In defense of mockery.

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.
Thomas Jefferson

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?

The horror.

21 thoughts on “In defense of mockery.

  1. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Cogent and wise and perceptive and well-constructed and . . . it gives me courage to continue what I am doing in a small way — countering stupid tropes from the right/Randian/nutcase fringes. The things we mock/criticize/deconstruct have enormous power to degrade the community of knowledge and to degrade common values: truth, reason, understanding.

    Thank you. You are on my must read list now!

  2. Wow. I read this at Pharyngula, and you have captured in a great post what I have been trying to say to people.

    The reason that we are in such a mess in this country is because the big tool that the Radical Right has been using has been mockery, and they do this because they have pretty much voided themselves of any serious intellectual contributions.

    Mockery is a tool that works. Mockery backed by intellectual heft works better.

    Think of how much different this country would be if John Kerry hadn’t been “above the fray” and mocked the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

  3. Best piece I’ve seen on the topic in, well, EVER!

    I too was directed here through Pharyngula, and just posted a DKos diary linking you. This needs to be shouted from the highest mountain. Thank you for this, and by the way I’ve now been compelled to read the rest of your blog, and IMHO it’s good stuff…… now bookmarked in my browser :)

  4. Thanks for coming by, Pharynguloid Phriends. I started this blog not long ago, and PZ (and his commentariat) was a big inspiration. I hope that you’ll stick around, and that I will not disappoint.
    Tentacles,
    -Iris

  5. Hello. I got here via Pharyngula.

    “We should always attack stupid ideas, regardless of how nice a suit the proponent is wearing at a press conference.”

    I agree. Instead of only talking about the people who blatantly yell and use offensive language (e.g. Beck, Fred Phelps) it’s important to also criticize and mock those whose ideas are equally absurd, but who state them in a different tone of voice.

  6. Thanks for this piece. It was the most enjoyable read I have had so far today. I too am here via PZ’s place, and I have now bookmarked this blog for regural reading.
    I’m off to read some of your earlier posts.
    Again, thank you for your wiriting.

  7. I would love to write a piece, based on this, about the analogy with what you say here concerning politics and what PZ and the gnu atheists say (and live by example) about mockery of the religious zealots.

    Good essay, and I’m glad PZ gave you a forum so I could learn about you!

    Brad

  8. Great post! I, too, found it at Pharyngula, but I rarely comment there, so I thought I’d just note how much I liked it here.

    I’m likely to link to it on my own blog, too, but – heh, heh – I wouldn’t expect any traffic from there. :)

  9. Brought here through PZ’s posting of your brilliant essay (blog post doesn’t do it justice). And I’m adding myself to your ‘tens of readers,’ By the end of the day it could be dozens. Should be thousands.

  10. What a wonderful crappy defense of typical leftist douchbaggery.

    Wait, did you mean wonderful, or crappy? Or wonderfully crappy? Good thing I take everything as a compliment, otherwise your incoherence might have kept me up all night, ruminating over what Eric Atkinson thinks of me.

    Keep on licking Myers Marxist ass.

    Oh, no, Eric. This is not me licking Myers [sic] ass. But I’m very busy right now working on my shrine to PZ, and I plan to post a picture of it tomorrow. That will be me licking Myers’ ass. Wait until you see it – you will absolutely love it!

    Its what you do best.

    And you know what I do best how, exactly? ‘Cuz I don’t think ya do! Have you checked out my recipes? I have a regular cooking feature here, and I have to say – I don’t like to toot my own horn, but… – my Red Velvet Cake is freaking awesome. Now that just might be the best thing I do – well, that doesn’t involve my SO. ; )

    Goodnight, cupcake.

  11. The problem with the mockery is that you mock personalities rather than ideas. Also the mockery is often a cheap shot or snark, so it only works if you’re preaching to the choir.

    BTW, Maddow is frequently wrong. See the recent hoopla about Sarah Palin’s alleged quote about deportation. See also:
    http://bigjournalism.com/fross/2010/06/17/on-the-other-hand-when-rachel-maddow-is-wrong/
    http://politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2011/feb/18/rachel-maddow/rachel-maddow-says-wisconsin-track-have-budget-sur/
    http://www.mediaite.com/tv/fox-news-maddow-is-wrong-christine-odonnell-is-not-guest-hosting-fox-friends/
    http://www.newsbusters.org/blogs/jack-coleman/2010/10/19/rachel-maddow-most-shameless-claims-gop-congressman-received-advance-n

    I also don’t understand many of your complaints about the right. Conservatives show more fiscal restraint than the Dems, just look at Obama’s deficit, so even if Bush spent more than he should have he’s still a lot better than Obama. As for states rights, conservatives generally try to reduce federal power. Bush’s allowing Kennedy to write the No Child Left Behind Act was a mistake, but it would have been worse had the Left been in power. As for judicial activism, not sure what you were getting at with Bush v. Gore.

    And then you say: “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?”

    Single payer universal healthcare — oh please, look at what’s happening in England. Defense spending halved– are you kidding? There are threats out there. They don’t go away because you lower defense spending Lower teen pregnancy rates–conservatives are in favor of that too. Stable Social Security–conservatives are in favor of that also. Legalized pot–okay, now I know where the left is coming from. Higher tax rates for the obscenely rich–the left wants higher tax rates for the obscenely middle class as well. Clean energy–you mean like nuclear power? The left won’t let any new nuke plants get built.

  12. @AYY: No, Iris mocked the ideas as well as the personalities; since they’re both equally laughable, it’s darned difficult to separate them.

