The Human Comedy

Lighten up. Laughter is the best medicine, unless some things are too dire, or command too much respect, to joke about – but that’s a matter of opinion. A few years ago fatwas were issued regarding a number of European political cartoonists for some satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammed they had come up with, and regarding those who had published those items – they all had to die. That was blasphemy, but one man’s blasphemy is another man’s sly objective observation, and no one died. Everyone moved on. The Muslim world came to recognize that, in the west, people will make fun of anything. Christians even make jokes about Jesus now and then. Nothing is off-limits, and in America, ever since Will Rogers, we’ve been making fun of those in power, or the clueless rich, or anyone who takes themselves far too seriously. They can be your friends too. Will Rogers himself liked to say he didn’t belong to any organized political party – he was a Democrat. Republicans, of course, never say such things about the Republican Party – but not because their party is superbly organized. They just don’t joke about such things. But that’s okay. Others will do that for them.

That drives them crazy, because Americans have always trusted their comedians, not those in power, or who think they alone should be in power. Comedy is democratic. It levels things out, and the current heirs of Will Rogers – Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and now John Oliver – level things out mercilessly. They take the high and mighty down a peg or two, mostly by quoting them. That’s usually sufficient, and that enrages the guys at Fox News, who do wish to be taken seriously. No, they DEMAND to be taken seriously, and that’s even funnier. Bill O’Reilly will denounce Jon Stewart as irresponsible and dangerous and just plain wrong, then go on Stewart’s show to show him up and dazzle America with his righteousness, and end up looking like a fool to those he wished to impress. He will go back on Fox News the next night and say he finally got the best of Jon Stewart.

Maybe his fans believe it. Maybe they just indulge him. It does seem like a personal thing. Sean Hannity, as much as he rants and raves about Stewart, doesn’t even bother. He’s never shows up on the Stewart show, even if Stewart tapes a few blocks away from the Fox News studios on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. There’s no point. There’s no winning against a comedian. Folks simply trust comedians.

The American right should come up with its own comedians of course, if inherent trust is an issue, but the only comedian they’ve come up with so far is Dennis Miller – that short nasty guy from Pittsburgh. He’s a master at making fun of the poor and minorities, but that has turned out to be a bit of an embarrassment. He hasn’t shown up on Fox News lately. The American right has decided being smug and mean doesn’t sell at the moment. They want to convince America that they’re not really awful people, not anymore – they’ve just been misunderstood. They have big hearts too. Well, Dick Cheney’s heart is now entirely electromechanical, but his day is over, so that doesn’t count.

Still, they could use a good comedian over on that side, to lighten things up and win over a few more skeptical Americans, but Paul Waldman thinks that will be difficult for them:

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report work as well as they do because they’re not shows written and performed by professional liberals who happen to be comedians, attempting to use humor to score political points; rather, they’re shows written and performed by professional comedians who happen to be liberals, using politics to produce comedy. It’s a really important distinction.

Kevin Drum elaborates:

The same distinction applies to other mediums. If you set out to write an explicitly conservative novel, it’s likely to suck. If you set out to write a novel, and it has a conservative worldview because you happen to be a conservative, it will probably do a lot better. Unfortunately for conservatives, if you take this approach you’re likely to end up writing little more than an establishment-friendly novel, not an overtly pointed takedown of liberalism.

And then there is the issue of the material:

Liberals are, generally speaking, opposed to the establishment. Poking fun at the establishment is easy to do, so liberals have lots of ready-made material. Conversely, poking fun at the little guys just seems mean. It’s not impossible to get good comedy out of, say, the more ridiculous aspects of the Occupy Wall Street folks at Zuccotti Park, but it’s a lot harder and the material is a lot thinner.

