Pharyngula

In Defense of Mockery

In Defense of Mockery
by Iris Vander Pluym

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.