Comedy, Bullies, and American Politics

Saul Alinsky taught two generations of American leftists to use ridicule as a potent political weapon. When the left infiltrated America's entertainment outlets, the practice achieved industrial scale.

As I read about the ongoing controversy about David Letterman's vicious attack on Sarah Palin's 14 year old daughter, my first thought was that I wasn't surprised.  I have always found Letterman to be a bit of a misogynist.  In recent years he has also been increasingly unfunny. 

James Lileks said it best.

But no, it must be funny, because David is funny and hip. Right? Or maybe not; maybe he's actually a brackish, hermetically-souled guy who's spend the last twenty years going from table to table with a giant wooden grinder, asking anyone if they want some fresh-ground scorn with that. Say when. Or maybe he's about as edgy as a soccer ball, and exists only to remind people they were Edgy once, and hence must be ever-blessed with the gift of Wryness and Irony. With those shields we can never grow old, you know. We'll always be as sharp and perceptive as we were when we were sitting on a cast-off sofa in college, working through a midweek buzz, happily fellated by the preconceptions the TV so charitably provided

This posture was fresh in '80; it even had energy. But it paralyzes the heart after a while. You end up an SOB who shows up at the end of the night to reassure that nothing matters.  I think  he may have invented the posture of Nerd Cool, an aspect so familiar to anyone who reads message boards - the skill at deflating enthusiasm, puncturing passion with a hatpin lobbed from a safe distance. The instinctive unease  with the wet messy energy of actual people.

I recall a comment years ago, I can't remember who it was, about how irony that lacks engagement can be very potent but ultimately turns sterile and destructive.  That seems to describe what has happened to Letterman to a tee.  In addition, like almost every other comedian today, Lileks notes the dictates of political correctness must be followed.  

Yes, reading too much into it. Really, it's just a rote slam: If your mother is a loathed politician, and your older sister gets pregnant, famous old men can make jokes about you being knocked up by rich baseball players, and there's nothing you can do. That's the culture: a flat, dead-eyed, square-headed old man who'll go back to the writers and ask for more Palin-daughter knocked-up jokes, because that one went over well. Other children he won't touch, but not because he's decent. It's because he's a coward.

Lileks is also correct that in many ways it was a rote slam, what we have come to expect.  Some people were surprised that such 'comedy' could be found on network late night shows that play to Middle American audiences.  Many are upset that the minor child of a politician, a group usually considered off limits, was the target.  But is it really so surprising?

For years now much of our comedy has gotten increasingly mean.  It laughs less and less at the contradictions inherent in the human condition and increasingly picks out and personalizes targets to demean and humiliate. In the world of the comedian-cum-bully, wit has been replaced with name calling and the wry irony of the nerdish observer with the swagger of the schoolyard bully who decides who is among the in group and who are "them", the outcasts to be made the butt of every mean spirited politically correct joke.  Name calling is the stock in trade of the bully.  So is telling the target who protests, "What's a matter, can't you take a joke?" 

The entertainment industry has been bullying Republicans for most of my adult life and I am 56.  It started with stereotypes in movies and TV shows. The small town prude, the uncultured suburban hypocrite, the greedy capitalist, the perverted man of God, the southern white bigot.  By the 1980s among the self described elite, the very name of Ronald Reagan was treated like the punch line to an inside joke, the way to get a laugh those rubes who supported him could never even begin to understand. 

By the 1990s the assault began in earnest with the likes of a best seller attacking Republicans with the words "fat" and "idiot" in the title.  While Republican men would routinely be portrayed as slowwitted slugs the worst vitriol was reserved for Republican women and minorities, those who refused to adopt the mantle of victim and the spoils of affirmative action.  

By the first few years of this decade, things had deteriorated to the point where jokes were made about assassinating George W. Bush and well known cartoonists
portrayed Condoleeza Rice in the vilest of racist, sexist stereotypes in major newspapers. It became a firestorm of rage with the nomination of Sarah Palin, an effective administrator who governed from the libertarian side of the party while following social conservative principles in her personal life, and thus would appeal to many voters. But attacking Palin wasn't good enough.  The attack was carried to her children.

