Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The abyss gazes into you

Salon's Scott Timber thinks that liberal comedians are "taking on the madness of Donald Trump." This is technically true, in much the same way that Oklahoma City's Russel Westbrook tried to take on Stephen Curry last week - but given Trump's wins on Super Tuesday and the fact that his general election numbers actually increased in the past month, there is no reason to conclude that this is actually doing a damn thing.

The actual polls, of course, are not what people who read Timber have in mind. As Mark Ames wrote in a prescient article covering the so-called "Rally to Restore Sanity" more than five years ago, liberalism,
once devoted to impossible causes like ending racism and inequality, empowering the powerless, fighting against militarism, and all that silly hippie shit - now it's been reduced to besting the other side at one-liners...and to the Liberals' credit, they're clearly on top.
The only thing that's changed since then is that it's not so clear that liberals are even winning the zinger race anymore. Donald Trump's effortless domination of both Twitter and the Republican debates with sheer belligerence has already become the stuff of political legend, whereas the best shot liberals have managed has been the embarrassingly flimsy Donald Drumpf schtick. Even other liberal comedians have noticed how weak liberal comedy is right now, which makes one wonder: why would Timber - or anyone - think that this could possibly work?

This, of course, is exactly the same question that we've been asking about right-wing comedy for years. And whether it's the Half Hour News Hour or Newsbusted, the answer has always seemed fairly clear: the right thinks this is effective satire because the right hates the left. There is rarely anything "funny" about right-wing comedy in the sense of being unexpected or absurd or clever, but seeing the left mocked and insulted mobilizes such schadenfreude in the right that they might as well be laughing.

Political philosophy has long had a name for this tendency, this organization of one's entire psychology around hatred of an enemy: Nietzsche called it ressentiment. And I do not think that one can look at modern American liberalism - with its smoldering hatred for half the country, its haughty contempt for the undereducated, its weirdly violent vocabulary of political antagonism (opponents are "eviscerated", "destroyed","annihilated" and so on) - I do not think that one can look at any of this and miss the shadow of ressentiment extending over our rhetoric, our activism, and our aspirations. It may speak the language of liberalism, and share many of liberalism's allies; but it is a sick, stupid and dangerous liberalism, echoing the proud spite of Zarathustra's ape, who is worth quoting at length:

Thus slowly wandering through many peoples and divers cities, did Zarathustra [come] ...to the gate of the great city. Here, however, a foaming fool, with extended hands, sprang forward to him and stood in his way. It was the same fool whom the people called "the ape of Zarathustra:" for he had learned from him something of the expression and modulation of language, and perhaps liked also to borrow from the store of his wisdom. And the fool talked thus to Zarathustra... 
"By all that is luminous and strong and good in thee, O Zarathustra! Spit on this city of shopmen and return back! Here floweth all blood putridly and tepidly and frothily through all veins: spit on the great city, which is the great slum where all the scum frotheth together! Spit on the city of compressed souls and slender breasts, of pointed eyes and sticky fingers; on the city of the obtrusive, the brazen-faced, the pen-demagogues and tongue-demagogues, the overheated ambitious; where everything maimed, ill-famed, lustful, untrustful, over-mellow, sickly-yellow and seditious, festereth perniciously: spit on the great city and turn back!" 
Here, however, did Zarathustra interrupt the foaming fool, and shut his mouth. 
"Stop this at once!" called out Zarathustra, "long have thy speech and thy species disgusted me! Why didst thou live so long by the swamp, that thou thyself hadst to become a frog and a toad? Floweth there not a tainted, frothy, swamp-blood in thine own veins, when thou hast thus learned to croak and revile? Why wentest thou not into the forest? Or why didst thou not till the ground? Is the sea not full of green islands? I despise thy contempt; and when thou warnedst me—why didst thou not warn thyself?" 
"Out of love alone shall my contempt and my warning bird take wing; but not out of the swamp! They call thee mine ape, thou foaming fool: but I call thee my grunting-pig — by thy grunting, thou spoilest even my praise of folly. What was it that first made thee grunt? Because no one sufficiently flattered thee; therefore didst thou seat thyself beside this filth, that thou mightest have cause for much grunting, that thou mightest have cause for much vengeance! For vengeance, thou vain fool, is all thy foaming; I have divined thee well!" 
"But thy fools'-word injureth me, even when thou art right! And even if Zarathustra's word were a hundred times justified, thou wouldst ever—do wrong with my word!"  
Thus spake Zarathustra. Then did he look on the great city and sighed, and was long silent.