The “Doonesbury” comic strip by Garry Trudeau has rarely delivered laughs in recent years, but it often provides important perspective on the peculiar worldview of wealthy, Ivy League, establishment liberals.
In last Sunday’s installment, veteran character Mark Slackmeyer, a gay radio broadcaster for NPR, provides commentary regarding the purported failure of conservative comedians. One such up-tight right-winger is trying to do stand-up to amuse the faithful at some conservative convention (identified only as “Con Com”), beginning his set with the lame opening, “…So what’s up with wetbacks? Seriously?”
In the panels that follow, Slackmeyer wryly observes, “Hey, folks! Ever wonder why conservative comedy is so unfunny? …. Well, here’s the problem. The point of satire is to comfort the afflicted by afflicting the comfortable… Whereas the point of conservatism is the exact opposite!… Truth is, ridiculing the non-privileged isn’t particularly funny – it’s just mean!… The result? There’s virtually no good conservative comedy!… But, hey, don’t take my word for it….Hear for yourself!”
In the final panel, the bespectacled conservative comic embarrasses himself by saying, “So 20,000 illegals sneak into a bar….” while off-stage audience reaction registers as “Groan”, “Booo!” and “Hissss!”
Never mind the fact that Trudeau is flat-out wrong about the failure of conservative comedy: anyone who’s heard Dennis Miller handle a live crowd knows that he has few equals as a master of stand-up when he’s ripping liberalism to shreds, while Evan Sayet has put together a rising and significant career by poking fun, gentle and otherwise, at the fatuities of loony leftists. Moreover, the great Jay Leno aimed some of his funniest barbs at liberal icons, making Bill Clinton his favorite target and getting regular laughs at the expense of the Obama administration and its foibles. At the same time, P.J. O’Rourke is arguably the best-loved and most successful humorist in the country and a fierce advocate for his libertarian-conservative point of view, while Rush Limbaugh became the most influential political broadcaster in US history by virtue of his subversive, irresistible sense of humor, not through his bombast.
And Ronald Reagan?
Connoisseurs of presidential wit will tell you that no chief executive since Lincoln deployed humor more effectively or decisively than The Gipper. Even those who never shared Reagan’s point of view can smile while remembering his slightly exasperated “there he goes again!” put-down of Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate, or his peerless handling of the charge four years later that he had grown too old to serve. “I am not going make age an issue in this campaign,” he declared with a straight face. “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Reagan also authored the delectable line: “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
Do such gags illustrate Trudeau’s suggestion that “the point of conservatism” is “comforting the comfortable by afflicting the afflicted?” Actually, Reagan’s punch lines always evinced great sympathy for the afflicted, particularly those derided and disregarded honest strivers in the struggling middle class. The only ones afflicted by his humor as cited above would be powerful establishmentarians like Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. Do you still count as a victimized underdog when you’re president or vice president of the United States?
That’s the deeper problem with Trudeau’s strip and with the liberal worldview in general: the left insists that conservatives are all heartless billionaires who’ve never done an honest day’s work in their lives, and liberals are all part of the toiling, disfranchised masses, yearning for justice. In a beautifully written recollection of his own leftist upbringing (“My Father, Fiddler and the Left”; City Journal, Summer 2014) the brilliant Harry Stein writes about his playwright papa, Joe Stein, co-author of the phenomenally successful Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Complaining at one point about his father’s “abiding contempt for business and businessmen”, Stein jokingly observed, “’You make them sound like the little guy with the monocle and top hat in Monopoly.’” For once the old man didn’t smile back. “Exactly! That’s just who they are!’” he insisted.
Of course, this image of pampered, pompous plutocrats makes a juicy target for progressive parody but the truth is that the most privileged people on the planet today lean left at least as frequently as they lean right. George Soros, Warren Buffet, Tom Steyer, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and their cronies hardly count as part of the GOP base and the latest Rockefeller in public life was an ultra-liberal Senator from West Virginia. Anyone who agrees with Trudeau’s point of view that the only subject for conservative derision would have to be “the non-privileged” clearly doesn’t recall Hillary’s unintentionally hilarious statement that she was “dead broke” when exiting the White House. Does the former Secretary of State, who’s earned a reported $16 million since leaving public office in 2012, count as “non-privileged” simply because she’s female?
That’s the problem with liberal assumptions of their own martyrdom and perpetual victimization due to their courageous embrace of enlightened ideas. No matter how powerful or prominent they might become in politics, entertainment, academia or the arts, leftists always identify themselves as part of the downtrodden and the vulnerable. That’s why Joe Stein’s Broadway and Hollywood friends loved recalling and reliving the bad-old-days of McCarthyism, the blacklist and the Hollywood Ten. This nostalgia for bygone persecution allows some of the most significant talents in the entertainment industry to think of themselves as daring rebels, free-spirited bohemians, and part of the proletarian vanguard, even with their swimming pools and multiple Mercedes. They might be overlords in terms of power and wealth but their stubborn association with “risky ideas” enables them to cling, desperately, to their status as lifelong underdogs. Think of all the movies, Broadway productions and TV documentaries about leftist artists, scientists and entertainers who suffered for defendingStalin. Now, try to recall even one major production of the last fifty years that portrayed the millions of ordinary people who suffered (far more grievously) for defying Stalin.
It’s also worth remembering the wildly successful 1970’s comedy series “All-in-the-Family,” in which suave Hollywood liberal Norman Lear made ruthless fun of the bigoted, benighted, blue collar right-winger Archie Bunker. Following Trudeau’s distinction, who would count as more comfortable, Norman or Archie? And which one of this odd-couple pairing, creator or character, Lear or Bunker, could even conceivably describe himself as afflicted? In other words, one of the most celebrated icons of liberal comedy actually exemplifies precisely the mean-spirited condescension that Trudeau decries, with the well-off getting laughs by mocking the less fortunate.
But according to the logic of the liberal bubble in which my Yale classmate Garry Trudeau has always functioned, the down-trodden and abused can never count as conservative and the posh and privileged will always escape designation as upper crust so long as the hold fast to trendy liberalism. Through this distorted lens, it’s your political ideas and not your money or clout that fixes you in the American class structure: conservatives, no matter how limited their finances, will always qualify as part of the ruling class, and leftists, no matter how prominent or well-connected, will always represent a fearless cell of the revolutionary underground.
Garry T and his aging creation, “Megaphone Mark” Slackmeyer, both count as much too smart to believe that this topsy-turvy worldview applies to any recognizable or three dimensional reality. It is, very simply, a two-dimensional cartoon.
This column originally appeared at TruthRevolt.org on August 5, 2014.