Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.
I read with profound weariness a piece in Salon by Michael Lind entitled Hey, liberals: Time to give the Beck bashing a rest. Lind is apparently under the impression that (a) Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews engage in “constant mockery” of bloviating right-wing demagogues such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Glenn Beck, and that (b) this would somehow be a bad thing, because it is likely to backfire on “liberals.”
He could not be more wrong.
First, Lind’s charge of “constant mockery” is patently ridiculous. Rachel Maddow has committed some of the most astounding acts of journalism on a major cable network that a U.S. primetime audience could possibly hope to see. Maddow regularly does long, in-depth interviews over multiple segments for which she is extremely well-prepared, enough to swat away any bullshit a guest might dare to fling at her. Even Tweety has his moments. Lind’s implication that anyone on MSNBC fills all or even most of their airtime snickering over the jaw-droppingly stupid and inane bullshit that right-wing politicians and pundits say every day is simply absurd. I just cannot fathom how anyone – much less someone with a platform on Salon – could possibly be unaware that one can report on our devastated economy, or revolution in the Middle East, and also mock morons.
But putting this accusation of “constant mockery” aside, Lind’s larger point is that such snickering is counterproductive, and a waste of “precious center-left media time.” He goes into his reasons in some detail, but upon even cursory examination all of them fail to convince.
“It makes other far-right Republican conservatives look moderate.” I don’t believe this is true, and Lind provides no evidence of it. Say a wingnut makes a fool of him- or herself while pontificating on a particular issue. When the same issue comes up again in another context, isn’t one likely to associate it with the earlier foolishness? And wouldn’t this be especially true if, when it came up the last time, one had enjoyed a really good laugh at the exact same nonsense? But okay, I’ll grant for the sake of discussion that by laughing at egregious examples of wingnut stupidity, we somehow make others who hold exactly those views seem more reasonable by comparison.
Lind points out, correctly, that run-of-the-mill, right-wing politicians routinely spout ideas that are equally as batshit insane as anything Glenn Beck has ever spewed. But, his argument goes, because they project more “statesmanlike gravitas” than those ignorant loonies over whom we all snigger, they receive more respectful treatment and thus appear more moderate by contrast. This is – excuse me – a huge load of crap. Even if it it is true that the more “statesmanlike” wingnuts enjoy more respect than their uncouth counterparts, and as a result their equally crazy positions are mainstreamed and legitimized, it simply does not follow that the solution is to stop mocking the Christine O’Donnells of the world. If anything, what we need is far more mockery, relentlessly and consistently deployed in the general direction of anyone who says that the separation of church and state is unconstitutional, or that global warming is a hoax, or that the Earth is 10,000 years old, or that eliminating Social Security is a grand idea. We should always attack stupid ideas, regardless of how nice a suit the proponent is wearing at a press conference.
Mock. Point. Laugh. State facts. Satirize. Call a lie, a lie. Mock again. Laugh again. Point to facts again. Repeat. Repeat again. Repeat yet again, until everyone thinks twice before ever uttering anything so destructive, ignorant and idiotic in public.
How more people skewering right-wing falsehoods would not lead to a better world escapes me.
“It makes liberals look like snobs.” Lind explains that whenever liberal pundits bash right-wing stupidity, it only confirms in the minds of wingnuts – who already hate all those smarty-pants in-tee-lekshuls – that liberals are looking down on them.
Since the ’60s, conservatives have managed to recruit populist voters by claiming that the intellectual elites look down their noses at them. By theatrically sneering at less-educated politicians and media loudmouths, progressive pundits seem to prove that the left consists only of snobbish members of the college-educated professional class making fun of the errors of people who did not attend prestigious schools.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t see a problem here. Right-wing conservatives live in an insular world where there exists nothing but confirmation that liberals are elitist snobs. To even attempt to convince them otherwise would be a complete waste of time. Perhaps Michael Lind is under the mistaken impression that an extreme right-wing mind can ever be changed in the slightest? Or that such people are actually the intended targets of the mockers pointing out their “errors”? Because this is not the case at all.
Directly calling out the sheer ignorance and bone-headed stupidity of politicians and pundits is critically necessary to a functioning democracy. But the reason this is so isn’t because ignorant, arrogant boneheads and their followers will suddenly become informed and enlightened, renounce their erroneous and backward views, and sincerely apologize to the American people for all of the pointless suffering they have caused throughout their careers. (As if.) Calling out sheer ignorance and bone-headed stupidity is vitally important so that everyone else knows that there are other people who think these are really stupid and terrible ideas. Because maybe, upon hearing of this, many people might consider the possibility that these are, in fact, really stupid and terrible ideas – instead of thinking wow, it sure is true that the left consists only of snobbish members of the college-educated professional class who attended prestigious schools.
“It’s a reactive strategy that gives the initiative to the right.” I’ll admit this point has a good deal of superficial appeal. Whenever your enemy defines the playing field, you are certainly at a disadvantage. But Lind himself reveals the fatal defect in his assertion:
When progressive opinion leaders wait for conservatives to say something stupid and then pounce on it, they cede the choice of topics in national debate to their enemies.
