Ross Douthat Finds ‘Ascendant Social Liberalism’ Lurking Beneath His Bed

The New York Times’ Resident Sophist Laureate, Ross Douthat, has a long-running argumentative and rhetorical strategy of suggesting, through dark imprecations, that ‘liberalism’ and ‘godlessness’ are to blame for America’s social evils, for they they have produced them by provoking a reaction to their excesses. If only social and political movements didn’t engage in such vigorous protest, score legal victories in the Supreme Court, and influence the nation’s various discourses, they wouldn’t spark the reaction they do. There is no systemic social and political pathology to be combated; all is mere resentful pushing back, the rightful response of the righteous–and religious–to hectoring from the left. (This should sound familiar; remember David Brooks’ claim that anti-racism protests encourage racism?)

This highly remunerative schtick finds its latest expression in the following:

[T]he Democratic Party’s problem in the age of Trump isn’t really Jimmy Fallon. Its problem is Samantha Bee.

Not Bee alone, of course, but the entire phenomenon that she embodies: the rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism.

In such a domain:

[Late night show hosts] are less comics than propagandists — liberal “explanatory journalists” with laugh lines.

As a result of which:

[O]utside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.

Douthat’s Op-Ed is sparked by the reaction to Jimmy Fallon’s recent I’ll-get-on-my-knees-if-you-say-so bootlicking reception of Donald Trump on his show recently. But his superficial understanding of ‘comics’ renders suspect the entire foundations of the sly ‘you asked for it’ screed that follows.

Comedy isn’t, and never has been, ‘apolitical.’ It either skewers the powerful or it reinforces existent patterns of power. To laugh at the powerful is a political act; so is laughing at the politically dispossessed.Comedians don’t get to stand out of the political fray. (Note that Douthat describes as an ‘apolitical shtick’ a show segment which normalized the behavior of a fascist; joking around with Bernie Sanders on the same show would have been considered further evidence of ‘the left’s cultural dominance.’)

Douthat correctly notes that his conjecture about national voting patterns is just that, in noting that this supposed cultural liberalism “may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.” He does so because presumably he does not want to make note of gerrymandering which locks in Republican power at the state level, or voter ID laws, which disenfranchise voters who might vote for the Democrats, or the continuance of neoliberal economic policies so beloved of national administrations, which have systematically immiserated large swathes of the American electorate.

Douthat also displays a remarkable cluelessness in his feverish ascriptions of cultural and political power to late-night comics. The dominance of the kind of humor that Douthant bemoans on television comes about because television executives determine, through marketing techniques, what brand works best with their audiences; comics don’t drive social change, social change drives comics’ lines. Moreover, late-night television is a small component of this nation’s cultural space where political contestation might take place; far more occurs in the twenty-three hours that precede those slots, in many other spaces: the streets, workplaces, classrooms. To be sure, those jokes may animate conversations outside the television studio, but despite the chuckles they engender on social media, there is little evidence that a single voter has had his or her mind changed by a comedian.

Lastly, Douthat conveniently ignores the presence of right-wing talk radio, which is remarkably humorless–except when it is cracking sexist and racist jokes, commands considerable time on the nation’s airwaves and which is committed to polemicizing and persuasion. They know something Douthat doesn’t want to acknowledge: if you want to effect political change, make sure folks know you are deadly serious.

Have Gun, Will Settle Dispute: The Dangerous, Alluring Temptation

I’ve seen fights, disputes, grow, fester, erupt into bouts of violence: disagreements become irrevocable, boundaries are crossed, and then, tempers flare. Punches and slaps are thrown, sometimes half-heartedly, sometimes in a desperate flurry, sometimes shirt collars are grabbed as the ‘fight’ turns into an ungainly grappling session with headholds and chokeholds that aim to incapacitate. When the smoke clears, the protagonists emerge bruised and battered with a bleeding nose or lip–the former is more visually striking, liable to cause alarm, as red stains make their way down jaws and shirt fronts. On rare occasions, the fights have turned especially ugly: once, a young man picked up a rock and hit another on the face with it, splitting open a gash that instantly turned crimson, on yet another, a small piece of wood was pressed into service for the same purpose with the same effect. Drunken fights–like those I have witnessed on umpteen occasions at baseball games–are always infected with a touch of the comic; the fighters fight to stay on their feet even as their impaired co-ordination prevents them from landing a meaningful punch or avoiding the blows that come their way (the infamous ‘why don’t you step on outside’ brawl at bars often showcases such encounters.)

I’ve never seen a fight, yet, turn deadly. No one got stabbed with a screwdriver or a knife and bled to death. The folks I saw fighting didn’t own or carry guns. But if they had, they might have pressed them into service, seeing in them a speedy resolution of a nagging irritation that had turned unbearable. Which is what a lot of folks all over the US seem to do–as the Parents Against Gun Violence page on Facebook reports, the following are some of the reasons Americans pressed guns into service in the month of May this year:

 

As you can see, the formula is pretty simple, and can be boiled down to a few essentials: see fellow citizen, enter into dispute with fellow citizen, reach point of irresolvable difference, settle dispute with gun. Sometimes alcohol, that most popular of all legal drugs, is also implicated, but it needn’t be; sometimes it is men doing the shooting, but not every single time; sometimes children get into the act. Traffic conflicts, workplace hirings and firings, prickly neighbors, property wrangling, domestic arguments–these can all be expeditiously settled with a firearm. (Road rage in the city and on highways has a long and dishonorable history of featuring guns in its eruptions.) Perhaps a handgun is used, perhaps a shotgun, perhaps an assault rifle. It does not matter; they all shoot bullets, they all shut a yapping mouth, they still a flailing body. They make the irritating person who won’t shut up go away.

Homicidal rage, the kind that results in violence, is always dangerous. It is made especially so when it can be coupled with a firearm. A gun promises a dramatic and satisfying denouement, a fantasy of forceful resolution, an imposition of our will on a stubborn and difficult world. It will always provide a dangerous and alluring temptation.