What happened? Did it go well?
If you’re like me, chances are it didn’t. I imagine it was somewhere around the time you got punched in the face or fended off incensed family members with a broken chair leg in the inevitable steel cage match portion of the family reunion when you realized that something was wrong. Something wasn’t working. You started with the best of intentions. One minute you were trading points and defending ideologies like a college professor and the next minute you were the star of COPS as the police dragged your drunk, shirtless ass out of a trailer while you screamed that they had it all wrong.
You get the idea.
Here’s a good example. There’s an apparent feud between David Cross, the comedian from “Arrested Development” and “Mr. Show,” and Larry the Cable Guy, the comedian from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (a.k.a. “the annoying good ‘ol white boys of comedy”). This rant from Dave is equal parts everything that is right and everything that is wrong with how we approach conversation, political or otherwise, here in America.
Apparently Larry, who isn’t from The South ™ and whose name isn’t really Larry, caught a clip of an interview Dave had given to Rolling Stone Magazine. In this interview, David Cross gave his opinion of Larry the Cable Guy’s comedy and how it was indicative of some scary social norms that have come to light in recent years.
“He's good at what he does. It's a lot of anti-gay, racist humor -- which people like in America - all couched in 'I'm telling it like it is.' He's in the right place at the right time for that gee-shucks, proud-to-be-a-redneck, I'm-just-a-straight-shooter-multimillionaire-in-cutoff-flannel, selling-ring tones-act. That's where we are as a nation now. We're in a state of vague American values and anti-intellectual pride."
And Larry The Cable Guy responded thusly:
“...according to Cross and the politically correct police, any white comedians who mention the word 'black' or say something humorous but faintly negative about any race are racists."
David’s response was to write the rant I linked above. He makes some good points in it, too. Larry does have racist comedy in his act. The examples he included attest to that. But Larry hints at something greater. Nearly every comedian has racist or, depending upon your interpretation of semantics, overtly prejudicial humor in their act. If you don’t believe me, turn the channel to BET and count how many black comedians make a career out of the “you know what pisses me off about white people?” schitck, or go back to Comedy Central and see how easily people rip on Latinos or Asians or whatever. Or you can go back two paragraphs and read these words, straight from David himself, the man who so recently expressed righteous indignation:
“I cut my teeth in the south and my first road gigs ever were in Augusta, Charleston, Baton Rouge, and Louisville. I remember them very well, specifically because of the audience. I remember thinking (occasionally, not all the time) "what a bunch of dumb redneck, easily entertained, ignorant motherfuckers. I can't believe the stupid shit they think is funny." So, yes, I do know your audience, and they suck. And they're simple. And please don't mistake this as coming from a place of bitterness because I didn't "make it" there or, I'm not as successful as you because that's not it at all. Since I was a kid I've always been a little over sensitive to the glorification and rewarding of dumb. The "salt of the earth, regular, every day folk" (or lowest common denominator) who see the world, and the people like me in it, as on some sort of secular mission to take away their flag lapels and plaster-of-paris Jesus television adornments strike me as childishly paranoid.”
Comedians make a living saying the things we can’t. This is good. There is nothing wrong with black comedians making fun of white people, and neither is it wrong for Larry to rip on “towel head camel fuckers.” These statements are obviously in poor taste for normal conversation, but their use in a comedic setting helps us to find a bit of levity in what is otherwise a tense arena. Many in these comedians' respective audiences likely agree with the comments they make, but I think the majority, including the comedians themselves, realize that it’s just a joke and move on.
Dave’s right. It’s not good comedy. It’s easy and it’s played out. A good comedian like Lewis Black (who is dynamite in a live setting, by the way) ,or George Carlin, or to a certain extent Mr. Cross himself is a rarity. He is right. America does glorify anti-intellectualism. This is why “Wife Swap” has been given another season of play on Fox and good shows like “Arrested Development” are canceled.
The more interesting part of his rant, however, is this:
“I honestly believe that if we had worked a week together at whatever dumb-ass club in American Strip Mall #298347 in God's Country U.S.A and hung out that week and got good and drunk after the shows, that you and I would've been making each other laugh.”
I like this and not only because it’s true.
I get the sense that a large part of the divisions in America stem from our inability to find common ground. We spend so much time trying to score a point against the opposition, whether logical, comedic, or otherwise, and we forget that each of us shares the same goal.
