Getting the Joke
Author: Lee
The following article originally appeared in World on the Web.
They're not kidding
By Max Goss

FEATURE: Three best-selling liberal authors have come up with a clever tactic: Use humor to shield hate, cynicism, and unsupported accusations. Those who object just don't "get the joke"

AL FRANKEN CALLS KARL ROVE "human filth," Ari Fleischer a "chimp," and John Ashcroft "something of a nutcase." Michael Moore calls President Bush a "nitwit" and (in the voice of God, no less) a "devil." Molly Ivins manages to insult millions at once when she approvingly quotes William Brann's crack that "the trouble with our Texas Baptists is that we do not hold them under water long enough." Mean-spirited, you say? No, it's all in good fun, the authors say.

That's their technique: spewing hatred but saying it's funny. Or as Mr. Franken likes to say, "kidding on the square," purporting to tell a joke but really meaning it. Though he might not admit it, Mr. Franken, along with fellow humor writers Molly Ivins and Michael Moore, specializes in kidding on the square. You don't care for their reliance on ad hominem, innuendo, guilt, and distortion? Why, you must have missed the joke. As Mr. Moore once remarked, "How can there be inaccuracy in comedy?"

It's a clever tactic, really. Mr. Franken and company can assert anything they want, no matter how ludicrous, to prove that President Bush and his cohorts are bent on destroying America—and anyone who complains is branded a sourpuss. Nor are these writers above poisoning the well with innuendo and gossip. Convinced that Mr. Bush has been corrupted by money and religion, they never tire of pointing out his supposedly incriminating associations with business and religious leaders.

Is the president doing enough to protect the environment? Of course not: He received contributions from Big Oil. Is he doing enough to promote women's health? How could he? He campaigned at Bob Jones University. What about tax cuts, the war in Iraq, judicial nominations? No arguments needed. We all know, the humorists remind us with a wink, what deep pockets the president's friends have.

Instead of supplying evidence of real conflicts of interest in the White House, all too often Mr. Franken and company prefer simply to mutter "cronyism" and move on. Hey, it's only satire.

Mr. Franken's preferred strategy is guilt-mongering. He writes a darkly comic chapter from the perspective of a fictional teenager working under miserable conditions in a Bangladesh shoe factory. The moral of the story? "Free trade may not be good for everybody. It may not be good for you, my reader, or for the Kharap Jutas of the world, of which there are three or four billion." There is no excuse for hazardous working conditions or forced labor, as almost any conservative will grant, but what Mr. Franken doesn't mention is what life would have been like for Kharap Juta had the factory not been built. Why work in such a factory in the first place if it didn't promise a better life? Mr. Franken never answers this question. Once he's pushed our buttons, he moves on, apparently uninterested in discussing any merits of global free trade. Devious, you say? You must have missed the joke.

Mr. Franken asserts that compassionate conservatism is "the biggest lie of all" and that the American public is as liberal as he is. His proof? "Most Americans believe in a safety net. Most Americans believe the government has a role in protecting the environment and making sure the marketplace isn't abused. They just don't understand yet that this is what being a liberal means."

Hang on a second. By this definition, anyone who endorses litter laws and opposes mail fraud is a liberal. Mr. Franken has confused conservatism, which promotes limited government, with extreme versions of libertarianism, which endorse virtually no government. Acknowledging government's "role" in the areas mentioned, as nearly every American does, is a far cry from supporting liberal hobby-horses like universal health insurance, protectionism, and affirmative action.

Michael Moore specializes in outrageously cynical rumor-mongering, and devotes the first chapter of his book to entertaining paranoid theories about the president's supposed protection of Saudi dignitaries in the wake of Sept. 11. Mr. Moore suggests that "certain factions within the Saudi royal family" masterminded the attacks, and that Mr. Bush helped many Saudis evade prosecution, obstructing justice to protect his family's financial interests.

These allegations would be disturbing indeed if they weren't utterly groundless. In a recent article for, a nonpartisan media watchdog, Bryan Keefer points out that Mr. Moore ignores "mountains of evidence connecting the hijackers to al-Qaeda." Although there is some evidence that the hijackers received funding from the Saudis, Mr. Keefer notes, "there is no evidence that the Saudi government or Saudi officials helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks." It appears Mr. Moore's imagination got the better of him. As he said himself in his Oscar acceptance speech, "We live in fictitious times."

