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Morality's new champion?

By Brian Tiemann
web posted December 13, 2004

So. Relaxing this weekend with a drink, enjoying the marvelous parade of diverse opinions appearing every half-hour on Comedy Central during their weekend-long stand-up-a-thon, I listened as first one comedienne opined that "President Bush thinks we should go after the evildoers... Wooo, the evildoers... well, I think he should start with his own Cabinet—hell, just look in the mirror..." (appreciative howls of laughter), and then the next guy offered his opinion that "At least when Bush butchers the English language, he's not butchering thousands of innocent civilians..." (appreciative howls of laughter), and then the next told us that he believes "Bush doesn't just want to be President, he wants to be the last President... vote for Bush and sit back and watch the Apocalypse!" (appreciative howls of laughter). Let's hear it for diversity of viewpoints, eh?

After such an invigorating experience dancing across the broad spectrum of opinion purveyed by the comedy-making caste, I was once again struck by the fact that once the schedule dips into the late-night period is the only time we actually hear from a different side of the equation: South Park. Coming off the contact high of the oh-so-original thesis by one of the stand-up comics that we're a "stupid Christian country" and that "morality" is some pointless anachronistic thing that we should be proud of ourselves for having outgrown, last week's South Park outing took square and unsubtle aim at parents who fail to impress firm enough moral values on their preteen daughters to keep them from wanting to be "stupid spoiled whores" like Paris Hilton.

What has gone wrong with our country, that we have to turn to our most outrageous and objectionable vehicle of late-night comedy in order to hear a compelling voice calling for the appreciation of traditional societal values?

People are still having a hard time figuring out what Trey Parker and Matt Stone are all about. Liberal movie reviewers can't seem to understand that a movie can be made that's in favor of the War on Terror, or that one that starts out so "promisingly" (with Team America ham-handedly flattening the landmarks of Paris in pursuit of some pure and innocent terrorists trying to detonate a totally innocuous suitcase nuke) can then go so nuttily "off the rails" as to attack Hollywood actor-vists for their politics. People with a better historical view of Trey and Matt are adherents of the "South Park Republicans" mindset ("They're not in the least bit socially conservative, but they don't call themselves libertarians because they like winning elections" — Richard McEnroe), or call them "hardcore libertarians (upper or lowercase l? who knows?)" (—The Real JeffS). One is left scratching one's head by the halfhearted version of the "F--- Yeah" response to "Republicans!" in the Not Safe For Work theme song. Their view on the tenets of Christianity is willfully wrongheaded. But as much as Trey and Matt try to wriggle around being pinned to a card and labeled, and as much as their pre-9/11 views on such things as war and race and Bush were typical of the self-denigration of that lotus-eating era, these days it's hard to escape the conclusion that they're as socially conservative as they come. They've become red-meat capital-R Republicans, even if they still shy away like unbroken mustangs whenever anyone flicks that banner at them.

South ParkWhat do you call a show that isn't afraid to stand up in favor of the word "morality" and restore the fading negativity of the word "whore", as though trying to reverse the lunge into licentiousness led by the madam of Springfield's beloved Burlesque House? That takes a stand against stem-cell research by showing Christopher Reeve sucking out fetuses' spinal fluid in order to regain his feet (as Frank J puts it, "The embryonic stem cell lobby group Others Must Die So We May Walk")? That argues in favor of tightened immigration restrictions to keep us from having to squeal, "They took our jeaarrbs!"? That spends a whole half-hour episode making fun of the Mormon religion, and then—in the last thirty seconds—spins on its heels and makes the viewer feel like an absolute ass for having laughed along with it with a single accusatory barb?

I call it conservative. All the profanity and lewdness and sex and so on notwithstanding. And I think that's because they're simply framing those views in a way that makes them acceptable to modern jaded ears. They know nobody on Comedy Central will take such opinions seriously if they hear them from Billy Graham; but they know they'll watch South Park. And as such, certain things have become acceptable even to social conservatives.