Take politics for example. It’s been over a year since the 2004 Presidential election and we’re still deeply divided. Emotions are still raw. This division isn’t something as simple as the few hurt feelings and bruised egos that naturally come after a loss in such a close election, either. They're greater than that. In today's America you are either a conservative or a liberal. You are either a Democrat or a Republican. There is no in between, no third or fourth option, and there is no escaping from the oversimplified and negative caricatures each side thrusts upon the other.
Democrats kill innocent babies. Republicans hate women. Conservatives are blinded by creepy Jesus-ness. Liberals are plotting to secularize the minds of our youth. Democrats hate white people. And Republicans are all closet members of the KKK.
And so on.
When you openly label yourself you paint a picture that carries much more weight than a mere thousand words. Call yourself a conservative or a liberal and immediately people make 500 assumptions about who you are, where you’re from, what you do for a living, and what you believe. That is normal. What isn’t normal is that these assumptions are likely negative. In today’s society you are defined by this mould, and there is no breaking out of it.
In a recent conversation with a group of conservative friends, I expressed my dismay at the apparent disregard for environmental issues in the Republican party. Very quickly, I was denounced as a radical leftist and asked to defend my alleged adherence to pro-choice philosophy, anti-war beliefs, outlandish feminist politics, and a generalized hate of all things American.
A short time later, I spoke with a group of people about the nomination of Judge Roberts to the Supreme Court (this was before his confirmation and instantiation as Chief Justice). One woman stated that his ultra-conservative stance on nearly every importnat issue was quite scary. At the time, I had seen little regarding his opinions either way. So asked the lady how she had come to this conclusion. I was immediately attacked. I was called a right wing nut job and a racist. I was told that I hated poor people, and that I was a shill for the Bush Administration. One person, I believe, came close to spitting on me.
Nobody took the time to actually respond to what I had said. In either situation. It was merely assumed that because I believe in public policy that protects the environment, I am the worst sort of Liberal. It was taken as a known fact that, because I questioned a popular idea, I was the epitome of the sort of brain-dead, redneck, flag-waving American David Cross apparently hates so much.
And I’m not immune to the stupidity either. I’ve had to backpedal and apologize for my own overgeneralizations on more than one occasion. A few of these situations have even put a strain on close friendships, which makes no sense to me because it is patently ridiculous to throw away several years of good fun over something as pointless as economic policy or one’s opinion of the establishment clause.
There is no common ground anymore. There is very little respect.
Another comedian I enjoy from time to time spoke on the subject in a recent HBO special. Chris Rock, in response to people’s increasingly divergent opinions on the 2004 Presidential election said, “Normal people can go both ways. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican either. I got some shit I’m liberal about, I got some shit I’m conservative about, and anybody who votes for someone based on their political party alone is a damn fool.” I’m paraphrasing, despite the quotation marks, but the sentiment is the same.
I think Chris Rock has it right. Nobody is entirely Democrat and nobody is entirely Republican. Political parties are nebulous in nature. They shift over time to take advantage of the rise in popularity of certain opinions over others. They are not all-encompassing, and to claim that you will always vote for the guy with the D after his name or that the lady with the R after hers agrees with absolutely everything you say is to also say that you don’t really understand the process. That’s like rooting for your high school football team. You do it because its easy, not because it makes sense. It’s rah-rah politics. It’s a popularity contest, and it accomplishes nothing serious or worthy of attention.
There are several things we can agree on. Each of us likes America, more or less, and we want to see it prosper. We can probably even agree on ideals like social justice and fiscal responsibility, too. It’s the application that bogs us down. We have the same goals in mind, just different paths. I think that if we took the time to get to know each other as individuals and not as the labels we so easily thrust upon each other, if we took the time to understand what a person thinks about a certain subject or a particular idea instead of inventing opinions in our mind, we’d find that there’s a great deal about which we can agree. The rest, I think, would fall under polite disagreements.
So, in order to foster understanding, and because I have nothing better to do, I plan to follow through on my previously stated plan to write a series of useless essays on things I think I believe. It is my hope that some of you out there, especially those with whom I’ve had pointless disagreements in the past, will gain some insight into what I believe. And if you disagree, feel free to state what you think. Maybe then we’ll be able to find some common ground.