Mr. Moore uses the tried-and-true method of depicting Americans as greedy overconsumers to bolster his case for expansive government. After citing the oft-quoted fact that Americans consume a disproportionate share of the world's resources (but without mentioning that we also produce a disproportionate share of the world's goods), he proposes that the United States vow to "provide clean drinking water for everyone on Earth within the next five years." Indeed, he declares, "There is no excuse ... for not ensuring that everyone on this planet has safe, clean, and sanitary living conditions." The sheer impossibility of doing so seems a pretty good excuse, but why should this trouble Mr. Moore? He's already accomplished his objective: making us feel guilty for our paychecks.

Mr. Moore also criticizes the Patriot Act, citing eight shocking examples of what he calls "FBI abuse." But as Mr. Keefer points out, "None of the incidents he lists ... happened as a result of the Patriot Act, nor did any of them involve the FBI." Mr. Keefer learned this in many cases from Mr. Moore's own sources.

Molly Ivins lives by cynical innuendo, especially concerning the president's Christian faith. Of course she's not alone. Mr. Moore calls him a "nitwit" for believing in Providence, and Mr. Franken, after noting Mr. Bush's belief that Christian faith is necessary for salvation, counts him among those who "like to exclude others from heaven." But Ms. Ivins seems to harbor a special animus toward Christians, at least those Christians with the gall to believe Christianity is true. She scoffs at Franklin Graham's prayer "in Jesus' name" at the president's inauguration, and records with evident horror the president's claim that he could never have stopped drinking without the grace of God. How retrograde!

Ms. Ivins is convinced that the president's foreign policy is dictated by apocalyptic theology. She blames Pastor James Hagee of San Antonio, to whom (she fails to note) Mr. Bush has no direct connection. Pastor Hagee is from Texas; he has apparently said that the United States should help Israel destroy Yasser Arafat's regime and seize full control of Jerusalem and the West Bank; he pushed for the removal of Saddam Hussein; Mr. Bush has shown support for Israel and recently invaded Iraq. Conclusion? The Bush administration has decided to "fall in behind the likes of the Reverend James Hagee."

Ms. Ivins insists that "an avalanche of statistics, facts, numbers" shows that anyone who believes that private charities might meet our social needs is "criminally stupid." If the case is so overwhelming, we might expect Ms. Ivins to share some of those facts and figures with her readers. But she doesn't. However, she does provide facts when they appear to support her claims. For example, to defend her claim that things are getting worse for American workers, she notes that in one decade "the typical American worked 350 hours more per year than the average European." What she doesn't mention is that Americans do this largely by choice, and that they enjoy a substantially higher standard of living than Europeans.

Ironically, the three authors attack the alleged dishonesty of the president and his supporters but apparently have very few scruples about their own practices. Each relies almost exclusively on insults, unsubstantiated allegations, and misrepresentation of the facts to "prove" that conservatives are liars. Why not? This is satire, after all—the more outrageous, the better. Strangely, for all his talk of "kidding on the square," Mr. Franken never mentions what is most obvious: It's an essentially deceptive strategy. Kidding on the square lets us say whatever we want without having to own up to it. If someone takes offense, we don't have to give an answer. We can just wink and ask, "Can't you take a joke?"

—Mr. Goss is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin

Posted by: Lee on Nov 18, 03 | 11:14 pm (profile) | Permalink
Posted by: Wheels on Nov 18, 03 | 11:47 pm
Each relies almost exclusively on insults, unsubstantiated allegations, and misrepresentation of the facts to "prove" that conservatives are liars. Why not? This is satire, after all—the more outrageous, the better.

Sad, but true. When are the lefties going to learn that there is a difference between jokes and facts, and you need facts to support an argument? Oh, hang on, let me rephrase.

When are lefties going to learn you need facts to support an argument? That's better. 'Cause anyone who needs to resort to name-calling as their only tactic against 'fascists' like Bush, Fleischer and Ashcroft is too stupid to understand more than one point in a sentence.

Posted by: JimK on Nov 19, 03 | 12:10 am

Think about it. Have you ever seen Moore with a kitten? No, because he eats them all. It has to be true.

The puppy thing I'm still gathering data, but I'm just guessing, I mean look at the guy.


Oh lighten up, it's just satire.

Posted by: Wheels on Nov 19, 03 | 12:19 am
Whoa Jim, you know, that reminds me of this story I told myself.

The whole Democrat Party pack-raped 10 girls last night.

