On M*A*S*H, Monty Python, Animal House and smart humor

Juxtaposed in my daily newsletter from The Guardian yesterday:

  1. Monty Python’s Terry Jones has passed away.
  2. Now that the movie M*A*S*H is 50 years old, can we talk about what a misogynist piece of crap it was?

M*A*S*H and Monty Python were both products of the turn of the decade into the 70s. Conventional wisdom would say M*A*S*H is the More Serious Work of Meaningful Art. It was released during the Vietnam War, and it had an irreverent attitude toward war. It has been deemed “culturally significant” by the people who deem things as such. So it must be brilliant, right?

In snippets, it was. Robert Duvall’s Maj. Frank Burns is a prototypical hypocritical Christian soldier who snaps when confronted about his dalliance with Maj. Houlihan, leading to one of the better lines in the film — “Now, Colonel, fair’s fair — if I nail Hot Lips and punch Hawkeye can I go home?” The best remark on the military was one of those moments that goes quickly, and it’s delivered by another person who left us recently — René Auberjonois, whose harried Father Mulcahy provided, as William Christopher’s version did in the TV series, a much-needed dose of kindness:

But too much of it is, well, crap. Yes, it’s sexist crap. Nurses, including Sally Kellerman’s Major Houlihan, are objects. This was Kellerman’s only Oscar nomination, which may be as powerful a statement on the rampant sexism in the Academy than the inability to nominate a female director. Kellerman’s is too good a comic actress to be totally lost here, and she rescues an otherwise cringe-worthy football scene with a perfectly delivered line, but this character’s one-dimensional sex-object status is confirmed when she’s later found sleeping with Duke, one of her tormenters. (All that said, I frequently quote “Yay, we got a flag!” when I see a penalty in a football game.)

It’s also selfish crap. In a rather pointless digression from the activity at camp, the doctors are called to Tokyo to operate on a congressman’s son. They take full advantage of their status as hotshots, demanding steak and demeaning nurses.

The Guardian piece above blames M*A*S*H for sexist films to follow, such as Animal House, Porky’s and Revenge of the Nerds. There’s no defending Revenge of the Nerds and its mistaken-identity sex scene, and I can’t speak to Porky’s. But let’s talk about Animal House, coincidentally featuring M*A*S*H star and ubiquitous actor Donald Sutherland …

The case against, as laid out in a USA TODAY story that gives the film a thumbs-up with a few caveats: Bluto is a Peeping Tom, Larry sleeps with a 13-year-old, and the end credits have a joke about Greg being raped in prison. The story doesn’t mention Neidermayer being killed in Vietnam by his own troops, which was actually so serious a problem that Colin Powell felt threatened while he was there.

The case for: First of all, it has so many indelible lines and scenes. Bluto’s “was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” motivational speech is a staple of sports fandom. I frequently use Kevin Bacon’s “REMAIN CALM! ALL IS WELL!” GIF in response to people who think there’s nothing wrong with the current sociopolitical state. “Seven years of college down the drain” is something I hope not to be hearing. The rigged trial. The parade, from the marbles to Stork redirecting the band.

So Animal House, like M*A*S*H has been deemed culturally significant. So was Amadeus, giving Tom Hulce at least two films on the list. And NYT columnist Elvis Mitchell said Animal House followed the M*A*S*H legacy not in sexism but in bringing us the “arrogance of the counterculture.”

Animal House borrows more good than bad from M*A*S*H. And the women aren’t as one-dimensional as in previous films. Mandy is in full control of her sex life — “agency,” we’d call it today. Katy is justifiably frustrated with Boon. I’d love to see an edit, but I’m not going to dismiss it. It punctures the hypocrisy of authority — to me, more effectively than M*A*S*H. (Of course, the M*A*S*H TV series did a bit better than the Animal House series. A bit.)

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Monty Python may not seem to be such a powerful comedic voice. The troupe dwelled in the absurd — an incongruous argument about the air speed of a swallow, a cheese shop with no cheese, a soccer match between philosophers (for the record, Marx was right — Socrates was offside), etc.

