what the goddam hell...,
| Main |
chinese firm's bid for US oil company...,
on political satire:
OK, if you're going to analyze the politics of South Park probably the first thing to do would be to start with the two stand-ins for the authors: say, e.g., what are the politics of Kyle and Stan? There's not a whole lot there, a sort of soft jelly of some sort of moderate humanism that generally sounds like one of Jerry Springer's "Final Thoughts", or, just as often, simple bewilderment.
Everytime Cartman shows up its an attack by negative stereotype on the pro-corporate, racist, jesus-exploiting, neo-fascist far-right, embodied in the fat carcass of spoiled, whiney mama's boy that exploits everyone and everything around him. But the little bastard has a funny voice. There is no identifiable character that negatively portrays a comparably decadent, anti-American leftist on such a routine basis, they have to bring in extras from Hollywood to play that roll. Every authority figure from the parents to government to military to business to the church are shredded in every episode: is that "infantile libertarian" or is it "juvinile anti-establishment"? Every other episode they ridicule the brutal over-reactions of the police state or the mindless, exploiting, profit driven insanity of big business. It could be American libertarian as much as it could be 60s New Left satire.
In comparison the minority cast of characters excluded from privelidge - from Big Gay Al to Chef to Starvin' Marvin - are positive characitures rather than the negative stereotypes, and they're given a modicum of humanity normally restricted to the four boys and their classmates. Take the episode where the boys are accidentally sent to Afghanistan, "Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants", which contains a largely sympathetic depiction of four Afghan Muslim boys and their grievances, as everything around them is destroyed by American bombs. The politics of that episode are otherwise accurately summed up by Kyle at the end: "I'm confused."
Or take two secondary characters that were easy targets for liberal criticism: Timmy and Jimmy raised hackles among a lot of people for being gross charicatures of the handicapped. But if they
are supposed to be gross negative stereotypes I'm not sure what to make of the episodes where they become successful entertainers, "specially abled". The writers developed them into sympathetic characters who routinely overcome their disabilities. They're charicatures, fun is had at their expense as much as anybody else's, but none of the kids on the show ever make fun of their disabilities. The kids where I grew up would have picked on them relentlessly: are the writers liberal escapists, denying the brutal realities of life by having two handicapped boys accepted and supported by a group of small redenck mountain town fourth graders?
Or, contrarywise, let's take poverty-stricken Kenny: does the running gag of his repeatedly brutal, untimely demise symbolically depict the brutality of the life of the poor or does it offensively make light of poverty? If the show's creators are unsympathetic and don't care about the poor why do their avatars always defiantly, more hopelessly as the seasons roll by, scream "You bastards!" whenever somebody or something bumps off Kenny? Could the otherwise non-event of his passing be a commentary itself, say on the centuries long overexposure of the deaths of rich and famous or, say, any given overhyped dissappearance of some white, middleclass woman or child?
I have to say I do watch the show more for the political humor than I do for the poo jokes, which is more my problem than anybody else's. I think they depict brutal realities honestly, and people laugh at it because it hurts. If I were to raise criticism I might argue that the show is demobilizing, but humor that was mobilizing would have to convince people that you can't change things with a joke, which is a sure buzz killer.
Lenny Bruce altered the public sphere, not by his routine but by his battles in the courtroom, and that lonely struggle was, more than anything else, what ultimately killed him. I watch Bill Hicks and wonder if he made people laugh at anything beyond their inability to defeat insanity. He was brilliant and funny, but he only pointed out things so obvious that people had to laugh at the terrible absurdity of it. You can't change the world with art, you merely observe it. The most the satirist can do is raise and possibly stear discussion, and South Park rarely shrinks from that, which is something that cannot be said about the vast majority of America's humormills.
Is South Park dishonest about their political observations, like, say, the intelligent and well-educated Dennis Miller? Let's take the environment. Contrast, say, conservative Dennis Miller on environmentalism: "as far as I can gather, over the last hundred years the temperature on this planet has gone up 1.8 degrees. Am I the only one who finds that amazingly stable? I could go back to my hotel room tonight and futz with the thermostat for three to four hours. I could not detect that difference." Ha ha funny, or, if you know enough to know what a 1.8 degree shift means in geological time, ha ha, I'm shitting my pants. Miller's smart enough that he could realize what's wrong with that argument with a few minutes reading, quite likely has, but doesn't care to either look into it or discuss it. Does South Park carry the conservative line that present global warming is a natural phenomenon we should disregard?
