Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Joke's On Us

I thought I had seen it all, and heard it all, about why Republicans took Tuesday' election. I had not. It turns out that Republicans won because we liberals MAKE FUN of conservative values. As a liberal, it is therefore my duty to set the record straight. Let’s begin with a little background.

Last night I tuned in to ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’. For those of you who do not know, Bill Maher is a comedian. While he is a liberal on some issues, he swears he is not a Democrat; it just looks that way because, on Fridays, he trumps President Bush. Until 2002, he hosted a show called Politically Incorrect. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he made an undeniably controversial remark about the hijackers and U.S. military policy. One of the panelists had called the hijackers cowards, to which he replied something like "Excuse me, but I do not think you can call people who flew themselves into a building cowards. The people who shoot missiles from a thousand miles away are the cowards.” (He was referring to the fact that the U.S. has the ability to strike targets using long range missiles.) That controversy eventually led to his discharge by ABC, who lost advertising due to Maher’s remark and feared further backlash.

Now, to the present. For the last couple of years Maher has had a show on HBO, called ‘Real Time’. Last night, the show opened with an interview with Alan Simpson, a Republican senator from Wyoming. I have not yet found a transcript of the show, so I have to trust my recollection of the dialogue. Maher first congratulated the senator on Tuesday’s results, then asked him the following question: “What is it that Democrats don't get about the red states?” (or something like it.) Here's where things started getting absurd, and a little frightening. The senator's reply was that Democrats lost the election—I kid you not—because they mock conservative values. As long as they keep doing that, he continued, they will never win an election again. The Senator recommended that, instead of making fun of people, Maher should lampoon ideas, which Maher readily countered with "sometimes ideas are the people, Senator.” From that point on the exchange got ugly, until the stunned host, after making a half-hearted attempt at patching things up, finally bid farewell to his guest.

Maher, who looked understandably rattled, was still doing his best to compose himself when he was attacked by another guest, Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan, a well-known and controversial blogger, basically reprised Simpson's line of reasoning, to which he added his own accusation: that Maher was wrong in saying that there is no place for religion in political discourse. (Maher had actually said that reason should prevail over faith.) Sullivan said that as long as liberals insist that there is no legitimate place for Christians and their values in politics, they will always lose. Hard to refute, but not what Maher had said.

Now that the dust over those arguments has settled, I ask: is it true that we liberals are guilty of denying the legitimacy of Christian principles in politics, and of denigrating conservatives and their values? Could that possibly be the reason for the tide of red states that won Bush the election? And is it right to accuse Maher of contributing, with his attitude, to Tuesday's loss?

Although there are plenty of reasons to question the soundness of the motives that led many to President Bush’s trough (I know, I know: that’s patronizing), it is not fair to assume that all liberals mock conservative values simply because liberal comedians do. That’s a comedian’s job: making fun of ideas, and—yes—people, too. Bill Maher is a comedian. Jon Stewart is also a comedian. It is no accident that Maher and Stewart have become hugely successful, particularly among liberals, over the last four years. Absurdity, righteousness, and contradiction fuel political satire, and under Bush's reign, there has been no lack of material.

During the first four years of his administration, president Bush has done much to inspire political satire. Day in, day out, the President and his staff make ridiculous and indefensible claims, only to surpass them with something even more ridiculous the next day. Want some examples? In a call to unity after winning the election, President Bush declared “I’ll reach out to anyone who shares our goals.” Reaching out to those who share your goals, quipped Jon Stewart? How grand! How about reaching out to those who don't? Or this one, which the President repeated many times during the debates and in the days leading up to the election: “Seventy-five percent of known Al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice.” 75% of known Al Qaeda leaders? Al Qaeda is not exactly an official organization (some of its leaders, according to the President, hide in caves). What if the number of known leaders is one tenth or one hundredth of all leaders? Then we would have captured only 7.5% or .75% of all leaders. Hardly a successful operation, considering the amount of resources we threw at it. Still, the President trumpets this statistic as if it had any relevance. (By the way, if our intelligence was so flawed that we were unable to prevent the most massive attack on American soil, how come it is now so good that we easily captured 75% of all known Al Qaeda leaders in 3 years? Surely, if this were true, the president would have capitalized on the opportunity.)
But my favorite, of all the absurdities to come out of the president’s mouth, was his reply to a question that came during the third presidential debate. The question was what would the president do about the minimum wage: would he raise it? The answer? "Listen, the No Child Left Behind Act is really a jobs act when you think about it.” You got it: In response to a question about minimum wage, the president could think of nothing more appropriate than to spin a school program aimed at elementary school children as a job creation program. You can see why certain comedians are thriving these days.

And so it is that in these days of newspeak and mind-boggling spin, and in spite of all the evidence that supported ousting President Bush from office, liberals are forced to defend themselves against accusations of mocking conservative values. Liberals do not mock values, conservative or otherwise, defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable.” These are things like honesty, integrity, loyalty, justice, truthfulness, etc. (Notice that, on values alone, this president is arguably an abject failure.) Liberals and conservatives share many of the same values. What separates them are beliefs, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as the "mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact, held to be true on the ground of authority or evidence." In the eyes of the President, and of many who voted for him, belief in God equates to having principles and strong convictions (does that make those who do not share this belief weak, spineless, and unprincipled?) A president whose stated goal is to foster unity might want to find a reasonable balance between values, everyone’s values, and his personal beliefs. Too bad he consistently chooses beliefs over values.

Many voters on Tuesday chose beliefs over values, faith over reason, fear over hope. In so doing, they seemed determined to chop off their noses to spite our faces. Their choice seems absurd because it came despite all tangible evidence that this president is a fraud, and that he is using their beliefs to his political advantage; but while absurdity lies at the foundation of comedy, absurdity this portentous does not leave any room for mockery.

It would almost be funny, but the joke's on us.

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