Also published on BuzzFlash at www.buzzflash.com and on Democratic Underground at www.democraticunderground.com and on BartCop Reader at www.genslab.com/bcreader on March 26, 2002, and on www.makethemaccountable.com.
This past week, I sat in the audience and watched two performances in Washington, D.C. The first, a debate at the National Press Club, got me laughing and cheered me up. The second, a comedy show at the Improv, depressed me deeply.
The debate, sponsored by the American Prospect magazine, was on the proposition “The Enron scandal is the logical consequence of deregulation.” Arguing the affirmative were Bob Kuttner and Bob Borosage. Arguing the negative were Grover Norquist and Bruce Bartlett.
The crowd largely supported the affirmative position, and while the debate did include a little interesting discussion of when and where deregulation can work, for the most part no one’s mind was changed about anything – at least none of the debaters’ or anyone’s I talked to.
What was funny was simply the absurd lengths Norquist and his sidekick would go to. Bartlett made half his opponents’ arguments for them, but then refused to draw sensible conclusions. Norquist tried to avoid the topic by talking about how awful Social Security, Medicare, and the IRS are. When it was his turn to question the other side, he rambled off on a tangent and forgot to ask a question. Several times he suggested that he thought the debate was over the question of whether the Soviet Union still existed. And both he and Bartlett repeatedly made what they took to be the important point that it’s hard to prevent every single crime that might be committed. The lesson Bartlett drew from this insight was that you should make crimes unattractive, not through penalties, but in some mysterious way analogous to the way cheating on taxes is allegedly made unattractive by keeping taxes low – although he also seemed to suggest that we should legalize bank robbing.
The contradictions were amazing: they said investors could police the market and that investors were to blame for the Enron disaster. They said the problem with government was that it could be bribed, although the problem in this case was that Arthur Andersen had been bribed. Investors needed accurate accounting information and would naturally demand it, although they had mysteriously been unable to do so. Enron was actually a primary supporter of increased regulation, because it backed the Kyoto treaty – never mind that it also supported the creation of the largely deregulated system in California that led to its downfall and noisily promoted deregulation or years.
As Kuttner said in his opening remarks, the right-wingers have more money, but in a fair fight the liberal arguments win. What was encouraging was to hear the crowd agree as the debate went on. But a different crowd would have reacted differently, would not have seen the conservative team’s comments as humorous at all. While Norquist seemed to me to be making tired old predictions about the glories of anarchistic capitalism in the face of mounting empirical evidence against these “predictions,” to the market faithful he would have seemed to be drawing out the logical ramifications of certain philosophical truths, such as the importance of greed as a tool for restraining greed. (This notion of logical truth even made it into the proposition being debated.) And some members of the audience did have that reaction.
While the predictability of Norquist’s comments was funny to me, it must have been reassuring to the sort of person who uses the term “dittohead” as a compliment. While leftists resist agreement to the point of being unable to cooperate with their allies, Norquist has organized a powerful political force in Washington based on the idea of agreeing with boring eternal truths that a 10-year-old can understand but that liberals stubbornly refuse to. Well, his power is based on that idea and a hell of a lot of money.
One of the debate’s organizers told me they would have liked to have more conservatives in the audience. I suggest they go recruit them from the audiences at the Improv comedy club on Connecticut Avenue. I went there two nights after the Enron debate.
A comedy act by people who are TRYING to be funny is not easy. Humorous stories aren’t too hard to come up with, but if they don’t have punch lines every few sentences, the act becomes story-telling rather than comedy. And how many kinds of punch lines are there? I watched a video of George Carlin recently that was taped just after the Persian Gulf War and is even more relevant now. Half the act was him making fun of pretentious phrases used by advertisers and flight attendants. The other half was him blurting out political truths that you don’t hear very often. The linguistic stuff was somewhat funny, while being very clever and entertaining. The political stuff was good to hear, and good to hear an audience appreciate, but not really funny.
At the Improv, the three middle-aged white men who performed, one after the other, didn’t touch on the topic of language, but they did blurt out political opinions. They thought starving children in Africa should starve, Mexicans were stealing American jobs and coming here to live off welfare forever. “This isn’t a country anymore. It’s a giant theme park with free admission. Try this ride, it’s called welfare; you can stay on that forever! Try healthcare while you’re here, too!”
I’ve been to about five comedy shows in my life, and yet I had heard most of these “jokes” before. I’d heard the one about Sally Struthers eating all the donations for the starving children, as well as most of the other fat jokes. I’d heard the homophobic and racist jokes too, but I was surprised they were still being told. (In the case of welfare support for immigrants, I would have thought its nonexistence would have some relevance.) I’d even heard the phony self-critiques by which these cruel topics were introduced as ways to supposedly shatter politically correct taboos without meaning any harm.
The worst of the three comedians said he used to tell gay jokes but stopped when two gay men beat him up after a show. “Of course, they were gay, so it didn’t hurt.” He then launched into a string of gay jokes.
He said a group wanted to rename a racistly named sports team “the Whities.” That wouldn’t bother him, he said. “If you want to offend a white guy, call him a nigger.” This launched him into a discussion of how one woman in the audience looked disgusted with him and was apparently unsure whether it was OK to laugh, given her silly hang-ups. He pointed out the one black man in the club, who – like most of the crowd – was laughing along amicably.
He accused women of being horrible drivers and generally unintelligent, and then said he’d just proved men were pigs. He proceeded to prove that at least he was a pig by telling some more sexist jokes.
As with Carlin, or any comedian, but more so with the less talented, a large part of the act involved cursing, talking about sex, and otherwise trying to shock people. I probably shouldn’t be surprised that racist and sexist jokes are “still told.” They are only breaking taboos now that there are taboos against them. When it was perfectly acceptable for white people to call black people niggers, it wasn’t considered the least bit humorous. As long as racism continues to be largely unacceptable and yet still prevalent, there will continue to be racist jokes.
I read a column recently in which Christopher Hitchens suggested that the best way to defuse the word and the hatred behind it would be to find ways to use it, but I doubt he had in mind the sort of isn’t-it-funny-that-I’m-a-pig-and-know-it-and-still-like-being-a-pig-because-aren’t-we-all performances they put on at the Improv.
Grover Norquist has better manners and does that sort of performance much more effectively by intending it not to be funny.