And there’s the audience:

I’ve never quite understood this, but liberals just seem to like political comedy more than conservatives. Conservatives simply don’t consider this stuff a laughing matter. Especially recently, they’re convinced, deep in their marrow, that liberals are literally out to destroy America, and how do you find the yuks in that? By contrast, mocking conservatives is a popular liberal pastime. Is this because liberals accept conservatives as an inevitable part of the scenery, to be fought but not really hated? That doesn’t seem quite right. Still, it’s true that the establishment, by definition, is always with us, and always working in its usual way to preserve itself. You might think it’s a malign force, but you don’t think of it as something new that’s suddenly emerged to wreck the country. …

Age probably has something to do with this too. In any case, conservatives are great at outrage, while liberals who try to emulate them almost always fail. Liberals are great at comedy, and conservatives who try to emulate that fail as well.

There will be no fine comedians on the right, ever – they do outrage instead – and since outrage is soon tiresome, and then tedious, and then exhausting, they are at a disadvantage. Comedians are fresh and engaging, always full of surprises – that’s what they do, or retire, or commit suicide like Robin Williams. They shake things up. The black comedian Chris Rock is an expert at that, and in a question-and-answer with Frank Rich, just published in New York magazine, he’s at it again, with stuff like this:

Rich: What do you think of how Obama’s done? Here we are in the last two years of his presidency, and there’s a sense among his supporters of disappointment, that he’s disengaged.

Rock: I’m trying to figure out the right analogy. Everybody wanted Michael Jordan, right? We got Shaq. That’s not a disappointment. You know what I mean? We got Charles Barkley. It’s still a Hall of Fame career. The president should be graded on jobs and peace, and the other stuff is debatable. Do more people have jobs, and is there more peace? I guess there’s a little more peace. Not as much peace as we’d like, but I mean, that’s kind of the gig. I don’t recall anybody leaving on an up. It’s just that kind of job. I mean, the liberals that are against him feel let down because he’s not Bush. And the thing about George Bush is that the kid revolutionized the presidency. How? He was the first president who only served the people who voted for him. He literally operated like a cable network. You know what I mean?

Rich: He pandered to his target audience.

Rock: He’s the first cable-television president, and the thing liberals don’t like about Obama is that he’s a network guy. … He’s trying to get everybody. And I think he’s figured out, and maybe a little late, that there’s some people he’s never going to get.

That’s a pretty good summary of the last six years, but this is surprising:

Rich: One thing that was so exciting to many people, including you and me, when Obama got in was the hope, however delusional, that his election signaled some kind of racial progress in America. When, in fact, I don’t think there’s been much at all.

Rock: I mean, I almost cry every day. I drop my kids off and watch them in the school with all these mostly white kids, and I got to tell you, I drill them every day: Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything? They look at me like I am crazy. … It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.

And now he wants to go to Ferguson:

Rich: What would you do in Ferguson that a standard reporter wouldn’t?

Rock: I’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people.

Rich: Well, that would be much more revealing.

Rock: Yes, that would be an event. Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There have been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. … The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

That switches things around. Black folks have nothing to prove to white folks, even to Rudy Giuliani? Don’t tell him that – and don’t tell this guy:

MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” panel started the day off on Monday with a segment slamming protestors in Ferguson, shaming the St. Louis Rams football team, and calling slain unarmed teenager Michael Brown a “thug.”

Co-host Joe Scarborough began by scolding protestors across the nation for making Michael Brown who was fatally shot by former Ferguson, Mo. “the face of black oppression.”

“The cops have every reason to be pissed off this morning,” Scarborough said. He argued that the five players on the St. Louis Rams who raised their arms in solidarity with Ferguson on Sunday based their gesture on “lies” that contradicted findings of a grand jury investigation.

And it went on:

The show’s self-designated liberal panelist and former ad man Donny Deutsch stepped in to register his full agreement with Scarborough.

“I’m a little left of center. You’re a little right of center. You say potato. I say potato,” Deutsch began. “I could not agree with every word you said more passionately.”

“It’s not a black-white situation. It’s a thug-police officer situation,” said Deutsch, beginning to chuckle.