Truly good comedy can be a form of moral education. Jane Austen wrote very funny and enduring books during a period of great political and social turmoil in which her characters almost never discuss politics or even the wars raging across the English Channel.  Yet her characters better illustrated the very real plight of women-only households under property laws dating from feudal times and outmoded notions of inheritance than any number of overtly reform social tracts.

In fact, Austen's method of highlighting injustice is so effective the same formula is still in use today.  The very funny 2005 novel Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea, uses many of the same character types to illustrate the frustrations of four educated Saudi women seeking romance and marriage in a world of "capital funds and mothers with sons"  Mr. Bingley, Colonel Brandon, Marianne Dashwood, Willoughby and Emma Woodhouse have contemporaries in modern Saudi Arabia.  

Bullying and name calling passing as humor, on the other hand, is all about exerting control over the audience. The schoolyard bully determines the social order.  His targets are shunned both by those who are in the in clique and those who fear becoming the next target of scorn.  The comedian-cum-bully has a secondary target as well.  In addition to exerting control over the political landscape, he seeks to instill self doubt in his target.  For in the realm of the bully, people come to believe that the targets did something to bring it on themselves.  This is especially true when the target doesn't effectively fight back.

The rage over Letterman's comments may not go away and not just because he went after a child. It may not go away because for many it was the proverbial last straw, the final outrage that has the cowed outcast finally ready to kick the schoolyard bully right in the crown jewels.  

I'm telling you, people are pissed off - a lot of them. I don't know where it's all going and maybe it'll take something else to finally explode somehow. But the anger over this is palpable, widespread and about more than just Sarah Palin. It's about years of being told we are intolerant and intolerable when we are not and having to eat anything and everything an elitist liberal media culture throws our way.

Chalk this up as another issue on which the grass roots may be well ahead of the some political insiders

"If the right goes after Letterman, they make him look big and themselves small," says Mark McKinnon, a former campaign adviser to George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Defending a 14 year old girl from an unprecedented attack of a known misogynist makes her protectors look small?  No wonder the Republican brand has shrunk.  If Mr. McKinnon won't defend our children, what will he defend?  His all important right to be invited to appear on Meet the Press?  

I have long suspected that one reason so many people who live their own lives by conservative principles increasingly shun identification with the Republican Party has to do with the cumulative effect of the bullying of the media entertainment industry.  Self promotion is almost a reflexive condition among the professional class in urban areas. Those who aren't always talking about themselves and putting down the other guy must not have anything worth defending. 

Another factor is that a great many of the professional class have little time to follow much outside of their narrow career specialties -- but also like to see themselves as being well educated and informed.  Thus they seldom adopt positions outside the conventional wisdom as espoused by the media entertainment culture they pick up in passing.  By letting the bullies dominate the cultural debate, Republicans have allowed the worst of the stereotypes to rule in the minds of those economically upscale members of urban and suburban America who are mostly passive users of political information. 

When I lived on Chicago's lakefront I would listen to some of the most outrageous falsehoods being passed along as truth about the Republican base for the simple reason that the person doing the speaking had never heard the other side of the story.  A lot of my frustration with the Bush administration came not only with the rise in government spending but with the way that it allowed blatant falsehood to go un-rebutted after the 2004 election.  For the ultimate target of the comedians-cum-bullies with a political agenda are those who only read headlines until two weeks before the election.  While this group may not buy into all the bullies' criticism, above all they want to avoid the scorn being heaped on Republicans as lower class, intolerant and provincial boobs.   

Allowing the bullies to go unmolested has hurt the party among other voters, too. One lesson I learned when I moved to rural America is that while blowing your own horn doesn't cut it here, defending one's honor does.  The reticence of party insiders to challenge the elitist liberal media culture has been a huge source of dissatisfaction with the Republican brand among the rank and file outside the major urban areas.  Nowhere has it been more apparent than with the media scorn heaped on Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber and the me-too echo of certain party insiders anxious to keep their credentials on the Sunday news show circuit. 

Maybe it is mark of great sophistication to allow a wife and mother to be openly ridiculed as a slut in Washington, DC or New York City, but in small town America it can still get one a black eye.  

