Mockery and Empathy

By David Swanson

“The American Dream: Walking in the Shoes of Carnies, Arms Dealers, Immigrant Dreamers, Pot Farmers, and Christian Believers,” looks on the cover like a collection of serious social commentary from liberal publisher Nation Books. Unless the author’s name Harmon Leon is familiar to you.

The book turns out to be the often hilarious account of a comedic showman, the author, working for a carnival, taking part in a convention of celebrity lookalikes, hanging out with the “God Hates Fags” Phelpses, joining a “swingers” club for a suburban sexual orgy, posing as a script writer to sell insane plots to TV producers, working on a marijuana farm, becoming a contestant on a TV game show and a TV dating show, etc.

But at the end of each chapter and the end of the book, one is left wondering what the publisher found liberal about the book and whether it was worth it for the laughs. Leon depicts carnival workers with a great deal of scorn and condescension, devoting more attention to mocking their bad teeth than to understanding their background or their humanity. He reveals his secret identity as someone smarter than they are by quoting Shakespeare in his goodbye note as he skips out on the carnival just when they can least afford to lose a pair of hands.

Of course, it’s funnier to ridicule a bunch of low-wage workers’ bad teeth and leave them in the lurch than it is to make them fully human. At least it’s easier to get cheap laughs that way. And this book is chock full of cheap laughs. Mockery always takes precedence over empathy.

Some of Leon’s stunts don’t involve him “infiltrating” a risible community so much as taking part in it just as anyone else would, only with different thoughts hidden inside his head. When he goes on a dating show, for example, he appears only slightly crazier than other people on dating shows. Watching clips of Leon’s stunts on Youtube is not nearly as funny as reading his book.

Of course, Leon mocks some things that deserve no better. It’s absurdly funny to read his account of taking part in a demonstration that involves singing tunes like “This Land Is Fag Land,” while considering his fellow demonstrators to be lunatics. But it would be just about as funny to read a right-winger’s account of a left-wing demonstration. There’s no discussion here of gay rights. The reader is simply assumed to already oppose bigotry. The focus is on how best to laugh at the bigots. In the end I’m not sure that’s the ideal approach to overcoming bigotry.

When a gay prostitute with no journalistic experience joined the White House press corps and accepted the job of asking super-easy questions, the disturbing thing was that he didn’t really stand out as different from the other reporters there. When an Associated Press reporter was fired some years ago for fabricating the events and characters in dozens of articles over a period of years, what ought to have disturbed us most is that nobody could tell the fake stories from real ones. When Leon jumps and screams and behaves as if he’s lost all contact with sanity, the frightening fact is that there are places all over the country where he can fit in perfectly without even lowering his voice.

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