Scarborough concluded with a piece of advice to his critics:

“And by the way, if I’ve offended anybody by saying what I’ve said, trust me, 95 percent of America think just like me,” he said.

“Just because there are cowards who won’t say that on TV… that’s their problem, not mine,” said Scarborough.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog was not impressed:

The opinions expressed by Joe Scarborough over the course of a seventeen-minute segment about Ferguson this morning were painful enough: not just that Michael Brown was a “thug” who had a lethal bullet coming to him, but that it’s a mean-spirited attack on cops to dare to question the shooting of Cleveland’s Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old carrying a toy gun – all of it framed as a harangue against St. Louis Rams football players for making a gesture of solidarity with Ferguson protesters, which Scarborough described as “the last straw” (because God forbid anything even fleetingly unpleasant should come between a suburban dad and his football).

No, it wasn’t just the opinions that were galling – it was the way Scarborough turned the harangue itself into an extended example of white alpha-male privilege, as he browbeat his panel of subordinates, demanding deference to his take on the Ferguson situation, which, he insisted, was clearly superior and not subject to criticism. (“And by the way, if I’ve offended anybody by saying what I’ve said, trust me, 95 percent of America think just like me,” he said at one point.)

Watching it is like watching a hostage situation, or the worst Thanksgiving dinner with a right-wing relative jagged out on alcohol and caffeine. Co-host Mika Brzezinski is so intimidated or beaten down, she’s virtually silent. Wes Moore is all but required to concede that the Ferguson protesters have no moral leg to stand on. And Mark Halperin … well, if even Mark Halperin is taken aback by your own chest-thumping sense of your own alpha-hood, and your belief that you’re entitled not to have empathy, then you’ve gone pretty far off the deep end.

There was no excuse for this:

I grant that Michael Brown’s behavior was not unfailingly exemplary on his last day. I agree that looting accomplishes nothing positive. And I know that Scarborough tries to give himself a moral out by acknowledging some racial inequities, and by reminding us that he’s on the liberals’ side with regard to George Zimmerman.

But to know what black people go through every day in their relations with the police, to recognize that they never know when their lives may be ended by a cop, and not to respond to this in a human way – sorry, but it’s unconscionable. To decide instead that you’re the aggrieved party because someone dared to make a political gesture you disagree with when you were trying to watch a football game, to treat that as a massive grievance, is an act of mind-boggling narcissism. Scarborough demands that everyone defer to the cops at all times, even when they threaten to shoot you for getting out of the car after a traffic stop. He uses this segment to effectively become the cop-as-terrorist before whom he wants us all to prostrate ourselves.

White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. We are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. And then there’s this. Maybe it is a generational thing. Joe Scarborough should lighten up. He should invite Chris Rock on his show. Chris Rock would laugh at him, and then all the other panelists would too. Laughter is the best medicine, even if it is not generally available on the right.

Andrew Sullivan, an Obama fan on the right, is struggling with that:

I haven’t come across any new, dispositive facts to change my mind about the complicated specifics in the Michael Brown tragedy. But there is one dispositive fact that is hard to miss and that keeps impressing itself upon me every time I read about Ferguson and its meaning. There is a near-universal consensus among African-American men that there is a crisis about their role in American society, and particularly about their interaction with the police. You can cavil, or criticize or feign shock or refer back to the specifics of the Ferguson case. But it’s there and it’s real and any crisis between any segment of the population with respect to law enforcement is a crisis for the entire society.

He has been listening to black voices telling everyone that this really is a moment for despair, like Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land. This plunder has not been exclusive to black people. But black people, the community to which both Michael Brown and Barack Obama belong, have the distinct fortune of having survived in significant numbers. For a creedal country like America, this poses a problem – in nearly every major American city one can find a population of people whose very existence, whose very history, whose very traditions are an assault upon this country’s nationalist instincts. Black people are the chastener of their own country. Their experience says to America, “You wear the mask.”