But Python was driven by legitimate intellectual heavyweights, which certainly explains its appeal to nerds like me. The importance of philosophy is evident today only in The Good Place, which I’ll have to binge-watch at some point. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was inspired by a solid grounding in medieval life.

And that’s where we’ll start with Terry Jones.

Jones was, as many obituaries have noted, a Renaissance man. His work on Holy Grail was intertwined with his research on Geoffrey Chaucer, about whom he wrote two books. He produced documentary series on the Crusades (a must-watch) and other medieval phenomena, bringing the sins of the past into a modern context with strong commentary leavened with outrageous humor.

Much of Jones’ commentary was direct. He wrote frequently against the burgeoning war industry. But he also was a master of satire, most obviously as the director of Life of Brian, which satirized Christianity and cult behavior but not Christ. The people who complain about the film never realized they, not Jesus, were the ones we were laughing at.

I’ve often lamented the decline in comedy in an era in which humor in film seems consigned to quips from Marvel characters as they dispatch the bad guys. The 2015 Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical went to The Martian, which I’m guessing is funny in places but isn’t exactly Caddyshack, a glorious anti-authoritarian mess of a movie. The last comedy to have any sort of pop-culture impact was probably The Hangover — a decade ago.

The idea that political correctness is to blame is simply ridiculous. Listen to any Pandora comedy station, and you’ll hear the same misogynist crap we heard from bad standups in decades past.

We do have a lot of great comedies on TV, at least, and Saturday Night Live is in a golden era. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert ushered in a new era of sharp satire just when we needed it most.

But wouldn’t we love to see another Terry Jones?

Why we should reject the “liberal” label

“Liberals” these days are under attack. Seems unfair, given that the dictionary definition simply refers to being open-minded and interested in education.

To some extent, that isn’t new. A few decades ago, Saturday Night Live had a sketch that was a mock TV show called The Liberal, a bit like the Incredible Hulk in that it was someone running for his life from town to town while being hunted by virtually everyone.

But it’s worse these days because even “progressives” have hopped on board. “Conservatives” have yet to realize this, but they’re thrilled that people we once called “centrist” (like the Clintons) are now “liberal.” They can move the Overton window that much further.

But I reject the “liberal” label for one reason, and it’s the same reason I reject other labels. It’s convenient shorthand for dismissing what people have to say. Period.

When you call someone “liberal,” that’s code to me for “I’m scared to deal with your opinion.” It’s a “hasty generalization” fallacy — or even simple ad hominem.

Maybe it shouldn’t be that way. Maybe instead of progressive, liberal, centrist and conservative, we should just have “honest” and “dishonest.” Fox is dishonest. The “liberals” who did Whale Wars are dishonest.

And let’s have the honest people talk. For a change.

What about whataboutism?

Like a lot of bullying tools, “whataboutism” is powerful because there’s a bit of logic to it, however twisted it may be.

In fact, on the meta level, it’s easy to use whataboutism to fight complaints about whataboutism. Most people use it in some form at some point.

The key difference to me is this: Are you using bringing up an opposing side because you’re making a decision between two things (say, candidates) or because you’re trying to deflect criticism instead of dealing with it?

In other words, if we’re talking about an election with only two viable candidates, and you tell me Candidate X embezzled money but I know Candidate Y murdered somebody, I’ll have to point that out. (I hope it never gets to that point!)

And in some cases, what appears to be “whataboutism” is actually making a case to give one entity the higher ground. For example — if a Trump voter criticizes the Clinton Foundation, it seems fair to point to the Trump Foundation, especially if you go on to note that the Clinton Foundation actually does some good.

Let’s say the Charlottesville situation had been reversed, and an “antifa” demonstrator had killed someone. Surely someone would use that incident to claim there’s no difference between the “left” and “right” in this situation. (Aside to media: Can you quit using “left” and “right” in describing this sort of thing? CBS did it for Boston, which was ridiculous — I’m sure a lot of registered Republicans were among the “left” crowd in this case and were quite offended by the assumption that the supremacists were the “right.”)

