2.23.2011

ted rall on the limits of leftist humour

I meant to include this in my earlier post about Ted Rall's new book. Just as well, it's worth reading on its own.
Advo­cate: Speak­ing of the Left: in your book you are pretty harsh on some very well liked and admired fig­ures on the Left. Michael Moore, for instance, and the Yes Men, whom I think are really hilar­i­ous...

TR: They are hilarious.

Advo­cate: So, what’s up with that? What’s the prob­lem with what they do? Aren’t they allies in your cause?

TR: I would say the rea­son I picked them is because they are so good. They are the best that the offi­cial Amer­i­can Left has to offer, in the same way that Obama is the best, in terms of the main­stream polit­i­cal sys­tem, that the sys­tem has to offer.

Michael Moore has got this immense audi­ence of tens of mil­lions of peo­ple, his movies can open up in hun­dreds of the­atres, he can talk about things that no one else can talk about, he’s got this great Mid­west­ern folksy sen­si­bil­ity, he has a gen­tle deliv­ery; he’s really kind of a genius. And his TV show was even bet­ter than his movies I think. And the Yes Men are great too.

And I am sure you’re ask­ing your­self, ok what are you talk­ing about, why are you down on these guys so much, and it’s because they don’t go there. Like Jon Stew­art and Col­bert, this kind of dis­sent val­i­dates the offi­cial sys­tem by say­ing “look at the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal sys­tem; it’s so big and open minded that it even allows a guy like Michael Moore or the Yes Men or John Stew­art to oper­ate.” And the impli­ca­tion is, it’s not that bad.

But you notice that they mar­gin­al­ize peo­ple who actu­ally call for rad­i­cal change, like Howard Zinn or Ralph Nader. Those peo­ple are not allowed to get their mes­sage out. So you’re allowed to go up to the edge of ridi­cul­ing, but you can’t call for real change; all you can do is poke gen­tle fun, or not so gen­tle fun, but it’s got to be all in fun. You can’t call for the actual sys­tem to be replaced, and that was really the argu­ment I was try­ing to make there.

I would argue that Michael Moore has indeed called for the system to be replaced, but as Rall says, he has couched these demands in humour. People like Moore, Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Chris Rock and others function like court jesters: they are given freedom to ridicule leaders and speak truths others can't get away with, but no one in power takes them seriously. Stewart, with his softball interviews with right-wing celebrities and obeisance to some false notion of balance, is especially jester-like.

7 comments:

allan said...

Jon Stew­art and Col­bert, this kind of dis­sent val­i­dates the offi­cial sys­tem ... But you notice that they mar­gin­al­ize peo­ple who actu­ally call for rad­i­cal change, like Howard Zinn ... [Y]ou're allowed to go up to the edge of ridi­cul­ing, but you can't call for real change ... it's got to be all in fun. You can't call for the actual sys­tem to be replaced ...

This is it!

More serious, news guys like Keith Olbermann also fit into this idea of media theater. While they often speak the truth, they also act as a safety value, letting pissed off people vent their frustrations. (I suppose Rush and Glenn et al. do the same thing for the right wingers.)

johngoldfine said...

I think Rall is mixing categories. Start with the idea that the topic is leftist humor...well, it has to be funny first, subversive a distant second.

Zinn and Nader have a different purpose. No one ever supposed they were there to offer humor. It's beyond my imagination how calls for real change could be anything but deadly serious.

I don't see how Zinn and Nader being have been stifled by the system and marginalized. Zinn's 'People's History' has good sales and is widely used in classrooms. If it hasn't changed the world, perhaps many people find it ultimately unpersuasive in its prescriptions.

Similarly, Nader has never had any problem getting ink--getting votes was a different matter. If people ignored his name on the ballot, it was not that his ideas were unavailable for examination but more likely that most people found them or him unpalatable.

laura k said...

I don't see how Zinn and Nader being have been stifled by the system and marginalized. Zinn's 'People's History' has good sales and is widely used in classrooms. If it hasn't changed the world, perhaps many people find it ultimately unpersuasive in its prescriptions.

First of all, People's History of the United States does not give prescriptions, nor does it seek to persuade. I assume you have the read book? I have read it more than once, and nowhere in it have I found persuasion or prescriptions.

Re how Zinn's work is marginalized, it is mocked, derided and mis-represented constantly, and not only by Fox News types.

Zinn's obituary in the New York Times took great pains to discredit his ideas and marginalize the impact of a book that has been translated into dozens of languages and has sold more than 1,000,000 copies. Obituaries were so mocking that people wrote essays about why mainstream media felt the need to belittle and deride Zinn's work in death notices.

