“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into”

Jonathan Swift
"The Democrats have moved to the right, and the right has moved into a mental hospital." - Bill Maher
"The city is crowded my friends are away and I'm on my own
It's too hot to handle so I gotta get up and go

It's a cruel ... cruel summer"

Monday, November 03, 2008

why so serious?

Eight long years gone by now-- and it seems like so many more-- since I told Prodigal Son, in the face of impending disaster, that I still couldn't close my eyes and see George W. Bush as President. He was only the ceremonial leader of a southern state with a weak-ass government designed to keep Reconstruction from ever returning to Texas. In that at least he had succeeded, as had all previous Texas governors. To claim this success, he had only to do the same thing that all previous governors of the Lone Scar State had done-- watch Bob Bullock administer what there was of the state's government. Bullock had run Texas since Texas was a Republic; he knew what he was doing.

Eight long years gone by -- and it seems like so many more-- since I watched the 2000 election approach as uncomprehendingly as Jaguar Paw watching the Spanish ships at the end of Apocalypto. Like those ships, that election would twist our world out of recognition, and I didn't know it. All I could say to Prodigal was, "Well, if he does somehow win, at least it will be a great time for satire. Doonesbury will be better than it's ever been. That cheerleader guy on SNL looks exactly like Bush-- he could do some good impressions."

In that, at least, I was right. In the past eight years, we have buried, buried, the old stereotype of the humorless, politically correct liberal. Doonesbury, yes, but also Franken, and Stewart, and Colbert, and a thousand thousand bloggers have been hilarious. Against them, Fox threw up The 1/2 Hour News Hour, which epic-failed after an unlucky thirteen episodes. Dennis Miller, who had once been funny, found neocon humor to be as elusive as those weapons of mass destruction (remember those? Now that's funny...).

Miller wrecked his career to the point that it is now nearly impossible-- as Tina Fey, the accidental impressionist, effortlessly merges Palin-shtick with Palin-reality-- to remember that he was once the best Weekend Update anchor SNL had ever had. But that was back when he made fun of power, rather than twisting and perverting his talent in the service of power.

So is that it? In order to be funny, is it necessary to be the jester in the court, to speak truth to those in power? Can those who hold the power never be truly funny? Will Stewart and Colbert be required to make fun of President Obama lest they follow Dennis Miller into Thalia's graveyard?

Not necessarily. Comedy is not such a simple formula. The last time liberals were this funny was in the Sixties, a time when conservatives imagine that we held enough power to wreck worlds. Many of the funniest activists held little true political power-- people like Abbie Hoffman, whose Yippies nominated a pig for President; the late, great Hunter S. Thompson; and Lenny Bruce, who kept getting sent to jail for saying a word that is on book covers today. They held little overt power, but it's hard to argue that they didn't define the times. Meanwhile, LBJ-- who wielded enough power to force journalists to interview him while he sat on the toilet-- also had a sense of humor, a sick and twisted one, but a sense of humor.

By the Eighties, things had Changed. The liberal standard-bearers were dullards like Mondale and Dukakis, who (like McCain now) occasionally looked funny but never were funny. And the Republican president, Ronald Reagan, was genuinely funny, whatever else he was. Then there was P.J. O'Rourke, the founder of the reptilian branch of the Republican party and author of "How to Drive Fast On Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink". He once defined the Republican Party Reptile as believing in "minimum government interference in private affairs—unless the government brings over extra girls and some ice." That was funny.

Of course, there were probably funny conservatives during the Days of Rage (and certainly over-serious liberals) and Berke Breathed and Matt Groening, at least, managed to be funny liberals during the Age of Reagan (while George Will has always been pompous, precious and annoying). So the truth is that a sense of humor is relatively independent of political power.

Surely, then, as the pendulum swings and progressivism's star rises, it is neither an inevitability nor a paradox that conservatives have utterly and completely lost their sense of humor. It is simply an indication of the character of neoconservatism that so many of it's proponents seem to have descended into the lowest depths of anger, bitterness, and hate in the face of humiliating loss.

I won't repeat all of the well-documented things that have been shouted about Obama at Palin rallies, won't rehash the inaccurate and mean-spirited e-mails, won't drop my jaw at those who will cut - their own - face to make a political candidate look bad. Instead, here's a smallish anecdote from a morning radio show: A girl dressed as Barack Obama for Halloween. In her own neighborhood, people she probably knew were shouting n-words at her, demanding to know why she chose that costume.

Our trolls will, perhaps, point out that this story is anecdotal. It is still illustrative of the ignorance that underlies the neocon lack of humor, and if you don't want to believe this story, you can look up the well-documented examples and find the same ignorance. Do you really think that wearing a political mask expresses a certain sympathy? Did everyone who ever wore a Clinton or a Nixon mask worship the president whose face they donned?

And so, on this election eve, with a million million reasons to vote for Senator Obama (I already have), there is also this: the coming years will be tough, whoever leads us. We might find much to laugh at in a McCain/Palin administration, but we would be laughing for all the wrong reasons. McCain showed, at the Al Smith dinner, that he could read semi-funny lines-- but Obama read his speech like he was reading something the writers of the Daily Show wrote for him for the first time...and genuinely cracking up. We've laughed at conservatives for long enough. It's time to laugh with progressives. I want to believe that Obama will keep us smiling, and that happy days are here again.