And there’s Colbert King:

We are in a bad place. My 20-year-old grandson, Will – the most gentle and respectful young man you would ever want to meet – posted this on his Facebook page:

“Regarding the recent events in Ferguson – I’ve always wanted to believe my country was free. But today’s grand jury decision tells me this cannot be the case. No country that refuses to hold the police, those so-called ‘defenders of the law,’ accountable for its unjust brutality – and yes, it is often very brutal – can be free. When the grand jury declined to charge Darren Wilson for his actions, what kind of a message does that send? … It doesn’t seem fair that police can commit brutal acts against innocent people and get away with it.”

It’s not, Will. Not today. Not in your great-grandmother’s day when that Mississippi grand jury let that white farmer get away with murder. Not ever.

Even a white guy like John McWhorter sees the problem here:

The right-wing take on Brown, that he was simply a “thug,” is a know-nothing position. The question we must ask is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside?

These men were expressing a community-wide sense that the official keepers of order are morally bankrupt. What America owes communities like Ferguson – and black America in general – is a sincere grappling with that take on law enforcement that is so endemic in black communities nationwide. As Northwestern philosopher Charles Mills has put it, “Black citizens are still differentially vulnerable to police violence, thereby illustrating their second class citizenship.”

This is true. It is most of what makes so many black people, of all classes, sense racism as a key element of black life, and even identity.

Sullivan takes it from there:

What we’re talking about here is not prejudice exhibited by other members of civil society – the kind of prejudice you can argue should be ignored or proven wrong. It is prejudice exhibited by the representatives of the entire system – the police – and its expression is too often violence, even fatal violence. At first, I simply wondered how so many people I respect see no progress at all since the 1930s or earlier. But it is perfectly possible, it now seems clear, for there to be considerable social progress and integration even as police forces – especially in poor, urban areas – come to associate criminality with black men, and treat them as a different class of people – guilty until proven innocent, violent unless proven peaceful.

I can see why this happens, can’t you? Cops are not superhuman. High rates of violence and crime in neighborhoods with large numbers of young black men make a certain kind of prejudice almost impossible to avoid for a fallible human cop – but that makes training to counteract these impulses all the more important to enforce. A cop like Wilson, with clearly minimal finesse in these matters, comes across as afraid, unprofessional, and reckless.

We’ve gotten nowhere:

The truth is: there are too many eerie parallels between today’s world and yesterday’s.

Although the formal structures are immeasurably better than in the darkest days of slavery and formal segregation, the informal patterns of mind created by history can stay the same. And I sense it is this unchanging attitude – and what it says about the core moral imagination of many non-blacks – that drives reasonable men to sputtering rage and frustration. We are not what we once were – but we remain deeply formed by what we once were. How hard is that nuance to understand?

Think of it this way:

That’s not a minor bug in a democratic system. It’s a fatal illness. And we need to start treating it like one.

If so, perhaps laugher is the best medicine, or at least a place to start. This odd interview with Chris Rock, a mere comedian, might be a place to start. We’ve always trusted comedians more than those in power anyway, and if we are now encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced, we should keep it up. The humorless conservatives will just have to deal with that. Maybe they’ll eventually join the grand human comedy.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to The Human Comedy

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    Good piece.
    Like many of we “tiny fish” in our country and world “ocean”, I try to figure out how I fit in to the solution. Who cares what I say? I try to get past my hopelessness, at least. I wish more folks got into conversation about this and many other things rather than hiding under their respective rocks, or in their caves.
    The day after Thanksgiving, alone in my car for 300+ miles after visiting my last surviving uncle in a nursing home, I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and the best I could do was to reduce the Ferguson thing down to a triangle: Brown, who couldn’t have his say (he’s dead, of course); Wilson, who had all the time and opportunity to prepare his story (but is ruined, anyway); and the third actor, the Gun, which could care less, but whose successive generations are more and more deadly and ubiquitous.
    In my own blog for Dec 1 I attempted to define this triangle a little bit further, calling Brown’s gig caught on tape in the convenience store a “stupid kid action”, making him one of legions of we children who do stupid things – and every single one of us has been, sometimes repetitively, a “stupid kid”.