Similarly, Nader has never had any problem getting ink--getting votes was a different matter. If people ignored his name on the ballot, it was not that his ideas were unavailable for examination but more likely that most people found them or him unpalatable.

But what kind of ink does he get? Mostly mocking, mischaracterizing, marginalizing. He is portrayed as an buffoon, an angry outsider, a freak - and especially a saboteur, out to wreck the hopes of liberal America. Then when a system that is set up to fail those hopes does its job, he is blamed for the system failure!

To determine whether or not most people find Nader's ideas unpalatable, we'd have to know whether those people actually know what Nader's ideas are - and I maintain they do not, could not possibly, unless they've read his work or heard him speak in person. Because the filters his ideas are put through intentionally misrepresent his ideas.

As for Rall mixing categories, he is very clearly saying that certain ideas are allowed to go mainstream as long as they are placed in the context of comedy, and if they are not, they are marginalized. In order to state that thought, he has to "mix" categories - i.e., compare them.

johngoldfine said...

Re Zinn: yes, I've read and twice used 'People's History' as my sole teaching text in American History 101 at our community college.

Every book will have its biases, and Zinn certainly makes no secret of his. To read PH--to let its world view sink into a mind previously fed on a diet of offically-sanctioned pablum--is to be subject to his persuasion. Why would it or should it be otherwise? I don't intend 'persuasion' in any derogatory, pejorative way.

As for prescriptions, if my students had finished the course with a decent grade and had not understood that Zinn's world view would, for example, insist on the need for each of them to find a way to support victims of American aggression overseas and at home and to protest that aggression, I would be very disappointed.

I didn't follow the NYT obituary and sequelae you describe, but surely that kind of back-and-forth mocking-and-then-defending is a legitimate part of public debate.

laura k said...

In that sense, yes, there are prescriptions and persuasions. However, PH contains no prescriptions in the sense of "this is what we should do", "this is how policy should be shaped", "this is the right way to think".

It is an alternative view of history, with its biases clearly stated, as opposed to the sanctioned views of history with their hidden biases, purporting to be objective. But it is not an activist how-to.

Debate would imply an honest portrayal of someone's ideas. I don't see debate. I see misrepresentation and belitting, at best, smear at worst.

There are other kinds of marginalizing, too. Who is invited to the popular mainstream pundit shows? What points of view do they represent? How broad is the spectrum that is allowed to be presented? How are non-mainstream ideas portrayed - what words are used to describe them?

We recently watched "South of the Border", Oliver Stone's summary of the leftist movements in South America. A big part of the movie is how those movements are portrayed in mainstream US media. (Worth seeing if only for that.) This, too, is a method of marginalizing and demonizing - an extremely effective way, since most USians will not come into contact with alternative narratives.

allan said...

Zinn's NYT obit is here. Interestingly, it does not have the Schlesinger quote. I wonder if it was in another article or if they edited the obit after it first ran.

***

Nader ... If people ignored his name on the ballot, it was not that his ideas were unavailable for examination but more likely that most people found them or him unpalatable.

I am curious in which mainstream media were Nader's ideas available for examination by most people? Pick any one of the four election cycles he was part of: 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008. ... Why would the system he was speaking out against grant him a fair shake? Or any shake at all?

I don't see how Zinn and Nader being have been stifled by the system and marginalized.

In a media climate where US military generals are presented on CNN as neutral, unbiased commentators on an ongoing US war, Zinn was totally invisible. (Unless he was on Crossfire and Meet the Press a lot more than I remember.)

CAulds said...

most USians will not come into contact with alternative narratives.

That is a concise and accurate statement of what I believe is the core of the problem with the U.S. today. Those alternative streams of information are systematically closed.

I bought the official narrative, I was a staunch supply-sider and a faithful voter for the Republican Party in the U.S. for 28 years. How rarely, if ever, did I confront a challenge to my belief structure.

Until 2002. In the runup to the invasion of Iraq the following March, I questioned the wisdom of that invasion, based on what I felt anyone could see was weak evidence of a threat. I was absolutely unprepared for the vilification I received from family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, complete strangers. I was speaking the "alternative narrative" and I made my family a target for hatred and even death threats.

I moved my family to Canada in October 2005, I was 48 years old. Old enough that I wasn't exactly looking for a major life change. But my eyes were opened to the reality of my former life in America's Bible Belt.