While South Park never neglects opportunities to ridicule the multiculturalist and the environmental lobbies, they take conservative charicatures of them and tear them down, then prop up the basic positions of these liberal movements with monologues from Stan or Kyle. More or less a pragmatic response to propaganda. One could watch the episode Goobacks as more a call to respond to the rampant destruction of our collective future than it is an anti-immigration/anti-union rant, but after Stan and Kyle make their Jerry Springer monologue we are given a parody of some late-era environmentalist "plant a tree" commercial:
[Montage of green living. First scene is a group of men planting trees. Next scene is a group of people at a recycling center watching Mr. Garrison toss in his bag of spent aluminum cans. Mr. Slave then tosses in his load. Next scene has the boys, Randy, and Weathers bringing food to African tribesmen. Next scene has the boys helping Randy and Weathers paint a wooden fence white. Next scene is a newly-minted wind farm in South Park made by the townspeople. Stan and Shelley look at each other, smiling. Next scene has Weathers plugging his electric car into an outlet next to the garage door as others watch. Next scene has Stan bringing a gift to the towm bum. A bunch of adults follow him proudly. Next scene has some of the kids and many of the adults swaying gently to some music]
Singe: We've got to work for a better future, we've got to join hands for tomorrow.
Take the first step and you will see the future begins with you and me.
We can start to make a difference if we want it for our children
Recycle that can and plant that tree, 'cause the future begins with you and me.
The boys have convinced everybody of the necessity of environmentalist goals, of that reality, only to drop their shovels in discouragement, because this vision "is even gayer than all the men getting in a big pile and having sex with each other." I can understand how any American would feel that way: the episode gave me the kind of feeling I get whenever I check up with the Clusterfuck Nation Chronicles. If you look at the polls the environmental movement has been successful, despite right-wing attempts to cover up the problem, in establishing a broad public consensus on the problem, but they have not been successful in creating a consensus on the solutions, not least because of broad corporate supported campaigns that have presented patently hopeless solutions, usually volunteer efforts that cost something now to participate in, with no garunteed payoff in the long run for society let alone one's descendents; if we plant a forest now a logging company can still buy it later. The real solutions are stonewalled at every opportunity by an insanely corrupt political system that is powerless against the polluters, who spend the money left over from lobbying congress to astroturfing the public claiming that environmental controls of any kind would hurt people's jobs, essentially fighting off the left with the left.
Environmentalists face huge obstacles, and there's no particular obligation on the part of a couple satirists to solve that problem. I'm trying to remember if Bill Hicks ever so much as touched on the subject. It's something, I think, to have highly popular mainstream comics engage it at all without making a dishonest mockery of it like Miller. South Park takes the stance that we're, shall we say, fucked, and recycling isn't going to save us. Is that liberal or conservative or just honestly bewildered?
There's a broad anti-authoritarian streak in South Park. I can understand anybody finding its humor distastefully centered around bodily functions and coarse language. It's cheap laughs and some people like it a little richer. I was raised a poor boy and admittedly still enjoy cheap excess when I've got a little spare change in my pocket. I can also understand a liberal seeing a small-government/libertarian conservative bias in it, though that's not at all what's going on. I can easily understand religious conservatives hating it. My personal feeling is that the political humor generally reflects the popular attitudes of most Americans, encompassing the paradoxes and complexities therein, which might explain its broad popularity among certain heathen, 20-something demographics.
This "South Park Conservative" book - aside it's gross mischaracterization of the corporate media as "liberal" and continuing the "liberal media"'s idiocies of such political demographic taxonomies as "NASCAR dads" and "security moms" - is merely another attempt to paint liberalism up as a humorless ideology of "political correctness".
The talk radio gasbags and their ilk have been trying to own humor for two decades, convincing their audiences that the only people who are funny are conservatives. There is in its reception the continuing attempt to paint 'liberals' as somehow so sub-human that they can't even get a joke. It's absurd, I know, as I know a great many self-described liberals and progressives who love the show, "south park liberals and "south park progressives", who - to play this silly game - instead of being so cowardly as to support the Iraq war held their stalwart sentiments against it. I can only say in response to those who find it both offensive and offensively conservative that it's a shame they find it sufficient to attack such low humor without acknowledging it's higher aspirations.