But the counterargument would be this:

  1. The majority of the counterprotesters were not violent.
  2. Most likely, the bulk of the nation’s lawmakers and thought leaders would denounce the killer without the equivocation Trump used in his half-hearted denunciation of a considerable chunk of the people who still support him.
  3. What’s the overall intent of the counterprotest? It’s to stand up against racism. What’s the overall intent of the original protest? To promote it. Not equivalent.

A Facebook friend made this sort of point in answering Trump’s “whatabout” on Washington and Jefferson owning slaves. Washington and Jefferson don’t have monuments because they supported racism. They have monuments for their actual accomplishments. Monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are for their service to an abhorrent cause.

QED.

Historical footnote — I did not know this:

In May 1985 the U.S. State Department funded a conference at the Madison Hotel on the fallacy of “moral equivalence,” a philosophical cousin of whataboutism. The goal was to tamp down comparisons of the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, among other instances. The actions may be comparable, the State Department implied, but the intentions were not.

Source: Whataboutism: The Cold War tactic, thawed by Putin, is brandished by Donald Trump – The Washington Post

 

How left-wing relativism begat multi-wing bullshit

(Incidentally, I’ve set up a page on this site compiling the links I find on bullshit. Nominations welcome, as you can tell from what I’ve written here, all corners of the sociopolitical fringe are welcome.)

Every once in a while, I’m thrilled to find that some superior writer has taken an idea I’ve never adequately expressed and summed it up succinctly and brilliantly.

Yesterday, I came across this piece from the Atlantic’s Kurt Andersen covering ground I’ve covered before — how the lefty-academic principles of postmodernism led us into a morass of alternate reality that the right wing has now deftly exploited. (In other words: Oh, you say all truth is a social construct? OK, then I’ll say whatever I want — or whatever gets the Republican base all riled up. See this piece in particular, in which literary critic Michael Bérubé sees the academic left’s arguments being turned into climate-change denialism and creationism. But I’ve been talking about it since at least 2004.)

It’s not succinct. And in places, it’s not brilliant. What editor let him drive away tons of readers by listing simple religious belief among all the howling inaccuracies that Americans believe? Have we not yet learned that plenty of Christians go along for the “Christ, love and compassion for the underprivileged” parts of the religion (all backed up by theological and occasionally historical evidence) but not the “bash them pointy-heads telling us we came from monkeys” parts (NOT backed up by theological or any other evidence)? Sure, there are plenty of knuckle-dragging evangelicals out there, but there are also plenty of Nadia Bolz-Webers, along with plenty of people who are being raised “spiritual” in the sense that they yearn to understand the eternal while already understanding that we’d better act like good people while we’re on this temporary home called Earth.

But it’s worth muddling through that part and getting to the parts that I’m simply going to QFT here. (Do people still say Quote For Truth? Or am I supposed to say “lit”? I don’t speak Millennial.)

(V)arious fantasy constituencies overlap and feed one another—for instance, belief in extraterrestrial visitation and abduction can lead to belief in vast government cover-ups, which can lead to belief in still more wide-ranging plots and cabals, which can jibe with a belief in an impending Armageddon.

Coincidentally, I just read a good piece on conspiracy theory research by Illuminati apologist, I mean, Barnard professor Rob Brotherton, who says history tells us the number of people who believe conspiracy theories stays somewhat stable over time. But the Internet can magnify such things, of course, and it gives the fringe a voice. The question is whether the marriage of convenience between the Alex Jones crowd and the supposedly rational wing of the Republican Party can last much longer.

I also read something recently about stoners’ tendencies to buy into conspiracy theories because it gave them someone else to blame for their lack of achievement, but naturally, I forgot to bookmark it. Must have been on a contact high from the Pink Floyd concert I saw in the late 80s.

In any case, Andersen does indeed show how this junk has gone mainstream:

A senior physician at one of America’s most prestigious university hospitals promotes “miracle cures” on his daily TV show. Cable channels air documentaries treating mermaids, monsters, ghosts, and angels as real. When a political-science professor attacks the idea “that there is some ‘public’ that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged,” colleagues just nod and grant tenure. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable.

