Sunday, December 27, 2009

Comical Politics

The Laughing Right and the Action-Packed Left: Part 1 of 2

This is the first part of a two-part ramble inspired by Allan Holtz's comments regarding a small-circulation conservative-commentary strip. In this post I wonder, “Why is it so hard to create a successful conservative satire strip?” Next time I ask, “Why is it so hard to create a successful liberal action hero strip?”

[Prefatory note: In these posts I use the generic terms “liberal” and “conservative” as they are understood--or misunderstood--in modern popular American discourse. I don't pretend to follow classic definitions of these terms. Americans threw those out the window long ago. Furthermore, since I've never lived anywhere but in the USA I can't speak about anyone else's varieties of liberalism and conservativism.]

It's easy to name topical comic strips from the last 50 years with a liberal slant. Pogo, Doonesbury, and Bloom County spring immediately to mind. Yet despite the overwhelmingly conservative bent of American media, only one conservative strip has gained much of a foothold: Bruce Tinsley's Mallard Fillmore.

Mallard has been successful in readership terms, but it's hard to call it funny. Funny isn't what Mallard Fillmore is about. A typical daily is a frontal attack upon something Tinsley doesn't like. Though presented in strip format, Mallard Fillmore is less a conservative take on liberal strips than it is an extension of the old-fashioned partisan political cartoon. Liberal strips can be equally partisan--during its heyday Doonesbury was frequently run on the opinion page--but they usually follow story strip traditions, peopling a world with a cast of characters and presenting commentary within the context of a storyline.

Setting aside this matter of form, if American values are as reliably conservative as the media claim, why haven't the last few decades produced as many right-wing satire strips as left-wing? The knee-jerk answer is to blame the “liberal media,” but that's as useful as saying “the devil did it,” especially considering that the conservative giants who own modern media would probably love to have a few more strips on their side.

The Leftersons, produced for small weeklies, regularly ridiculed liberals for being liberals. (Source: Holtz)

I think a key point is that much American humor concerns the Little Guy putting one over on the Big Man. Americans have always pictured themselves as Little Guys. Both liberal and conservative “Little Guys” delight in seeing someone in power cut down to size, be it a boss, a politician, or a millionaire. This kind of humor is rooted in dissatisfaction with the way things are and a desire to find a vaguely-defined “better life.”

A similar dissatisfaction underlies liberal criticism. Liberal satire suggests that while things may suck right now, we can improve them by changing the power structure. On the other hand, American conservatives think the power structure is fine as it is; problems arise when malcontents insist on messing it up. This puts conservative satirists at something of a disadvantage. You can't collect laughs at the expense of the Big Man if you share the Big Man's views.
Holtz says George, another minor weekly, alternated politics with generic gags.

Another factor is that modern American conservatism holds certain core assumptions as inarguable. This is a visceral, not an intellectual, position. A bumper sticker I once saw sums it up: “God said it. I believe it. That's that.” American political conservatism interlocks so well with religious fundamentalism because both take certain questions (e.g. the Bible is God's word, American wars are just wars) off the table. The possibility that following these core beliefs may have caused serious errors can never enter the discussion.

Contrast this to American liberals, who in their quest for societal justice tend to analyze and question almost everything. This isn't to say that liberals don't have their inarguables. Liberals don't like to consider whether racial and gender equality really are desirable, or whether some people are born superior to others and will inevitably rise to wealth and power. But for the most part liberals thrive on intellectual debates rich in analysis and nuance. Faced with a war liberals want to dissect its origins, morality, and consequences. To conservatives the mere fact the war exists trumps everything. They want to talk patriotic duty and to rally the home front in support of the troops.

On reflection one realizes that an analytical, nuanced world view provides more satirical ammunition than an absolutist view. A liberal satirist has more things to talk about. Liberals can attack a war from a dozen different angles. Pro-war conservatives are limited either to defending the conflict (seldom a great source of jokes) or attacking the liberals for objecting.

An amusing aspect of Mallard Fillmore's direct commentary approach is that this parody, from America (The Book), could easily have been the real thing.

Unable to attack a status quo they support, conservative cartoonists wind up attacking attackers of the status quo for daring to attack it. It's rather a second-hand sort of humor. It definitely lacks the satisfying immediacy of a good right to the Boss's chops.

Another galling restriction on conservative cartoonists is that many earlier traditions in America-first humor were based overtly on racial or ethnic prejudice. Times have changed, and today even many conservatives find that kind of humor distasteful. Racially motivated criticism has reinvented itself as (safer) economic criticism: yesterday's shiftless “Negro” has become a resource-sapping Welfare Queen; the old “Brown Tide” threatening racial purity is now an army of economy-wrecking immigrant laborers. Old standby religious prejudices are equally tricky. Ridiculing Jews clashes with the religious conservative's obsession with protecting Israel. Blasting Catholics irks Hispanics who, though part of the Brown Tide, provide support for conservative positions against abortion and homosexuality. No wonder that conservative humor's safest bet is to attack liberals for being liberals.

Just why it's bad to be a liberal is left vague. Questions of “why” would introduce nuance into the discussion, and liberals might seem to have valid points. The conservative media's most awesome achievement during the past forty-some years has been to recast the very word “liberal” into a badge of shame which even liberals take pains to avoid. The perception of “centrist” has been driven so far to the right that today's wishy-washy liberal is given treatment once reserved for ultra-left Godless Commies.

As American business and government have merged into a corporate super-state, actions necessary to maintain profits--outsourcing manufacturing, curtailing social programs, narrowing individual rights--increasingly hurt small-town voters who form the traditional conservative base. Embracing the notion that someone is ridiculous simply because he bears the “liberal” badge makes it possible for conservative Little Guys to rally to defend the very people who are foreclosing their homes and sending their jobs overseas.

The upshot of all this is that the conservative cartoonist attacks not the liberal's issues but the liberal's credentials. A viewpoint is ridiculous simply because a liberal holds it. That's how we get cartoons like this “Mallard Fillmore” daily:

To a conservative cartoonist this panel may make some kind of sense. “Hate crime” is just a fancy label for somebody hurting someone a liberal likes. But people are always hurting other people, so trying to categorize and prioritize the hurts is typical liberal silliness.

But just beneath the surface this joke equates the commission of hate crimes--crimes motivated solely by racial or ethnic prejudice--with the natural forces that drive carnivores to eat weaker creatures. In other words, it's natural for heterosexuals to murder homosexuals. I suspect if the point were presented in this way even some rock-ribbed conservative Little Guys would holler. By carefully remaining on the surface the conservative cartoonist avoids too much analysis. That means endless variations on one joke--”aren't these liberals silly!” And that just ain't funny.

Next post: why it's damned near impossible to do a liberal action hero comic.