July 20, 2003


Why Liberals Are No Fun (Frank Rich, July 20, 2003, NY Times)
How can Democrats be so ineffectual in the media in which they would seem to have a home-court cultural advantage? The talk-show playing field is littered with liberal casualties: Mario Cuomo, Alan Dershowitz, Phil Donahue. Why waste money on more broadcasting flops? The conventional wisdom has it that liberals will never make it in this arena because they are humorless, their positions are too complicated to explain, and some powerful media companies (whether Mr. Murdoch's News Corporation or the radio giant Clear Channel) want to put up roadblocks.

Others argue that liberals are so down and out that they don't even know what they believe any more. "The reason conservative media outlets work is that they have a mass audience united by a discrete ideology," says Tucker Carlson, who affably represents the right on CNN's "Crossfire" and is one of those I've queried about this topic in recent months. "They believe in nine things. They all know the catechism." In Mr. Carlson's view, Democrats are all over the ideological map in the post-Clinton era, and there can be no effective media without a coherent message.

But the case against liberal talk success isn't a slam-dunk. After all, conservatives have their talk-show fiascos too, as evidenced by MSNBC, the lame would-be Fox clone that, as the comedian Jon Stewart has said, doesn't "deserve all those letters" in its name. MSNBC's just-canceled right-wing star, Michael Savage, drew smaller audiences on the channel than Mr. Donahue did. What's more, there actually are liberals who retain a sense of humor (witness Mr. Franken, Mr. Stewart and Michael Moore), while conservative stars are not infrequently humor-free (witness Mr. O'Reilly).

Norman Lear goes so far as to argue that liberals are intrinsically funnier than conservatives. "Most comedy comes from those who see humor in the human condition," he says. "Most who traffic in the stuff could be called humanists. The far-right talk hosts spew a kind of venom and ridicule that passes for funnybone material with the program executives that hire them."

If humor doesn't bring liberals talk-show success, is the problem that they lack rage?

Mr. Lear., not surprisingly, has that completely bassackwards. In fact, as we've frequently argued here:
Despite the public perception of conservatives as prissy schoolmarms and bible-thumping Puritans, nothing more clearly distinguishes the Right from the Left than the latter's complete humorlessness. It's oft been noted--perhaps too often by me--that to a liberal life is a tragedy, to a conservative it's a comedy. There are several causes of this. The most important is that conservatives hold to the Judeo-Christian worldview of Man as Fallen. We believe that Man is sinful by his nature and that this capacity for evil precludes the possibility of ever perfecting the species or society. Liberals (like Libertarians) are utopians. They believe that Man is naturally good but that he has been corrupted by money and the artificial stratification of society that accompanies it. They believe in the possibility of perfecting the species once again and of perfecting society. Thus, the two politics, of Left and Right, diverge even at their conception of human nature and of the purpose of life.

Now humor is a difficult thing to define, but one would hope we could all agree that it by and large consists of our taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Comedy occurs, always, at someone's expense. This is difficult enough for liberals, with their more tender hearts to accept--with their greater empathy they are naturally more deeply affected by the pain of others. But even worse, even as the fact that the bad things happen serves as a challenge to their utopianism, the fact that we all enjoy it when these bad things happen to others serves as challenges to their benevolent view of our nature. If we were truly "good" would we take such pleasure in observing the sado-masochism of the Three Stooges?

On the other hand, for a conservative these things serve merely serve as a confirmation of our dismal view of Man and of life. Pop in a Porky's movie and then try to tell us that mankind is perfectible. Heck, try to tell us that God wouldn't be justified in scrapping the whole mess and starting over.

And so, all great comedy is fundamentally conservative. There simply is no such thing as liberal humor.

Although, in a month when the Left has begun routinely referring to the Bush administration as crypto-fascist, we do give Mr. Rich kudos for this hilarious question about liberals: "is the problem that they lack rage?" Posted by Orrin Judd at July 20, 2003 6:21 AM
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