August 31, 2002

THE BROTHERS JUDD LIBERAL HUMOR CHALLENGE :

This was the week that, for some reason, everyone finally realized that the Left is humorless :
Bubble Wrap: The Nation vs. The Weekly Standard (John Powers, LA Weekly)
AS FAR BACK AS I CAN REMEMBER THE NATION HAS been the journalistic lodestar of the American left. Now, in its 137th year, the magazine is on a commercial roll. Its subscriptions have risen steadily in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. Its finances may actually break even (a miracle in the world of political magazines). And its publishing adjunct, Nation Books, is raking in money from two hot titles: Gore Vidal's Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Forbidden Truth by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume DasquiÈ. Indeed, everything's going so well that I feel kind of churlish in pointing out what most on the left are unwilling to say: The Nation is a profoundly dreary magazine.

Just compare it to another thin, ideologically driven rag, The Weekly Standard, a right-wing publication currently approaching its measly seventh anniversary. A few months ago, I began putting new issues of each side by side on an end table and, to my surprise, discovered that while unread copies of The Nation invariably rose in guilt-inducing stacks, I always read The Weekly Standard right away. Why? Because seen purely as a magazine, The Standard is incomparably more alluring. As gray and unappetizing as homework, The Nation makes you approach it in the same spirit that Democrats might vote for Gray Davis -- where else can you go? In contrast, The Standard woos you by saying, "We're having big fun over here on the right."

And in some undeniable sense that's true. Back in the '60s, the left was the home of humor, iconoclasm, pleasure. But over the last two decades, the joy has gone out of the left -- it now feels hedged in by shibboleths and defeatism -- while the right has been having a gas, be it Lee Atwater grooving to the blues, Rush Limbaugh chortling about Feminazis or grimly gleeful Ann Coulter serving up bile as if it were chocolate mousse, even dubbing Katie Couric "the affable Eva Braun of morning television." (Get your political allegiances straight, babe. Katie's the Madame Mao of morning television. You're Eva Braun.)


Right-Wing Envy : Do you have it? (Jack Shafer, August 29, 2002, Slate)
While the right seeks converts, trying both to persuade and entertain, the left spends its journalistic energy policing the movement. Imagine The Nation running a weekly column about nothing, called "Casual," as the Standard does. Also, conservative journalists are more likely to allow readers to enjoy a magazine article without strong-arming them into signing the ideology oath that seems to come packed with most lefty journalism. For instance, when the Standard's David Brooks profiled "Patio Man," the acquisitive consumer who haunts Home Depot looking for things to buy, he both laughed at its subject and exalted him without fear of contradiction.

Of course, lefty journalism needn't turn right to improve itself. But Powers hints that the source of The Nation's illness is the Stalinist impulse to prescribe proper attitudes toward culture, art, and journalism. A Nation writer who, say, wants to use humor or wit to make his point mustn't abuse gays, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, Ralph Nader, foreigners, women, the infirm, working stiffs, Indians, Mohammed (but Jesus is fair game), whales, or any cultural stereotype. This leaves him just one angle from which to compose his point: Stupid White Men. Such is the state of left journalism that Michael Moore has made a career out of painting and repainting this mono-mural.

How the anything-goes drug-and-sex party that the cultural left threw in the '60s segued into an Amish wake featuring stern readings from the joyless work of Barbara Ehrenreich, the scoldings of Todd Gitlin, and the catechisms of Richard Goldstein is anybody's guess. Would Emma Goldman dance with these folks? Or would she make a beeline for the house on the right, which looks like a brothel in comparison to the one on the left? I await the Powers sequel.


Who's more miserable - the far right or the far left? (James Lileks, Rants)
The former is likely to wash its hands of the modern world, lament how things have gone to hell since the Brits stopped shoving civilization down the ululating maws of Wogland, and announce that you're all welcome to your polyglot mishmash - I'll be over here getting smashed on port and reading Patrick O'Brien novels. But at least they seem dedicated to enjoying life on their own terms; if they're cultural conservatives, they retire to their version of Heston's apartment in "The Omega Man," surrounded by the remnants of Western glory, keeping to themselves, and venting their spleen now and then by burping off a few rounds at the moaning zombies outside in the darkened park.

The hard left, on the other hand, demonstrates all the symptoms of anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure - there's a rancid bitterness, a pissy miserablism that makes you feel very, very sorry for them.


All of them are, of course, correct, but Mr. Powers and Mr. Shafer and several of the folks who have commented on these stories make one major mistake in their analysis: because they are Leftists themselves or in some of the commentators cases reformed Leftists, they are forced to assume that this represents a change of some kind. Typically they harken back to the 60s when the Left was "fun". Mr. Shafer for instance refers approvingly, and apparently with a straight face, to the "anything-goes drug-and-sex party that the cultural left threw in the '60s". Surely at this late date there's no one left who really thinks that was fun, is there? You'd have thought the Clinton Presidency, where we got to see what the children of the 60s had turned into, or the Robin Wright character in Forrest Gump would have put the final nail in that coffin. It's entirely typical of the time that the genuinely humorous art it produced all makes fun of the Left's pretensions and heaps scorn upon the "party". One thinks in particular of Tom Wolfe, who in essays like Radical Chic made it clear that hat was fun about the 60s parties was not to be at one but to contemplate the participants. Even Hunter S. Thompson, who we still tend to think of as a defender of the 60s party, apparently understood even at the time that the joke was on him and the rest of the partiers. At the end of his book Hell's Angels, after a several hundred page paean to the care free biker gang spirit, those same bikers beat the living hell out of him. The whole text is revealed to have been an elaborate joke at his own expense. And that is the proper point to take away from the 60s: the partiers were not the perpetrators but the butt of all the truly amusing jokes.
Posted by Orrin Judd at August 31, 2002 9:00 AM
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