Humor, Politics, and the Politics of Humor

[I'm not sure why, but the "comments" button isn't appearing below this post... seems appropriate, somehow. Leave any comments in the joe-the-plumber post above.]

Michael and I are debating what may seem like a nanotechnologically fine point -- but I just had a revelation.

In Michael's latest comment, he suggested that the problem we're having might stem from our divergent understanding of what is meant by "intelligent." But I just realized, in re-viewing Maddow's segment with Frum, that it seems to me that we're disagreeing over what is funny. Here's the original:

And though this video isn't full of Maddow's characteristic "humor," if you're still reading, you've seen it. Compare it to this video, a three minute clip of Ann Coulter being "funny" in front of her own choir:

There's no debating this: some people, at least the ones laughing, think this is good stuff -- really good "humor."

This reminds me of the occasional debate I've had with specialists in American Literature about a book like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and the question of aesthetic merit. People who tend to see Teddy Roosevelt as their political hero hate that book; people who prefer FDR tend to like it. To me, enlightened as I am, that particular kind of divided judgment concerning literary quality suggests something that is relatively unimpressive.

Or: maybe our misunderdisagreement stems from what we expect as viewers: for whatever reason, I don't turn Rachel Maddow on with the same expectations about the relative importance of politics and humor in the same way that I turn on The Daily Show. With Maddow, I expect humor to serve her end of political commentary. With Stewart, I understand that humor is the end. I suppose a person could watch Maddow in the same way, but approached that way, Maddow's show is an abysmal failure by comparison to Stewart's.

Of course, I recognize that it would be snobbish to the point of boorishness to suggest that all humor ought to be transcendent humor, apolitical and eternal in nature. Nor do I want to suggest that America is in a worse state than it has been in some imagined super-serious and conscientious past. On the other hand, I'm still struggling to understand what either Maddow or Coulter are contributing to the world -- if humor, they're horrible hacks. If political insight, I fear that their subject matter is too important to warrant our attention. Here's Abraham Lincoln's opening lines in the second of his debates with Douglas:

Mr. Lincoln's Speech

Mr. Lincoln took the stand at a quarter before three, and was greeted with vociferous and protracted applause; after which, he said:

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: It will be very difficult for an audience so large as this to hear distinctly what a speaker says, and consequently it is important that as profound silence be preserved as possible.

While I was at the hotel to-day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.]

Awesome, Mr. Lincoln. Hilarious, if I agree with your assertation that black people are not really humans. But stick to the finer points of policy in the future, okay? But wait, there's more:
I will also add to the remarks I have made (for I am not going to enter at large upon this subject,) that I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [laughter] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [roars of laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. [Continued laughter and applause.]
Is there such a thing as responsible political humor? I can imagine it. Are there better ways to spend our time, like... signing emancipation proclamations and stuff? Seems like it. I guess it seems to me like there's politics that has to do with Justice and everlasting rights and the current disastrous economic collapse and so on, and then there's a conversation that lasts ten minutes about William Ayers and the Keating Five and Rachel Maddow's "tone."

[I'm going to get an "unsweet" iced tea right now, because I fear Mr. Hyde is taking over again... it's 3:30 pm]

...Later that day...

[8:15 pm] I'll try one more way of making this point. My wife, an accomplished poet, once changed my mind about poetry -- she taught me that good poetry must be an exploration. Good poets do not sit down knowing what they want to say. Instead, they sit down with something much more like a question... and the writing process is, ideally, a process of discovery.

Most decent people will "support" the content of the following poem by John Piedmont (1843), but few (I think) would suggest it rises to a sufficient level to warrant serious consideration as an aesthetic accomplishment:


With thy pure dews and rains,
Wash out, O God, the stains,
From Afric's shore;
And, while her palm trees bud,
Let not her children's blood,
With her broad Niger's flood,
Be mingled more!

Quench, righteous God, the thirst,
That Congo's sons hath cursed —
The thirst for gold!


Is it too much to ask that all our political pundits behave more like Emily Dickinson and less like John Piedmont? Yes... of course it is. Hmmm.

One more way to make this point: if you get up every morning already knowing what you think and who you agree with and who you disagree with, I think you will have a more difficult time listening to other people. There is an AM talk radio host here in Charlotte that really irks me sometimes because he generally asks the caller, as soon as they get on the air, "So are you one of those Obama supporters?" And if the caller says, "Yes," he begins immediately patronizing, half-listening, and tuning out. Limbaugh does this. O'Reilly does it. Maddow does it. Olbermann does it. Coulter does it. Chris Matthews does it. I don't think it's good. I don't think it's ethical. I think my reaction is sincere, even if I'm having a very difficult time persuading Michael (or anyone else) of the point.


fenhopper said...

have you enabled "new posts have comments" for the "comments default for posts" in the settings>comments> tab?

a point about stewart vs maddow. comedy as "the end" doesn't mean much. It's more of a complementary relationship between polemics and humor. stewart's humor can accomplish a lot more than maddow's. olbermann's can accomplish a little more.

but have you noticed how much 'clapter' the daily show gets? a lot of their jokes succeed before the punchline because the audience is happy to have a funny advocate.

Casey said...

Weird. I don't know how/why that comments button went & came... none of my doing.

Probably the right point to make about complementarity...

Maybe part of my reaction comes from an embarrassment at the contents of my memory banks: when I was younger, I wasn't always exceedingly conscious of the possibility of media bias. If it was on TV, I figured it was important and I trusted Koppel, Rather, etc. to tell me the facts.

And I guess I wonder if there are still a bunch of not dumb, but naive, 19-year olds (that was me) who are being persuaded in ways that, frankly, they shouldn't be. I could completely understand a 19-year old coming into class and telling me that Rachel Maddow is one of his primary news sources. She's young, "with it," easier to read than the New York Times. AND she's clearly doing something different than John Stewart, whom they probably would understand to be "biased" or at least only partially dependable as a source of news. I mean, it's asking a lot to request that young people watch Jim Lehrer.

I'm just worried about the kids, Michael. The kids. :)

Casey said...

How about Abe Lincoln though?--huh? Was that a good find, or what!?

fenhopper said...

When Stewart says something like 'in a rally today McCain said...' he makes it pretty clear when it's bullshit and when it's serious. As long as we know the structure of the joke we trust him. He can even say 'McCain took off his pointy white hood' and the only oooohs are going to come from people thinking the joke went too far. not from people thinking 'how dare you misrepresent him.'

most pundits have a tougher job protecting that line. They can't make direct declaratives and count on the humor to excuse it -- even though it can. so they have to say 'it's as if...' or 'maybe next we'll see...' or 'i wish he would...'

stewart has to telegraph the structure to keep his credibility.

re: lincoln. that's frightening. and it's hard to see it as funny but it's easy to understand why it worked.

why does it scare me? because even if we've come a long way, i'm not sure the cancer has been cleared out -- and that shows just how malignant it can be even when it's on my 'side' of another argument.