Progressive opinion leaders are not sitting around in silence, waiting for conservatives to say something stupid just so they can react to it. (Of course they will never have to wait very long if they are.) They cover many, many other topics of interest every day. What Lind suggests with this line of reasoning is that there exists an either/or binary, wherein it is not possible to set the topics of debate and mock truly bad ideas. In fact, sometimes both of these things intersect, and can be employed simultaneously to great effect, as when a conservative says something incredibly stupid and/or demonstrably untrue about a topic high on the liberal agenda. Letting such a golden opportunity slip by would be nothing short of political malpractice.
“It’s a waste of effort and attention.” Not to be trite, but you know what? Citation needed. Lind says:
We are mired down in two wars in the Muslim world and suffering from the greatest global economic crisis since the Great Depression.
At the risk of stating the obvious, those disastrous wars and the U.S.-instigated global economic meltdown are due in very large part to the stupid and terrible ideas of right-wing conservatives blaring from every major media outlet, from CBS News to the Wall Street Journal, for years, effectively suffocating and drowning out all adversarial points of view. Mockery may not have averted these epic disasters, but a little more of it could certainly have helped mitigate their disastrous effects by raising the profile of the opposition. Whenever George Bush said something breathtakingly stupid and John Stewart or The Colbert Report ripped it to shreds, they did this nation an enormous favor. It really shouldn’t have to be pointed out that anything that galvanized people against the stupidity and astonishing incompetence of the Bush-Cheney wingnut circus was a good thing (even if Obama didn’t ultimately deliver).
Even if Lind were right about any of these things, there is a far greater danger in ignoring or dismissing the deranged rantings of prominent right-wing conservatives. We do so at our grave peril. Left alone to fester and spread with nothing to forcefully counter them, the destructive dogmas of the fringe right-wing ooze into mainstream political discourse, and calcify there. That is what legitimizes those ideas, and makes them seem moderate. With a mass media more concerned with appearing “fair and balanced” than debunking pernicious falsehoods, we need more, not fewer people willing to pick up the torch and chase bad ideas back into the shadows, where they belong.
Lind does makes an excellent point about many Americans, in the absence of alternatives, being drawn to “village explainers” like Ross Perot with his charts and Glenn Beck with his blackboard diagrams, which liberals mocked. (Although I would suggest it is not the charts or blackboards being mocked per se, but the bizarre ideas expressed on them.) “The center-left needs its own village explainers,” he says, “with their own charts and their own blackboards.” While I agree that we could certainly use a lot more of them, there are plenty of high-profile liberals like Paul Krugman who have made careers out of explaining difficult concepts like Keynesian economics in terms that even I can understand. And at any rate this is a red herring, because no one is claiming we don’t need more “village explainers.” What I am claiming is that satire, mockery, and ridicule must also be part of the liberal arsenal.
I mentioned the absurdity of Lind’s “constant mockery” accusation, but I want to make one more point in this regard. It’s rather well-known fact that the right has a goddamn pantheon of full-time Mockers of Liberals. Limbaugh and Coulter, for instance, are but two who have made spectacularly lucrative careers out of this, and this is possible precisely because it works. To pretend that liberals are or should be above this tactic is not only dangerous, it renders our opponents wielding an effective weapon, one that we refuse to deploy against them, even in self-defense. Doing so also forfeits a powerful strategic advantage. Modern conservatism (if that is not an oxymoron) is defined by nothing so much as “anti-liberal.” Not anti-liberalism, either. As our good friends the taxpayer-funded-scooter-riding teabaggers can attest, right-wing conservatives very much want to keep
the government’s hands off their Medicare. And we all know that when in power, right-wing conservatives abandon nearly every single one of those values we are told are so sacrosanct, like fiscal restraint, reverence for the Constitution, States Rights, opposition to divorce, an aversion to so-called judicial activism, etc. Their behavior belies any belief in their so-called principles. No, right-wing conservatives are united by one thing, far more than anything else: they are anti-liberal, in the sense that “latte-sipping,” “Prius-driving,” and even “vegetable-eating” (?!) are epithets meant to express visceral disgust and contempt at those depraved, treasonous liberals who are illegitimately running their country. (Yes, I know. I wish.) Childishly taunting those dirty hippy feminazi queer-loving manginas is a powerful tribal reinforcement for Real Americans (who, I gather, all drink shitty coffee, drive gas-sucking SUVs, and subsist entirely on whatever the hell it is that Taco Bell is passing off as “meat”). It is unwise in the extreme to forego any opportunity to likewise reinforce in those with genuine liberal instincts a similar “anti-conservative” sentiment.
After all, what is the worst that could happen by whipping up snickering leftism to a fever pitch in the U.S. population? Single-payer universal healthcare? Defense spending halved? Lower teen pregnancy rates? Stable Social Security? Legalized pot? Higher tax rates for the obscenely rich? Clean energy?