Note that he’s not excusing the academic left here. This isn’t just the Trumpkins and the proudly ignorant guys who make up that base.

And it’s actually in our DNA as Americans:

America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.

Sucker born every minute, right? And the next section is devoted to the hippie movement, LSD, New Age and the rest of the counterculture that figured it would cool to subvert reality. It probably was, but the unintended consequences are a bitch.

All of this found its ways into academia, particularly the social sciences. I know I’ll sound like my dad, Dr. Dure of the biochemistry department, but I’ve started to realize the social sciences have an inherent jealousy toward science. They want to be able to “prove” things the same way my dad would demonstrate characteristics of plant proteins in his lab. So they construct models that make sense on an internal level, but they forget the “garbage in, garbage out” maxim. See my response (which was “pending approval” for days) to some sports economics stuff at Deadspin.

That discussion features a hilarious exchange showing how difficult it is for facts to have any impact:

mls-foreign

But not even my good old reliable liberal arts major is safe from this sort of thing:

A more extreme academic evangelist for the idea of all truths being equal was a UC Berkeley philosophy professor named Paul Feyerabend. His best-known book, published in 1975, was Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. “Rationalism,” it declared, “is a secularized form of the belief in the power of the word of God,” and science a “particular superstition.” In a later edition of the book, published when creationists were passing laws to teach Genesis in public-school biology classes, Feyerabend came out in favor of the practice, comparing creationists to Galileo. Science, he insisted, is just another form of belief. “Only one principle,” he wrote, “can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes.”

Suddenly we’re citing Robert Plant. “What kind of fool am I?” indeed.

I wonder what sort of grade I would get in the professor’s class if I said, “Facts are less of a social contract than the lack of facts, which is constructed in an ivory tower. Just be glad the tower itself was constructed by modern engineers, not postmodern fact-fudgers.”

And in another field …

 In the ’60s, anthropology decided that oracles, diviners, incantations, and magical objects should be not just respected, but considered equivalent to reason and science. If all understandings of reality are socially constructed, those of Kalabari tribesmen in Nigeria are no more arbitrary or faith-based than those of college professors.

My goodness. It’s getting more and more difficult for us college guys to say 21st century bullshit is all generated by the coal industry, isn’t it?

In fact, some of my encounters with people in the past year have made me think sizable portions of the left care less about facts and more about being hipper-than-thou. Your expertise is no good here if you’re discussing something with a “person of color.” The “person of color” — or whoever’s most oppressed in a conversation, even if that person of color comes from a comfortable suburban household and has experienced maybe 0.1% of the prejudice any 60-year-old black man has faced — is always right. I have no idea when Asian-Americans decided that they’re empowered to speak for African-Americans. I’m guessing the NAACP missed that memo.

At last, Andersen gives academia a break and shows how the political right hijacked postmodernist doubt.

Conservatives hated how relativism undercut various venerable and comfortable ruling ideas—certain notions of entitlement (according to race and gender) and aesthetic beauty and metaphysical and moral certainty. Yet once the intellectual mainstream thoroughly accepted that there are many equally valid realities and truths, once the idea of gates and gatekeeping was discredited not just on campuses but throughout the culture, all American barbarians could have their claims taken seriously. Conservatives are correct that the anything-goes relativism of college campuses wasn’t sequestered there, but when it flowed out across America it helped enable extreme Christianities and lunacies on the right—gun-rights hysteria, black-helicopter conspiracism, climate-change denial, and more.

Andersen then takes us through the 1970s UFO boom and finds that people settled into a nice capitalist groove in the 1980s. Mostly. By the late 80s, changes in the media landscape begat Rush Limbaugh, who begat Fox News, which begat … etc.

He adds a nice jab at libertarians — “an ideology most grow out of” — and the Republicans’ selective reading of the philosophy (bail out businesses but not people, have guns but not sex or drugs), but I’m not really sure how it relates to his thesis. And I’m probably pushing “fair use” law on how much I’ve quoted to this point.

(In fact, let’s be fair on fair use and mention, as we finally learn at the end of this article, that this is adapted from Andersen’s upcoming book, which deserves a good plug here.)