No matter which way I look at it, while turning the other cheek in the face of the relentless media entertainment industry bully may be good for one's soul, it has turned out to be a terrible way to build a political party. 
Saul Alinsky taught two generations of American leftists to use ridicule as a potent political weapon. When the left infiltrated America's entertainment outlets, the practice achieved industrial scale.

As I read about the ongoing controversy about David Letterman's vicious attack on Sarah Palin's 14 year old daughter, my first thought was that I wasn't surprised.  I have always found Letterman to be a bit of a misogynist.  In recent years he has also been increasingly unfunny. 

James Lileks said it best.

But no, it must be funny, because David is funny and hip. Right? Or maybe not; maybe he's actually a brackish, hermetically-souled guy who's spend the last twenty years going from table to table with a giant wooden grinder, asking anyone if they want some fresh-ground scorn with that. Say when. Or maybe he's about as edgy as a soccer ball, and exists only to remind people they were Edgy once, and hence must be ever-blessed with the gift of Wryness and Irony. With those shields we can never grow old, you know. We'll always be as sharp and perceptive as we were when we were sitting on a cast-off sofa in college, working through a midweek buzz, happily fellated by the preconceptions the TV so charitably provided

This posture was fresh in '80; it even had energy. But it paralyzes the heart after a while. You end up an SOB who shows up at the end of the night to reassure that nothing matters.  I think  he may have invented the posture of Nerd Cool, an aspect so familiar to anyone who reads message boards - the skill at deflating enthusiasm, puncturing passion with a hatpin lobbed from a safe distance. The instinctive unease  with the wet messy energy of actual people.

I recall a comment years ago, I can't remember who it was, about how irony that lacks engagement can be very potent but ultimately turns sterile and destructive.  That seems to describe what has happened to Letterman to a tee.  In addition, like almost every other comedian today, Lileks notes the dictates of political correctness must be followed.  

Yes, reading too much into it. Really, it's just a rote slam: If your mother is a loathed politician, and your older sister gets pregnant, famous old men can make jokes about you being knocked up by rich baseball players, and there's nothing you can do. That's the culture: a flat, dead-eyed, square-headed old man who'll go back to the writers and ask for more Palin-daughter knocked-up jokes, because that one went over well. Other children he won't touch, but not because he's decent. It's because he's a coward.

Lileks is also correct that in many ways it was a rote slam, what we have come to expect.  Some people were surprised that such 'comedy' could be found on network late night shows that play to Middle American audiences.  Many are upset that the minor child of a politician, a group usually considered off limits, was the target.  But is it really so surprising?

For years now much of our comedy has gotten increasingly mean.  It laughs less and less at the contradictions inherent in the human condition and increasingly picks out and personalizes targets to demean and humiliate. In the world of the comedian-cum-bully, wit has been replaced with name calling and the wry irony of the nerdish observer with the swagger of the schoolyard bully who decides who is among the in group and who are "them", the outcasts to be made the butt of every mean spirited politically correct joke.  Name calling is the stock in trade of the bully.  So is telling the target who protests, "What's a matter, can't you take a joke?" 

The entertainment industry has been bullying Republicans for most of my adult life and I am 56.  It started with stereotypes in movies and TV shows. The small town prude, the uncultured suburban hypocrite, the greedy capitalist, the perverted man of God, the southern white bigot.  By the 1980s among the self described elite, the very name of Ronald Reagan was treated like the punch line to an inside joke, the way to get a laugh those rubes who supported him could never even begin to understand. 

By the 1990s the assault began in earnest with the likes of a best seller attacking Republicans with the words "fat" and "idiot" in the title.  While Republican men would routinely be portrayed as slowwitted slugs the worst vitriol was reserved for Republican women and minorities, those who refused to adopt the mantle of victim and the spoils of affirmative action.  

By the first few years of this decade, things had deteriorated to the point where jokes were made about assassinating George W. Bush and well known cartoonists
portrayed Condoleeza Rice in the vilest of racist, sexist stereotypes in major newspapers. It became a firestorm of rage with the nomination of Sarah Palin, an effective administrator who governed from the libertarian side of the party while following social conservative principles in her personal life, and thus would appeal to many voters. But attacking Palin wasn't good enough.  The attack was carried to her children.

