

Funnily enough, this very theme was sounded immediately after the election in the pages of The Weekly Standard by P. J. O'Rourke his bad self, who in a post-mortem complained of how the G.O.P. had alienated minority voters, and in the process somehow confused people into thinking that it might just be the slightest bit okay with racism: "There was no need to piss off the entire black population of America to get Dixie's electoral votes. And despising cracker trash who have a laundry hamper full of bedsheets with eye-holes cut in them does not make a man a liberal." Of course, not too long ago, O'Rourke was the very model of the funny-ha-ha Republican commentator who delighted in flouting his "freedom" to say things about women and blacks and Hispanics that were calculated to strike the listener as offensive if the listener was so thin-skinned as to dare seem "political correct", or to use the terms we used to use for not appreciating that kind of talk, decent, intelligent, and minimally polite. Now he and a lot of other people are appalled, appalled (to use the word of choice for Republicans using the Chip Saltsman affair as an excuse to dust off their Captain Renault act) that some undisciplined troublemakers have gone and given the simpletons out there the idea that Republicans don't really mind what Don Imus tastefully calls "nigger jokes." Of course, the undisciplined troublemakers have been given us that impression for a long time now, and even found themselves praised by their fellow "conservatives" for their down-to-earth rowdiness and sense of fun. It's funny how easy it is to suddenly feel ashamed of that sort of thing the minute it starts losing you more votes than it gets you.

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