    Thanks, by the way, for providing those links to such stalwarts of unbiased journalism as NewsBusters (motto: “Exposing & Combating Liberal Media Bias”) and Breitbart’s Big Journalism (motto: “I’m a bitter, misanthropic dumbass”). Mind if I pass? Bottom line: the Radical Right *hates* Maddow because a) she’s gay, b) she has more intelligence than the entire GOP combined, c) she’s gay, d) she talks lucidly, logically, and eloquently, yet politely, and e) she’s gay. But that’s okay; keep hatin’, haters!

    The bottom line is that cons, newly emboldened by their sudden “power”, are waging all-out assaults on unions, public employees, women’s rights, immigrants, the environment, health care, voting rights, food safety, pensions, prenatal care, science, public broadcasting and so on and so forth. That’s an undeniable fact. It’s also an undeniable fact that at the same time, they are licking the boots and kissing the asses of the obscenely rich, the religio-lunatic fringe, the growing corporatocracy, and the warmongers. And if that, my friend, isn’t worth of scorn, derision, and mockery, I don’t know what is.

  13. AYY:

    The problem with the mockery is that you mock personalities rather than ideas.

    That may be your problem with mockery, but it isn’t mine. (And of course you can’t seriously be suggesting the right doesn’t have that “problem” with mockery.) But just to prove you’re wrong, see below where I mock your ideas.

    Also the mockery is often a cheap shot or snark, so it only works if you’re preaching to the choir.

    Citation needed. As I pointed out in the post you failed to comprehend, the point of mockery is so that everyone else (i.e., not the wingnut, or “the choir”) knows that there are people who think these are really stupid and terrible ideas, and who might themselves consider the possibility that these are, in fact, really stupid and terrible ideas. Also, even if you were right, so what?

    BTW, Maddow is frequently wrong.

    All humans are frequently wrong. Some more frequently than others…

    I also don’t understand many of your complaints about the right.

    I kind of guessed.

    Conservatives show more fiscal restraint than the Dems, just look at Obama’s deficit, so even if Bush spent more than he should have he’s still a lot better than Obama.

    That’s so wrong, it’s not even wrong. See, you don’t get to call it “Obama’s deficit” when it was caused directly by the policies of the previous administration – you know, the one that inherited zero deficit. The right cut taxes and went to war. That’s just stupid, at least if you care about the deficit as you claim. In addition, deficits can and should be incurred by the government to spur the economy: it’s the only entity in a position to do so, and the only way back to growth. Obama’s stimulus was far too small, but with the right empowered (in both parties), probably all he could get.

    As for states rights, conservatives generally try to reduce federal power.

    LOL. Only when it suits them.

    Bush’s allowing Kennedy to write the No Child Left Behind Act was a mistake, but it would have been worse had the Left been in power.

    Citation needed. Bush allowing the Executive Branch to be politicized and infiltrated by a bunch of right-wing kooks, from the Justice Department to the regulatory agencies, was a mistake. A lot of mistakes, actually.

    As for judicial activism, not sure what you were getting at with Bush v. Gore.

    Hello? States rights? The right screams “judicial activism” when there’s a decision they don’t like, no matter how principled. Then they proceed to engage in… wait for it…judicial activism to get the outcomes they desire.

    Single payer universal healthcare — oh please, look at what’s happening in England.

    You mean as a result of the world economy cratering because of the anti-regulatory fervor of the right in the U.S.? We spend way more per capita on health care than the U.K. does, yet we have far worse health outcomes by nearly every measure. If the right were serious about the debt and the deficit they would embrace single payer: it costs less and works better. Those are just facts. That’s another reason we all know the right’s not serious about their claimed “principles.”

    Defense spending halved– are you kidding? There are threats out there. They don’t go away because you lower defense spending

    We spend on “defense” – which now apparently means “aggressive wars” – nearly as much as the rest of the world combined. Our policies create more terrorists than they could ever hope to kill. Despite the military budget, to say nothing of the Dept. of Homeland Security’s, you do know what stopped the two most recent attempts in the U.S., right? Civilians. In Times Square, and on a plane. The idea that we can war our way out of the terrorist threat while supporting corrupt governments in the Middle East perfectly embodies the deranged and destructive thinking of Conservative Personality Disorder.

    Lower teen pregnancy rates–conservatives are in favor of that too.

    No, they are manifestly not. They cut funding for Planned Parenthood, which , you know, prevents pregnancies, while directing funds toward the abject failure that is “abstinence only” sex education.

    Stable Social Security–conservatives are in favor of that also.

    What world do you live in? Seriously, I am asking. Because it’s not exactly a secret that the right has been attempting to defund, dismantle and demolish Social Security for decades.

    Legalized pot–okay, now I know where the left is coming from.

    Good to have you as an ally. Because with respect to pot, the War on Drugs is as pointless and counterproductive as the War on Terror. Costs a bloody fortune, too.

    Higher tax rates for the obscenely rich–the left wants higher tax rates for the obscenely middle class as well.

    I trust you’re not talking about raising the cap on Social Security wages, because that would be in direct contradiction to your previous statement that conservatives care about stable Social Security. The problem isn’t the taxing, it’s the sheer enormity of the counterproductive stupidity those taxes are spent on.

    Clean energy–you mean like nuclear power?

    No. I don’t consider nuclear power clean. I could change my mind, though, if you, with the staggering brilliance you have shown here, have a heretofore unheard of solution to the problem of nuclear waste, which is about the dirtiest thing I can think of (that does not involve my SO).

    The left won’t let any new nuke plants get built.

    Good. Maybe we’re not as powerless we think.

  14. Pingback: Suggested Signage for GOP Hearings on Climate Change | Notes from The Pondonome

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