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.

Aristophanes’ Sausage-Seller and the Tea Partier

I have just finished writing a draft review of Lee Fang‘s The Machine: A Field Guide to the Resurgent Right (New York: The New Press, 2013); it will appear shortly in The Washington Spectator. As I read Fang’s depressing history of the corporate-funded ‘New Right’ that has derailed the Obama presidency, looked over its rogues gallery of demagogues, racists, and oligarchs, and read samples of their illiterate rhetoric, I was reminded of an ancient and particularly pungent description of the crooked politician; the passage of years have not attenuated any of its biting wit and accuracy.

Here then, without further ado, is an appropriate excerpt from AristophanesThe Knights (Act One), where Demosthenes and Nicias first meet the sausage-seller and introduce him to their intended role for him. Try as I might, on reading these lines I cannot banish from my mind a vision of a Koch Brothers representative talking to a Tea Party candidate, one to be sent to Capitol Hill to peddle bad science, voodoo economics, and racist prejudice. In real life, of course, the Tea Partier would not be so modest, so full of doubt about his mission and his ability to fulfill it; instead, he’d be possessed of a rather disturbing missionary zeal. (My apologies to sausage-sellers everywhere; I realize these analogies with Tea Partiers are insulting in the extreme.)

DEMOSTHENES

According to the oracle you must become the greatest of men.

SAUSAGE-SELLER

Just tell me how a sausage-seller can become a great man.

DEMOSTHENES

That is precisely why you will be great, because you are a sad rascal without shame, no better than a common market rogue.

SAUSAGE-SELLER

I do not hold myself worthy of wielding power.

DEMOSTHENES

Oh! by the gods! Why do you not hold yourself worthy? Have you then such a good opinion of yourself? Come, are you of honest parentage?

SAUSAGE-SELLER

By the gods! No! of very bad indeed.

DEMOSTHENES

Spoilt child of fortune, everything fits together to ensure your greatness.

SAUSAGE-SELLER

But I have not had the least education. I can only read, and that very badly.

DEMOSTHENES

That is what may stand in your way, almost knowing how to read. A demagogue must be neither an educated nor an honest man; he has to be an ignoramus and a rogue. But do not, do not let go this gift, which the oracle promises.

….

SAUSAGE-SELLER

The oracles of the gods flatter me! Faith! I do not at all understand how I can be capable of governing the people.

DEMOSTHENES

Nothing simpler. Continue your trade. Mix and knead together all the state business as you do for your sausages. To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them. Besides, you possess all the attributes of a demagogue; a screeching, horrible voice, a perverse, cross-grained nature and the language of the market-place. In you all is united which is needful for governing. The oracles are in your favour, even including that of Delphi. Come, take a chaplet, offer a libation to the god of Stupidity and take care to fight vigorously.

Bert Williams and the (Funny) Sadness of Clowns

WC Fields described his fellow Ziegfield Follies mate Bert Williams–‘one of the pre-eminent entertainers of the Vaudeville era and one of the most popular comedians for all audiences of his time…the best-selling black recording artist before 1920′–as ‘the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.’ Williams certainly made no secret of the melancholia in his work; as Jervis Anderson notes in This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait 1900-1950 (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1981):

Williams once said that nearly all his songs were based on the idea that he was getting the worst of it….If he had any sunshine in his heart, only his friends and family saw any evidence of it. Onstage, it seldom broke through the overcast of his face, the melancholy of his voice, and the other inclemencies of his style. [pp. 41]

Anderson quotes a critic of the time remarking that:

Williams is the…butt, the abused one. He manifests…a pathetic knowledge that something is wrong somewhere with the eternal scheme of things. [pp. 38]

Funny and sad; how can those afflicted with the wrong kind of humors be humorous? The ‘tears of a clown’ trope tells us that in fact we are quite familiar with this seemingly incongruous blend. We are not unfamiliar with the proximity of laughter and misfortune; it’s only a short journey from snickering at banana peel slips to full-blown schadenfreude. It might even be that our awareness of the grimness partially visible behind the facade put up by the performer makes us laugh just a little harder as a protective measure, a warding off of the black clouds that might roll over us too.

I learned myself once, quite dramatically–literally perhaps–how close together laughter and tears run. A few years ago, I attended a clown workshop taught by the brilliant Matt Chapman of Under the Table Theatre. One of our final exercises was a partnered effort: we paired off with fellow students, sat down next to each other, and then, one of us began laughing while the other one began crying. We were asked to raise the intensity of our laughing and crying from one to ten, and at the ‘ten’ mark, to abruptly switch over to the other: the ‘laugher’ would become the ‘crier’ and vice-versa.  The pair would then wind down from the ‘ten’ to the ‘zero’ mark.

I expected this to be difficult. I didn’t see how was I going to ‘fake’ laughing and crying so hard and how I could switch over from one mode to the other. But it wasn’t. Turns out, when you are laughing really hard, you’re close to crying anyway. (Remember that bit about ‘I laughed so hard I cried’?) And interestingly enough, when you force yourself to laugh, you find yourself overtaken by a great embodied chuckle that further fuels all the guffawing and chortling. The converse held true too: my crying made me genuinely sad and shaken for a while afterwards.