So I won’t spoil the last few paragraphs, which are indeed about Trump, someone whom Andersen has covered for decades. Go ahead and take a look. You won’t be surprised.

But the story succeeds in demonstrating the roots of our issues with facts. What I take away from it, in the spirit of not making everything totally relative, is this:

The academic left certainly aided and abetted the war on truth, and it does so to this day. But in mainstream politics, it’s the right wing that has given the lunatic fringe the keys to the castle.

Andersen doesn’t talk here about some of the things I’ve noticed in my journalism career. Start with the 1994 midterms, when Rush Limbaugh convinced everyone the country was still in recession and Newt Gingrich — still fighting the bad fight against facts to this day — swept to power. In doing so, the Republicans gleefully unleashed the forces of a misinformed public.

And now, like an attack dog that turns on its master, we’ve seen the Tea Party and the Trump Party sweep out the “establishment” Republicans. It was bound to happen. You can’t rile up a mob and then expect it to see reason.

Like Andersen, I’m optimistic. Many of our institutions continue to function and make progress reducing poverty and turning back environmental neglect. Millennials, for all that we tease them about their excesses, are far less racist and homophobic than previous generations. (I’m less sure about sexism, unfortunately, thanks in part to the prevalence of porn and the misogynist video-game community.)

But any sort of progress requires facts. To put in terms Trump will understand — if you’re going to put up a skyscraper, you’d better have engineers who aren’t thinking all math is relative. You can’t make progress on health care if you think a lack of a work ethic is the only reason people are ever uninsured and sick at the same time. You can’t make progress on dealing with North Korea if you don’t bear in mind the ramifications of a small peninsula with a lot of weapons pointed at the neighbors. You can’t keep the Atlantic from swallowing Miami and Manhattan if you deny basic facts about how carbon dioxide and methane act in the atmosphere.

So that’s why all of these forces are a little scarier than, say, Hillary Clinton’s email server or Evan McMullin’s anti-abortion stance.

 

“Inclusive!” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Gay pride parade organizers in Chicago pride themselves on being inclusive.

Except, apparently, in this case: Demonstrators carrying Star of David flags kicked out of Chicago Dyke March.

The situation might be more complicated than you’re going to see on cable news. For one thing, there is a backstory here. This isn’t the first time the issue has come up in Chicago. Last year, an organization called A Wider Bridge — connecting LGBTQ Jews in the USA and Israel — tried to do a presentation at an LGBTQ conference, but they were shut down. Chicago’s parade organizers say the group is a bunch of agitators trying to impose a “pro-Zionist” agenda, to which a previous Slate story cried “baloney.”

That’s not to say leaders of any movement, whatever it is, shouldn’t worry about their movement being co-opted by people who’ll try to take it another direction. (South Park has covered this on more than one occasion.) But it’s pretty clear parade organizers messed up here. In their zeal to keep out “Zionists,” they made a lot of Jews feel unwelcome.

I think there’s an underlying problem here. People who speak up for marginalized people (or marginalized people themselves) sometimes get the lecturing-to-listening ratio wrong. Being marginalized or being an ally for the marginalized doesn’t mean you’re right 100 percent of the time.

And no one’s 100 percent oppressed or 100 percent oppressor. No one’s family, let alone anyone’s country, is 100 percent innocent. You can be an LGBTQ person of color, and you still have blinders of “privilege” because you’re American or wealthy or goodness knows what else. I have a ton of “oppressor” in my family tree — I’m descended from Confederate military officers, and I’m the grandson of someone who argued forcefully against segregation. But I’m also descended from people who fled France, Scotland and England, not always in search of greater wealth in the New World. My kids are descended from grandparents and great-grandparents who weren’t free to go “home.”

So what does this all mean?

It means we all have to listen. To everybody. Writing off someone’s input because they’re Jewish or American or white really isn’t any better than writing off someone’s input because they’re Muslim or African or black.

If people have malicious intent, it’ll reveal itself soon enough. Let them speak. They might have a point. And if they don’t have a point, feel free to let them know.