Truly good comedy can be a form of moral education. Jane Austen wrote very funny and enduring books during a period of great political and social turmoil in which her characters almost never discuss politics or even the wars raging across the English Channel.  Yet her characters better illustrated the very real plight of women-only households under property laws dating from feudal times and outmoded notions of inheritance than any number of overtly reform social tracts.

In fact, Austen's method of highlighting injustice is so effective the same formula is still in use today.  The very funny 2005 novel Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea, uses many of the same character types to illustrate the frustrations of four educated Saudi women seeking romance and marriage in a world of "capital funds and mothers with sons"  Mr. Bingley, Colonel Brandon, Marianne Dashwood, Willoughby and Emma Woodhouse have contemporaries in modern Saudi Arabia.  

Bullying and name calling passing as humor, on the other hand, is all about exerting control over the audience. The schoolyard bully determines the social order.  His targets are shunned both by those who are in the in clique and those who fear becoming the next target of scorn.  The comedian-cum-bully has a secondary target as well.  In addition to exerting control over the political landscape, he seeks to instill self doubt in his target.  For in the realm of the bully, people come to believe that the targets did something to bring it on themselves.  This is especially true when the target doesn't effectively fight back.

The rage over Letterman's comments may not go away and not just because he went after a child. It may not go away because for many it was the proverbial last straw, the final outrage that has the cowed outcast finally ready to kick the schoolyard bully right in the crown jewels.  

I'm telling you, people are pissed off - a lot of them. I don't know where it's all going and maybe it'll take something else to finally explode somehow. But the anger over this is palpable, widespread and about more than just Sarah Palin. It's about years of being told we are intolerant and intolerable when we are not and having to eat anything and everything an elitist liberal media culture throws our way.

Chalk this up as another issue on which the grass roots may be well ahead of the some political insiders

"If the right goes after Letterman, they make him look big and themselves small," says Mark McKinnon, a former campaign adviser to George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Defending a 14 year old girl from an unprecedented attack of a known misogynist makes her protectors look small?  No wonder the Republican brand has shrunk.  If Mr. McKinnon won't defend our children, what will he defend?  His all important right to be invited to appear on Meet the Press?  

I have long suspected that one reason so many people who live their own lives by conservative principles increasingly shun identification with the Republican Party has to do with the cumulative effect of the bullying of the media entertainment industry.  Self promotion is almost a reflexive condition among the professional class in urban areas. Those who aren't always talking about themselves and putting down the other guy must not have anything worth defending. 

Another factor is that a great many of the professional class have little time to follow much outside of their narrow career specialties -- but also like to see themselves as being well educated and informed.  Thus they seldom adopt positions outside the conventional wisdom as espoused by the media entertainment culture they pick up in passing.  By letting the bullies dominate the cultural debate, Republicans have allowed the worst of the stereotypes to rule in the minds of those economically upscale members of urban and suburban America who are mostly passive users of political information. 

When I lived on Chicago's lakefront I would listen to some of the most outrageous falsehoods being passed along as truth about the Republican base for the simple reason that the person doing the speaking had never heard the other side of the story.  A lot of my frustration with the Bush administration came not only with the rise in government spending but with the way that it allowed blatant falsehood to go un-rebutted after the 2004 election.  For the ultimate target of the comedians-cum-bullies with a political agenda are those who only read headlines until two weeks before the election.  While this group may not buy into all the bullies' criticism, above all they want to avoid the scorn being heaped on Republicans as lower class, intolerant and provincial boobs.   

Allowing the bullies to go unmolested has hurt the party among other voters, too. One lesson I learned when I moved to rural America is that while blowing your own horn doesn't cut it here, defending one's honor does.  The reticence of party insiders to challenge the elitist liberal media culture has been a huge source of dissatisfaction with the Republican brand among the rank and file outside the major urban areas.  Nowhere has it been more apparent than with the media scorn heaped on Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber and the me-too echo of certain party insiders anxious to keep their credentials on the Sunday news show circuit. 

Maybe it is mark of great sophistication to allow a wife and mother to be openly ridiculed as a slut in Washington, DC or New York City, but in small town America it can still get one a black eye.  

No matter which way I look at it, while turning the other cheek in the face of the relentless media entertainment industry bully may be good for one's soul, it has turned out to be a terrible way to build a political party.