Perhaps William found the laughter of those who appreciated his act infectious; perhaps he found it easy to summon up a chuckle as the outward manifestation of an inner lament.

Perhaps, hopefully, he found his own routines the best palliative for the pain he felt.

Woody Allen’s Guide to Civil Disobedience and Revolution

Today is Easter Sunday. Jesus was a Jew and a rebel. So, on this great day in Jewish history, and in honor of Jewish rebellion, here is Woody Allen on civil disobedience and revolutions.

In perpetrating a revolution, there are two requirements: someone or something to revolt against and someone to actually show up and do the revolting. Dress is usually casual and both parties may be flexible about time and place but if either faction fails to attend, the whole enterprise is likely to come off badly. In the Chinese Revolution of 1650 neither party showed up and the deposit on the fall was forfeited.

The people or the parties revolted against are called the ‘oppressors’ and are easily recognized as they seem to be ones having all the fun. The ‘oppressors’ generally get to wear suits, own land, and play their radios late at night without being yelled at. Their job is to maintain the ‘status quo’, a condition where everything remains the same although they may be willing to paint every two years.

When the ‘oppressors’ become too strict, we have what is know as a police state, wherein all dissent is forbidden, as is chuckling, showing up in a bow tie, or referring to the mayor as ‘Fats.’ Civil liberties are greatly curtailed in a police state, and freedom of  speech is unheard of, although one is allowed to mime to a record. Opinions critical of the government are not tolerated, particularly about their dancing. Freedom of the press is also curtailed, and the ruling party ‘manages’ the news, permitting the citizens to hear only acceptable political ideas and ball scores that will not cause unrest.

The groups who revolt are called the ‘oppressed’ and can generally be seen milling about and grumbling or claiming to have headaches. (It should be noted that the oppressors never revolt and attempt to become the oppressed as that would entail a change of underwear.)

Some famous examples of revolutions are:

The French Revolution, in which the peasants seized power by force and quickly changed all the locks on the palace doors so that the nobles could not get back in. Then they had a large party and gorged themselves. When the nobles finally recaptured the palace they were forced to clean up and found many stains and cigarette burns.

The Russian Revolution, which simmered for years and suddenly erupted when the serfs finally realized that the Czar and the Tsar were one and the same person.

It should be noted that after a revolution is over, the ‘oppressed’ frequently take over and being acting like the ‘oppressors.’ Of course by then it is very hard to get them on the phone and money lent for cigarettes and gum during the fighting may as well be forgotten about.

As always, in the best comedy, there is enough truth to make our laughter just ever so rueful.

Note: Excerpted from ‘A Brief, Yet Helpful, Guide to Civil Disobedience’ in Without Feathers (Warner Brothers, New York, 1975), pp 111-112.

The Deadliness of Humorlessness

In the climactic scenes of Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose, Adso of Melk and William of Baskerville confront the old, blind, and malignant librarian Jorge, sworn, no matter the price to be paid in lives, to keeping  Aristotle‘s Poetics a perennial secret because of its subversive doctrines that not only analyze and permit laughter, but speak of it approvingly. Jorge senses the dangers that lurk were such a revelation come to pass, for laughter would bring in its wake gaiety that would disdain solemnity, the fear of the unknown, and the punctiliousness of church doctrine. In sum, it would bring about, and elevate to the status of desirable and necessary, a subversive, corrosive, irreverence:

But if one day–and no longer as plebeian exception, but as ascesis of the learned, devoted to the indestructible testimony of Scripture–the art of mockery were to be made acceptable, and to seem noble and liberal and no longer mechanical; if one day someone could say (and be heard), ‘I laugh at the Incarnation, ‘ then we would have no weapon to combat that blasphemy, because it would summon the dark powers of corporeal matter, those that are affirmed in the fart and the belch, and the fart and the belch would claim the right that is only of the spirit, to breath where they list! [Warner Books, New York, 1980, pp. 580]

In his humorless, grim apprehension of the power of the message of the Poetics, Jorge is not alone, and such fulminations are not unknown to contemporary readers.  Eco’s purpose in bringing this character to life, in populating him with such bombast and self-importance, seems to be that of  reminding readers of the Jorge-archetypes that even today, dog our every step in every walk of life, but do so most perniciously in the public, political sphere.

Most prominently, Jorge’s refusal to get the joke, to throw his head back and allow himself a chuckle or two, reminds us of the idiotic knee-jerk reactions of the pompously pious who are easily offended, hurt or otherwise insulted by satire, ridicule, parody, or indeed, the merest descent into something less than the unquestioningly reverential.  Sometimes they are priests, sometimes the lay devotee, sometimes they are politicians, sometimes they are their acolytes, sometimes they are academics. No matter their exact identity, there is always some doctrine out there, defended to the end by a band of the faithful, diverse in all manners, but yet united by a deep and fundamental, almost existential, insecurity, a frightening suspicion that the object of their firm and committed belief might not be all its cracked up to be, for whom even the miseries of hell pale into comparison with the uncertainties that might be induced by any attitude toward their devotional object that does not rise to the level of worship.

The protestations of these Jorges would be merely amusing irritants if they did not, like the suicidal, sightless character in Eco’s novel, also insist on adding other, more deadly, arrows to the quivers of their reprisals. It is then that the humorless reveal themselves to be the most dangerous of all.