  2. Lovely to laugh a little with you and your writing this morning. Please know how much your perspective is appreciated and accept my applause for your continued ability to research and summarize current topics. I enjoy having a coffee with you and your mind here in the virtual world. And today an extra bonus to get a shot of comedic slant with my java. Cups Up- Ret

  3. Rick says:

    First, there’s a side to that toy gun story that I haven’t heard discussed:

    Put aside that the gun was only a toy — and also put aside that he was 12 years old, since the 911-caller said he might be as old as 18 — but even if the gun had been real, I thought it was supposed to be okay, under the Second Amendment, for someone to carry a gun!

    I mean, what’s the point of all these “open-carry” and “stand your ground” laws if the cops will come along and shoot you for carrying one? I’m just saying, it occurs to me that the NRA and their defenders have a harder row to hoe than they think if, every time someone sees a gun in public, they call the cops to check it out, especially if the cops show up with their own guns drawn, and see the guy’s weapon as a threat to public safety. And if the cops use too much caution, they could end up putting their own lives in danger.

    That is to say, I just can’t see that most of us thinking of anyone with a gun as a possibly dangerous “gunman”, is something that will change soon, if ever at all.

    As for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the idea that they need an apology from the football players for that “hands up” stuff? Does that mean they need one from all those peaceful marchers, too? One could get the idea that the police took the grand jury’s refusal to indict as some sort of victory for their side, as an endorsement for their policing methods.

    And by the way, yes, while I agree that the “hands up, don’t shoot” meme may be based on an urban legend, we all, including Joe Scarborough, should realize that it might not be. After all, our information that Brown didn’t raise his hands in surrender comes from only that evidence the prosecutor submitted to the grand jury, trying to make his case — even if, in this instance, his “case” could safely assumed to be not to indict. Had this gone to trial, where we get to hear from both sides, we might have been able to trust evidence we learned about, but this not happening was probably inevitable, since rarely if ever do grand juries in America return indictments of cops accused of killing anyone, black or white. When we give a guy a gun and send him out into the mean streets to protect us, we tend to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    In either case, whether or not it actually happened that way, that hands-up stuff really should be taken as a protest of the well-documented treatment of black people by law enforcement everywhere, instead of being meant specifically to accuse Darren Wilson of being a murderer, as the union claimed, and not something meant to hurt the feelings of the St. Louis Country police.

    At the same time, I do think Scarborough is probably right about Michael Brown being a “thug”, given what we saw of him in that convenience store video — a fact that too many of us liberals seem to insist is beside the point. In fact, the thuggery is a large part of the problem. The thuggery does indeed exist, and if it didn’t, I’m willing to bet that the cops wouldn’t be led, rightly or wrongly, into believing so many people are thugs.

    In fact, a real “conversation of race” in America should not, as too many assume, just be a way of educating white people about the truth of what’s going on in this country, but something that both sides would learn from. That is to say, it would have to include not just questions of why these cops are so afraid of all those black thugs, but what it is that seems to turn such a high percentage of young black men into thugs, who scare so many people of all races. I think it’s a chicken-and-egg thing, with black men not trusting cops because cops don’t trust them, because they don’t trust cops, and so on. Maybe we all need to find out how to break out of this circle.

    And maybe something else an actual “conversation on race” would hopefully produce is a widely-held understanding that, when it comes to anti-black racism in this country, there’s probably a lot more of it than whites realize, and probably a lot less of it than blacks suspect.

    Proof of the former comes to me every time I hear a well-known African American relate a story of their having been racially-profiled (e.g., hearing all those car door locks click shut when they walk by; being stopped and frisked by cops for no apparent reason), while proof of the latter came to me in 2007, when so very few of my black friends even seriously considered backing Obama for president, all but calling me naive for believing that America would ever, in our lifetimes, elect a black president.


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