Gay people, for example, can't be ignored or dismissed anymore, having become a legitimate political force; so now the social-conservative argument is that like all other social phenomena centered inextricably around sex, homosexuality ought to be something people keep to themselves and behind closed doors—so that we all might mind our own business. This argument is about holding our social discourse to some standards of moral decency; and far from involving any antipathy toward actual gay people, this is merely another aspect of the same impulse that would make parents want to keep their little girls from dressing like "whores", or about (as one of those Comedy Central comics noted, interestingly enough) wanting to make sure the "birds and the bees" discussion can come before having to explain to your kid about genital herpes or Viagra. Nobody's saying interior-decorators should be rounded up into camps, but who wants to explain to their four-year-old why two guys are standing at that altar?

Characters like Mr. Garrison and Big Gay Al (and even Satan and Saddam Hussein, in their shockingly realistic and human love-triangle subplot) are among the Good Guys in South Park; the injustice of Mr. Garrison being fired from his teaching job is central to the show, but such sympathy for him is not present later when he and Mr. Slave take to the stage to try to lewdly shock the audience into getting him fired so he can sue the school district for millions. As long as they're in the privacy of their home, the two of them are among the show's pillars of righteousness. Similarly, when Big Gay Al is kicked out of the Boy Scouts for his sexuality, it's touchingly tragic; but showing uncommon principle, he rejects society's hamfisted bullying of the Scouts into letting him back in. It's surprisingly invigorating to hear scandalous men like the avenging angel Mr. Slave referred to as "whores" in the same terms as Paris Hilton is, but the summary stump speech that's part of every episode is his to give this time, and he reminds us all that he—in all his leather splendor—is not the kind of role model anyone should look up to, especially kids. These are surprisingly subtle and—dare we say it—nuanced positions to take, and yet completely consistent to the social-conservative position. I notice that Trey and Matt (pointedly ambiguous in their own sexuality) have not yet weighed in on the subject of gay marriage, but I think it's safe to guess that the inevitable episode in which they do won't toe the Daily Show party line.

The South Park flavor of social-conservatism is a common-sense thing, an appeal to us to scoop up the fragments of our parents' world into a basket before they all get scattered and blown away, so we can at least sift through them at our leisure and see which shards we might want to keep, even if just as mementoes. The more we allow our public policy to be made by the predations upon "traditional values" by the parties of the young, the untested, the rootless, the uninvested, the inexperienced, the idealistic college students and professional activists and chronically unemployable and those who are easily led about by fashion and peer pressure, the more we thoughtlessly throw away the experience of dozens of generations in favor of mantras like "change" and "diversity" whose long-term consequences we won't even allow ourselves to contemplate.

I understand the impulse to follow this link (Not Safe For Work), in which some guy chronicles the former nude-photo-posing life of the young Dr. Laura Schlesinger, and then castigates her for presuming to lecture the country on the subject of "morality":

Note: Too bad Dr. Laura doesn't have the guts to stand up to the pictures she took when she was in her 20's. This only proves that she has many hang ups with her body and is not really fit to help others with their problems because she is too full of her own. There is no reason to be ashamed of these pictures. In my opinion, if you have a nice body and want to show it off, then go for it! She claims that she is an "improved" woman because she is no longer an Atheist! I happen to be an Atheist and I think that it is much better to be a fun loving Atheist than a crusty old witch!
Fine, hypocrisy sucks. But note that the title of the page is "What Went Wrong with Dr. Laura?" —the implication, of course, being that being an atheistic libertine is "right", and becoming an uptight moralist is "wrong". Posing nude? What could possibly be objectionable about that?

If the first Rorschachian reaction one has to the word "morality" is a negative one, then something's gone badly wrong with someone's value system, wouldn't you say?

I'm getting really tired of the idea, relentlessly pounded into us by Comedy Central personalities and into our kids by cartoons and toy manufacturers and school administrators, that religion is a useless and superstitious relic of a stupider time, with no useful lessons to teach us, and that "morality" is as relevant to the modern world as steam power or slavery. I'm endlessly grateful that if South Park is to be our only bulwark against the thoughtless nihilistic narcissism that characterizes our self-absorbed and satiric national discourse, at least it's a damned strong one.

Brian C. Tiemann operates the popular blog Peeve Farm where this article first appeared.


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