Civil Rights

Selected Skirmishes: Laughing Stock

Funny is as funny was.

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A local feminist talk show host, since fired for poor ratings, began her program a couple of years back with a description of a cartoon she had seen in the newspaper. I don't recall the subject matter, but I remember the most perverse exclamation point. No sooner did she chortle out the punchline caption than she issued a sharp disclaimer: That's not really funny!

Really? I can understand why someone would tell a story they really believe Stupid & Offensive: We all love a good laugh. In fact, eliminate these two guffaw-filled categories of human endeavor, and the species becomes unbearable. But what to make of the anti-humor reflex exhibited by The Upright, even after they have personally selected the very ugliness in question?

The recent pip-squeaked whining over the evils unleashed by talk radio has reminded me of this sensational demonstration of the confusion which now reigns over America like a despotic king. Predictably, Mr. Clinton led the idiotic charge in cowardly fashion, moving in behind the corpses of Oklahoma City to declare that his political foes have created a climate of hate and governmental mistrust. In linking dissent from his administration to hatred for America, the president fantasizes so mightily as to make Dr. Ruth blush. And in damning diversity of opinion as leading to the blood of murderous violence, our president miraculously elevates lunatic monsters into political activists–conscientious objectors to the American Way of Life.

Incredibly, at just this very instant Clinton was pridefully boasting that his own hateful, anti-American anger in a previous life had been sanctified by the ebb of history: Robert McNamara belatedly admitted that the Vietnam War was a bad idea. (No kidding, Bob?) The president believes his protestations against Our Government, vehement and sufficiently heartfelt to motor him across two continents, and steer him clear of a third, were patriotic. Aid and comfort to an enemy killing American boys, according to the people running the Pentagon then. The man running the Pentagon today bravely condemns those who, in their own non-violent ways, choose to consider the government their enemy.

That irony isn't funny, is it Bill? It's so hurtful. Let me tell you about the view from here. I stumbled into college just a few semesters after you and your buds turned America's campuses into Animal Houses with Che posters. The Establishment sucked, police were The Pig, and "Kill your Parents" was the mildly provocative initiation advice to The Movement. When you took issue with a sitting president's foreign policy you were expressive yet poetic: "Hey, Hey LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?" "Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker," was the most popular button on campus and an expression which popped up regularly in lecture.

By now, all that rage has been chewed up and thoroughly digested by the capitalist culture. Hollywood blockbusters make millions for investors with plotlines showing how The System killed JFK, and how The Man is best challenged by a cult hero whose tidiest advice to young people is, "By Any Means Necessary." And if you hurry, you might catch the next showing of Panther down at the 12-screen Cineplex.

The outrage we get today appears tired and manufactured; used rage, not the fresh stuff we got in the '60s. But the outrage was always overrated. What is really missing today is the humor. The civil rights era was ushered in with a belly laugh, as Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Mort Sahl attacked the racial double standards of an America which didn't want to face up to its hypocrisy, but which couldn't keep itself from doubling over for the punchline. When racism became ridiculous–because it was savagely and appropriately mocked–it finally crumbled. Bull Connor, once feared, became pathetic. His day was done.

Lenny is dead and Dick runs a fat farm. Mort is still very funny, but he is no longer a liberal, having supported Ronald Reagan for president in 1980. Indeed, the liberals are now the ridiculous ones. Power, after all, ridiculizes, and absolute power ridiculizes ridiculously.

And as always, instead of engaging in the rough and tumble of social debate, the politically challenged are wont to condemn all their political opponents as duped by a small cabal of evil men. Just as the reactionary Old Guard in the '50s dismissed any who dissented as fellow travelers, the Clintonites denounce those who disagree as stooges of talk radio. Their foes are not principled, but "angry white males," and their opposition is not grounded in legitimate political differences but "mean-spiritedness."

As an undergraduate, the most popular bumper sticker I can recall is the one that read, "Impeach the Cox Sacker." We thought it was quite clever, and expressed a fairly ubiquitous collegiate disdain for Our President. Was it mean? Patently offensive? Insensitive to the feelings of Pat and Tricky Dick? Screw 'em! Making fun of the powers that be was very funny then. A little birdie tells me that even a young Bill Clinton was laughing. The rest of us still are.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California at Davis.