Can I claim satire on this one too?

Posted by: Rann Aridorn on Nov 19, 03 | 1:45 am
Wheels, insult=satire. Putting some amount of humor ("ever see Moore with a kitten? 'cause he eats them all!") into it makes it satire. Doesn't need to be a lot, just some humor period.
Don't feel bad. Moore doesn't seem to get this difference either. He also seems to think lies and insults are equal to comedy/satire.

Posted by: Rann Aridorn on Nov 19, 03 | 1:53 am
Besides, this article misses one of the big ones: Trudeau, the oh-so-witty author of the Doonesbury strips, who subscribes to the phrase "Why work with reality when you can insult the guys you don't like easier by just making shit up and assigning it to them?"
I mean, c'mon, this is the guy that's so frikkin' lousy at drawing public figures he has to replace them with helmets and giant hands and shit like that. u.u His idea of witty political satire is to call Schwarzenegger "Herr Gropenfuhrer"... but he's not prejudiced, oh no!

Posted by: Wheels on Nov 19, 03 | 3:08 am
Thanks for clearing that up Rann... but I'm sure I'll find someone with no brains who finds pack-rape funny if I search hard enough.

You gotta admit though, if putting humour into it makes it satirical, then Moore is the ultimate in satire. He has so many factual flaws it's kinda funny.

Posted by: Cigarskunk on Nov 19, 03 | 7:08 am
When are lefties going to learn you need facts to support an argument?

They never will.

Remember, this is a group of people that work entirely from thier guts (and considering the size of Mike's gut, he must work ALOT - I'm not insulting, it's just humor - just a reminder for the Moore-ons) - all they have is beliefs and how they feel or would like to see the world run.

Facts have no place in thier vision of reality except for rare occassions when those facts might match that vision or can be twisted, forced or corrupted into that vision. Otherwise, your average liberal is simply going to make his/her facts up as they go along and justify to themselves that the lie was ok because it was supporting a greater truth.

A great example of the left being caught and admitting to this would be the great homeless scam of the 80s - after a cencus had confirmed that the left had be multiplying the actual number of homeless by a factor of TEN they admitted that they had lied and explained that if they hadn't lied, then no one would think that we had a problem and thus no one would care.

Sadly, instead of learning the lesson that if there isn't a problem, you shouldn't lie that there is, instead, the left learned that admitting that you're lieing about a non-problem is the fastest way to get people to treat it as such.

Thus, for the past two decades, the left has made lieing part of it's mission statement - the left wants to get rid of guns - lie about there being a gun crisis, the left wants to get rid of industry - lie about an enviromental crisis, etc, etc.

Posted by: Darkwing Dork on Nov 20, 03 | 6:34 pm
It would be so much easier to respect liberals if their biggest spokesmen weren't fringe lunatic filmmakers (Michael Moore and Tim Robbins), failed comedians (Janeane Garofalo and Al Franken), annoying singers (Bette Midler and Barbara Streisand) and kooky actors (Martin Sheen and Danny Glover).

Now, don't get me wrong, I do not hate any of the above people. In fact, I think Janeane Garofalo can be very funny (I say "failed" in terms of bad movies, not her standup routine), and Martin Sheen is a talented actor and The West Wing is my favorite show (I know, as a Republican I should be ashamed). Heck, I even liked Moore's Roger & Me and Robbin's Bob Roberts, despite the fact that they were both flagrant attacks on the right.

All these above people can be entertaining on some level (well, except for Streisand...) but when they open their mouths and try to influence political debate - look out!

Satire? Franken doesn't know the meaning of the word! He should read Johnathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal..." if he wants to see a real example of satire that is boht funny and biting. Franken, like many modern political writers, is just a complainer. Give me P.J. O'Rourke any day!

Posted by: Toastrider on Nov 20, 03 | 6:59 pm
Al Franken is not worthy to polish 'The Devil's Dictionary' by Ambrose Bierce.


Posted by: barry on Nov 22, 03 | 11:47 am
Darkwing, couldn't you have used an alternative to the "biting" satire of Swift's suggesting the Irish eat their babies?

Posted by: Darkwing Dork on Nov 23, 03 | 7:57 pm
I suppose I could have, but where would be the fun in that?

Just another one of those clever comments one makes without realizing it into someone else points it out. Thanks barry, never would have caught the irony in my sentence if you hadn't mentioned it.

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