Power and its uses

I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel – it’s vulgar.

-Molly Ivins

I am an adherent of the Taoist principle of wu wei — doing nothing effectively — and so I have not written about Don Imus finally making one more racist, sexist crack than the culture was prepared to ignore/indulge, believing that if I gave it enough time, others would do so more cogently than I can, and then I could just link to ’em.

In the continuation of what has become a humblingly consistent trend, I was right.

First, John Rogers, writer for screen and funnybooks, feature film director, and former standup:

I Sense Your Confusion, TIME …

Humorists don’t use jokes to establish power. We use jokes to steal power. We use jokes to steal power from the audience. We use jokes to steal power from smarter, better looking people. We use jokes to steal power from powerful men and women, politicians and celebrities. I do believe that this balance, these scales are hardwired into us culturally. This is why we tolerate celebrity-bashing humor — the comedian is our proxy in levelling the playing field. “Britney may be rich and beautiful but she’s still a redneck” … and therefore not better than I am. This is also why shock humor tends to work. The boundaries of polite, acceptable behaviour are set by society, which is immensely powerful. When you break those boundaries, you are stealing power from society at large. It does help, however, if you have a larger purpose in mind than petty larceny.

For all these years, Imus stayed, barely, on the right side of the power equation. Always gone after public figures, or his bosses …

… but then he screwed up. He didn’t steal power, he used it. Used it to say just shitty things about people who, in our minds, just didn’t deserve it. He broke the power equation. And when he did, we balked, even if we don’t quite understand why this one got under our skin. The wiring goes both ways. It’s actually heartening, because it confirms one of the admirable things about American society at large:

America loves a rebel.

America loves a bad boy.

But America hates a fucking bully.

The next is by Phil Nugent:

Making Carefully Nuanced Distinctions Regarding the Totally Unacceptable

A number of people have noticed that what Imus said that got him fired was pretty weak beer compared to some of the things he’s said, or permitted his loathsome sidekicks, to say in the past. (More bizarrely, some people have seemed to point that up as if it were an excuse.) It’s true that Imus made the scandal possible for contriving to build a sort of perfect storm situation around himself. First, the gutless old fart actually said it himself instead of appointing one of his lackies to say something that he could then cluck his tongue about. And instead of going after some indefensible public servant or professional blowhard or an anonymous creature of fantasy such as Reagan’s “welfare queen in a Cadillac,” he targetted some real and blameless young women who had done neither him not anyone else a lick of harm. Put him and his targets on TV together and there was no contest. Here you have the dignified and affronted college students wondering why they’ve been smeared by a millionaire; on the other side of the screen, we have some toxic waste in a cowboy hat. Imus himself, in the first recorded instance on record of a talk-radio star demonstrating self-knowledge, showed that he had at least learned this when he told Al Sharpton that he had learned that there are people you shouldn’t make fun of because they don’t deserve it. There might have been an implication in there that, if he were left alone, Imus would from that moment on, he would only make fun of those who deserved it, but if he had followed through on that, he would have had to become a satirist instead of some lout thoughtlessly blowing shit into a microphone whenever the “ON AIR” sign lights up,and he may not have fully realized how much effort and rethinking of his act that would require–almost certainly more than a man his age could have mustered, especially given that Imus’s major life achievement up to this point had been the Dubyan feat of ceasing to snort and guzzle himself into a perpetual state of oblivion. If there was any wisdom in his decision to peg his attempt to keep his job on his attempt to prove himself a “good person,” it can only be that, as unlikely as that claim sounded, it was easier to believe that he was on some level a good person than it was to believe that he could ever, ever have become funny and talented. Dim and self-obsessed as ever, he never seemed to grasp that the people calling for his job weren’t doing it because they were not yet convinced of his goodness. They were doing it because they’d concluded that there was a real chance that they could get him fired, and he’d make an impressive trophy.

Nugent’s essay in particular is kind of long for a blog post, but well, well worth your time to read in its entirety.

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4 thoughts on “Power and its uses

  1. Steve

    I guess the corollary to “America hates a fucking bully” is that America is thus very susceptible to flattering lies re: its own bully status. Because we hate bullies as a culture, I think, and love underdogs, all the menaces we fight are earth-threatening ones, and all the battles we join are battles for democracy itself. Our raging need to believe that is probably the reason for the disturbing lack of scornful guffaws when, say, Saddam Hussein is compared seriously to Hitler.

  2. Ananth

    As opposed to when Bush is compared to Hitler? But I Digress. I would say our foreign policy is more parental than bullying. If we were bullies we would simply be taking the lunch money.

  3. Steve

    As opposed to when Bush is compared to Hitler?

    Yeah, it was a foreign policy disaster when that firebrand from Z Magazine and those Kos commenters got us bogged down in the Second Revolution that time. I condemn that too.

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