Lit and Our Impoverished Political Culture

Muse of Comedy

I’ve been thinking about how shallow and dishonest political speech has become in recent years. Then again, maybe it’s always been like this and I’m just noticing it more. When politics enter the picture, it appears that people start becoming stupid. Outlandish claims and ridiculous reasoning are either (1) accepted as factual or (2) seen as necessary evils in the “war” ( a commonly used hyperbolic metaphor) against one’s political enemy. In case #2, the argument that the ends justify the means seems to be accompanied by the assumption that one has dumb allies who need to be bamboozled in order to vote how you want them to vote.

It’s as though the observation of cynic H. L. Mencken has become enshrined in American political practice, to wit: “No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

To be sure, there are politicians who take logic seriously and who take the American voter seriously. I think the President is one of these. But there are many at all points on the political spectrum who (to borrow a phrase from Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets), look at the American people, “take away reason and accountability,” and proceed from there.

I’ve been targeting Tea Party rhetoric quite a bit in this blog so today let me call out someone on the left. Markos Moulitsas, founder of the leftist blog Kos, has a new book entitled American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin, and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right. I haven’t read the book and I’m not going to. But looking at the title and reading a description of the contents, it sounds like Moulitsas is engaging in a tactic used by many commentators on the right: arguing by analogy. Glenn Beck, for instance, routinely compares President Obama to Hitler. (So routinely that comedian Lewis Black wonders whether Beck suffers from “Nazi Tourettes.”) Comparing the American right to the Taliban is similarly lame.  Beck or Rush Limbaugh or Anne Coulter are no more going to stone people to death than Obama is going to send SS troops into the headquarters of the National Rifle Association.

I like what Atlantic Monthly blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates has to say to Moulitsas’  line of argument:

As is often the case, with arguments that lead with analogy, the point isn’t to clarify anything, it’s to turn heads. . . I don’t believe you claim that the American right’s tactics are “almost indistinguishable” from the Taliban because you think it’s adroit and original. You do it to elbow your way up the best-seller list.

And then Coates goes on to invoke Faulkner:

That’s fine–it’s an accepted strategy. But speaking only for me, if your commitment is to making me look, as opposed to making me think, expect that I will only look once. Everything you say afterward is compromised in my eyes. Faulkner is still waiting.

I disagree with Coates only when he says that it’s fine. “Accepted strategy,” I assume, is his resigned acknowledgement that this is how the political (and publicity) game is conducted, but we’re all played for suckers when this strategy is deployed. Worse, the nation suffers.

I suspect that Coates’ mention of Faulkner is a gesture towards language being used with integrity. Reading great literature, in other words, trains us to recognize bullshit.

But other than producing quality prose and poetry, what can authors do to expose debased political language? Comic satire is one response. In the past, few have been as penetrating, or as relentless, as Jonathan Swift.  Jane Austen too was no slouch when it came to calling out fools, scoundrels, and hypocrites, and in America we had Mark Twain.  Who do we have today?

Novelist Philip Roth (say, in The Human Stain) is one, as is comedian John Stewart of the Daily Show. Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury sometimes hits the nail on the head. I welcome any candidates that you have and will return to this issue in the future.

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2 Comments

  1. farida
    Posted September 16, 2010 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    Robin,
    I wholly agree with you, as a non-American, that more satire is needed….everywhere. I used to be really interested in American politics, possibly because the politics in my own country is so silly (and would almost be funny if not for the terrible conditions in which citizens exist) and also because we are told we should take our political lessons from the west. But, now I find American politics entering a domain I have failed to comprehend.

    It was in Brazil recently where the government implemented an “anti-joking” law banning broadcasters from airing any comedic or satirical discussions of politicians until elections in October. So the capacity for humorists and satirists to shine a light on reality cannot be underestimated. Although in line with H.L. Mencken”s words, one cannot underestimate the general population’s desire to retreat into darkness, possibly as a means of self protection.

    I may be wrong, but I have come to understand much of what I see in the seeming move to the right (and even far right in American politics) as related to race and the fear of the other. Namely that having a black president has proved more of a shock to the systems of many Americans than many of us ever anticipated.

