Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Republicans Against Thought: The Satire-Proof Election

This is without a doubt the silliest election season I've ever seen. If satirists had it easy during the Bush years, and got a bonus with the vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin -- political figures who can be satirized merely by quoting them verbatim -- this election has turned out to be virtually satire-proof. There's no way to exaggerate Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Meg Whitman, Joe Miller, Rand Paul, or Carl Paladino. And their direct quotations aren't funny, just incoherent. These people are so far past the sanity threshold that they offer no good straight lines. They don't inspire jokes. They are jokes.

If only we could just sit back and laugh. Unfortunately, these awful jokes, and the army of bad jokes already serving in Congress, have the wind at their backs. And what is the policy basis of this resurgent Republican Party? Fiscal responsibility? I hardly think so. Nothing could be less fiscally responsible, at this dire moment, than cutting both taxes and spending -- which is what all of these demented teabaggers seem to advocate, when caught in a rare lucid moment. Their true platform, it seems to me, is anti-thought. 

That's how I read the boring tale of Juan Williams being fired from National Public Radio for anti-Muslim comments uttered on Fox News (Williams' other, and now only, employer). Frothing visibly at the mouths, Fox personalities took to the airwaves to denounce NPR, and now Republicans who are serving in (or running for) Congress are engaged in a ferocious campaign to relieve NPR of its federal funding, on the basis that NPR is an ideological, left-wing news source.

That argument, like most arguments in the right-wing handbook, relies on ignorance and misinformation. It can't fool anyone who actually listens to NPR, and thereby knows that it's plainly, vigorously neutral. It's annoyingly neutral, in my opinion; excellent though their news coverage may be, it suffers from the CNN problem of trying so hard to be fair that they pretend the right is a valid counterpoint to the left. (During the Bush years, NPR was excruciatingly slow to report on the falsified WMD claims, the prisoner abuse scandals, and other favorites; a lot of liberals, including me, grew fairly disgusted with NPR during this period.)

Of course, the far right also thinks that CNN and the New York Times are organs of Communist propaganda, so there's no reason to expect their opinions of NPR to be any more grounded in reality. But the high level of vitriol against NPR suggests that they've been dying to attack the network. Why do they hate it so much? NPR isn't particularly liberal -- but it is particularly smart. In a media climate increasingly dumbed down to nothing, NPR, like PBS, has been an oasis of serious and thought-provoking content. NPR programming, in addition to its other virtues, is simply much better written than almost anything of its kind on radio or television. And that's what I think the far right really hates and fears: Complex ideas. Big words. Intelligence.

Intelligence -- the ability to think critically and analytically -- the ability to actively seek information that isn't being screamed in your face -- is a great threat to the Republican Party. (It's certainly a greater threat than the Democratic Party.) This is why the Republicans had to get their own cable channel, dedicated specifically to fighting against these things. It's why Christine O'Donnell's last debate with Chris Coons was such a disturbing spectacle. O'Donnell's cheerful ignorance, it turns out, runs even deeper than Sarah Palin's. When Palin is asked a question that's too complicated for her (such as "What do you like to read?"), at least she gets squirmy and uncomfortable and tries to change the subject. O'Donnell, though far more personable than Palin, stumbled her way through that First Amendment debate clearly believing that she had the upper hand. Her apologists are probably right when they say that O'Donnell thought they were discussing the exact phrase "separation of church and state," rather than the concept. But if that is the case, it actually makes her look even worse. It means O'Donnell is under the impression that words cannot convey a concept without including the exact phrase in question. Not knowing what's in the First Amendment might be ignorant. But thinking that when someone says, "The separation of church and state is in the First Amendment," they're talking about the phrase -- that's just stupid.

On the right, nothing is seen as a more important qualifier for office than not knowing a thing about the job. I'm not a witch -- I'm you! I'm not a creature of Washington! Hell, I've never even heard of Washington! Do they oppose the teaching of evolution because it conflicts with religious mythology, or do they oppose it simply because it's a scientific principle that smart people find interesting? Conservatives have made clear that if you're not like them, you're with "the terrorists." Therefore, intelligent people must be terrorists. In one memorable commentary on the firing of Juan Williams, a Fox News commentator asked, "Is NPR an agent, somehow, of a Jihadist inquisition?"

What's a satirist to do?


Monday, October 11, 2010

Paladino art

Happy Syphilis Day

Today is Syphilis Day (formerly known as Columbus Day), and you know what that means -- there's no better time to revisit New Faces of 1492, our short film about the "discovery" of the "New World."


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Religion = Cigarettes

I've finally figured it out: Religion is like cigarettes.

Religion, like smoking cigarettes, is obviously foolish and harmful, and any reasonably perceptive person who's willing to be honest about it can see that. But religion, like cigarettes, makes the terrible truths of human existence a little bit easier to cope with, and for that luxury, a great many of us are willing to accept -- or, more accurately, to ignore -- just about anything. 

Very few of us really think that God is looking over us, or that the universe is receptive to prayer, or that we'll be reunited with our departed loved ones in Heaven. But believing these things keeps some people going, and allows them to push aside the cruel realities of life and death. Everyone knows that smoking is a dangerous habit which all but guarantees sickness and premature death, but it's such a pleasure, and it so effectively sweetens our workaday lives, that some of us ignore what we know to be true and lean on cigarettes, ironically, for survival.

One who claims to have magically embraced "the good things about religion" without falling prey to "the bad things" is just like the light smoker who has only a few a day and thinks this is not a harmful activity. The truth is that for many of us, it's impossible to have just a few cigarettes -- just as, if you really examine it, it's impossible to believe in God without sacrificing self-determination and rational thought. One puff of tobacco changes your heart rate, poisons your lungs, and compromises your ability to breathe. One puff of faith changes your relationship with the truth and compromises your ability to think clearly.

But cigarettes and religion are fiercely addictive, and they're tough habits to break. They work their way into every aspect of the addict's existence, and they do this so thoroughly that it quickly becomes impossible to imagine life without them. A smoker doesn't just want a cigarette upon awakening, or after a meal, or, what the hell, any time of the day or night; this becomes a need, and after quitting, nothing seems fun anymore. There's no point in having a cup of coffee if you can't also have a cigarette; there's no point in going for a walk if you can't smoke. In exactly the same way, religious people can't conceive of their lives and their routines without their God addiction. Where would be the joy? What would be the point?

But humans are resourceful and resilient animals, and it does get easier. The first day without a cigarette is a horrific nightmare. The second is a little easier. After a few weeks, you realize what a terrible thing you were doing to yourself, and you turn a corner: Now you truly don't want to smoke, and you wonder why you kept at it for so long, given the risks. Religion is the same way. It can't be easy to face, for the first time, the reality of a godless universe, the fraudulent mythology of so-called holy books, and the fact that life is not inherently meaningful unless we invest it with meaning ourselves. But once the bad habit of blind faith is broken, perhaps the ex-believer will discover that the absence of God is actually a wonderful thing, that faith is the opposite of freedom, and that if the only meaning of life is the meaning we create, we'd better get to work on that right away.

If we can quit smoking, we can quit religion too. Do for your mental health what you'd do for your physical health. You can do it -- I believe in you.