    I read this description of figuring out if something was motivated by racism or racial prejudice somewhere, many years ago and I paraphrase:

    If you look for a way to explain a person/people’s actions and cannot fully explain it through all the available options (eg. unkindness, ignorance, lack of intelligence, error, miscommunication, silliness, greed, malice, economic hardship etc) then you finally have to say it is racism or racial prejudice.

    I for one feel like I’ve looked at the available options and as depressing as it is, I think much of what is happening now in relation to Barack Obama has to do with race, however many ways one tries to rationalize it all.

    I also think many Americans are afraid of honestly discussing the issue of race and racism and how it relates to the current political climate. And maybe this is where the satirists are really needed.

    And while I agree with you that Markos Moulistas’ approach may not be right, I do feel that the American left needs to get tougher and more courageous in dealing with their right wing counterparts and creating a more meaningful and fierce political dialogue. The left may have to take the gloves off and play the right at their own game and accept that they will indeed get muddy; or at the very least they keep the gloves on, get into the ring, follow the rule book and put up a FIGHT.
    Right now the left is just “dancing” in the ring…..

    Having said all that, I leave the following poem which simply made me smile and remember when I heard Maya Angelou say in an interview on the radio, with great conviction: “We are more like than we are unalike, we are more alike than we are unlike.”

    Robin, I choose to answer your question, “Who do we have today?”, this way:
    Satire or no satire……we have ourselves…..

    Here’s to the butterfly in each of us….

    Caterpillars
    by Brod Bagert

    They came like dewdrops overnight
    Eating every plant in sight,
    Those nasty worms with legs that crawl
    So creepy up the garden wall,
    Green prickly fuzz to hurt and sting
    Each unsuspecting living thing.
    How I hate them! Oh, you know
    I’d love to squish them with my toe.
    But then I see past their disguise,
    Someday they’ll all be butterflies.

    ….

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted September 18, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    You always state things so elegantly, Farida! Here’s a Mark Twain quotation that backs up what we both are saying about humor, said my Satan in The Mysterious Stranger:

    “For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon–laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution –these can lift at a colossal humbug–push it a little–weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. You are always fussing and fighting with your other weapons. Do you ever use that one? No; you leave it lying rusting. As a race, do you ever use it at all? No; you lack sense and the courage.”

    To be sure, Twain’s humor didn’t stop the Spanish-American war, a naked grab for power against which Twain protested. But it’s what we have. And as you say, it’s up to each of us to resort to it.

    About Obama hatred: while I agree there’s a racist dimension, I would add another element. I think that many people who are unsettled by postmodernism and a bad economy focus on the fact that they have an untraditional looking president with an unfamiliar name and of African ancestry. That may account for some of the out-of-bounds attacks he’s getting. (After all, many of his programs were, in the past, proposed by Republicans. He’s where the center used to be.) I think he’s a symbol for a whole host of things, including America’s lessening influence in the world, the fact that Spanish is on the rise in the United States, and a host of other things. Here’s one thing to keep in mind, however: Obama is still very popular with a lot of people, and his ratings at this point in his presidency, while low for him, are still higher than Reagan’s were at this time in Reagan’s presidency. I think the Democrats just have to trumpet what they’ve done this year, without apology, and let the chips fall where they may. They’ve staved off a number of disasters but are getting blamed that they haven’t dug America out of its hole fast enough. The Tea Party Republicans who are commanding center stage currently don’t have any concrete alternatives–at least alternatives that add up to a plausible policy.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Atwood and the Eve of Destruction on September 20, 2010 at 1:00 am

    […] Last week I asked where were the literary voices that were speaking up against the irresponsible forces in our society. I should have mentioned Canada’s best known author. Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood both occur during the same time in the not-too-distant future (characters overlap between them), and both function as a wake-up call. If we aren’t vigilant—if we don’t regulate irresponsible corporations, monitor genetic engineering, and ban extreme sexuality, if we don’t protect nature and revitalize our cities and spread the wealth—then we may be visited by a second Noah’s flood. This one waterless. […]

  2. By Who Owns the American Revolution? on September 27, 2010 at 1:05 am

    […] it offset the $4 trillion that extending the Bush tax cuts will cost.  Short of that, it is all (as I said the other day about the Left’s use of the phrase “American Taliban”) just […]


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