March 26, 2002
By David Swanson
This past week, I sat in the audience and watched two performances
in Washington, D.C. The first, a debate at the National Press
Club, got me laughing and cheered me up. The second, a comedy
show at the Improv, depressed me deeply.
The debate, sponsored by the American Prospect magazine,
was on the proposition "The Enron scandal is the logical consequence
of deregulation." Arguing the affirmative were Bob Kuttner
and Bob Borosage. Arguing the negative were Grover Norquist
and Bruce Bartlett.
The crowd largely supported the affirmative position, and
while the debate did include a little interesting discussion
of when and where deregulation can work, for the most part
no one's mind was changed about anything - at least none of
the debaters' or anyone's I talked to.
What was funny was simply the absurd lengths Norquist and
his sidekick would go to. Bartlett made half his opponents'
arguments for them, but then refused to draw sensible conclusions.
Norquist tried to avoid the topic by talking about how awful
Social Security, Medicare, and the IRS are. When it was his
turn to question the other side, he rambled off on a tangent
and forgot to ask a question.
Several times he suggested that he thought the debate was
over the question of whether the Soviet Union still existed.
And both he and Bartlett repeatedly made what they took to
be the important point that it's hard to prevent every single
crime that might be committed. The lesson Bartlett drew from
this insight was that you should make crimes unattractive,
not through penalties, but in some mysterious way analogous
to the way cheating on taxes is allegedly made unattractive
by keeping taxes low - although he also seemed to suggest
that we should legalize bank robbing.
The contradictions were amazing: they said investors could
police the market and that investors were to blame for the
Enron disaster. They said the problem with government was
that it could be bribed, although the problem in this case
was that Arthur Andersen had been bribed. Investors needed
accurate accounting information and would naturally demand
it, although they had mysteriously been unable to do so. Enron
was actually a primary supporter of increased regulation,
because it backed the Kyoto treaty - never mind that it also
supported the creation of the largely deregulated system in
California that led to its downfall and noisily promoted deregulation
As Kuttner said in his opening remarks, the right-wingers
have more money, but in a fair fight the liberal arguments
win. What was encouraging was to hear the crowd agree as the
debate went on. But a different crowd would have reacted differently,
would not have seen the conservative team's comments as humorous
at all. While Norquist seemed to me to be making tired old
predictions about the glories of anarchistic capitalism in
the face of mounting empirical evidence against these "predictions,"
to the market faithful he would have seemed to be drawing
out the logical ramifications of certain philosophical truths,
such as the importance of greed as a tool for restraining
greed. (This notion of logical truth even made it into the
proposition being debated.) And some members of the audience
did have that reaction.
While the predictability of Norquist's comments was funny
to me, it must have been reassuring to the sort of person
who uses the term "dittohead" as a compliment. While leftists
resist agreement to the point of being unable to cooperate
with their allies, Norquist has organized a powerful political
force in Washington based on the idea of agreeing with boring
eternal truths that a 10-year-old can understand but that
liberals stubbornly refuse to. Well, his power is based on
that idea and a hell of a lot of money.
One of the debate's organizers told me they would have liked
to have more conservatives in the audience. I suggest they
go recruit them from the audiences at the Improv comedy club
on Connecticut Avenue. I went there two nights after the Enron
A comedy act by people who are TRYING to be funny is not
easy. Humorous stories aren't too hard to come up with, but
if they don't have punch lines every few sentences, the act
becomes story-telling rather than comedy. And how many kinds
of punch lines are there? I watched a video of George Carlin
recently that was taped just after the Persian Gulf War and
is even more relevant now. Half the act was him making fun
of pretentious phrases used by advertisers and flight attendants.
The other half was him blurting out political truths that
you don't hear very often. The linguistic stuff was somewhat
funny, while being very clever and entertaining. The political
stuff was good to hear, and good to hear an audience appreciate,
but not really funny.
At the Improv, the three middle-aged white men who performed,
one after the other, didn't touch on the topic of language,
but they did blurt out political opinions. They thought starving
children in Africa should starve, Mexicans were stealing American
jobs and coming here to live off welfare forever. "This isn't
a country anymore. It's a giant theme park with free admission.
Try this ride, it's called welfare; you can stay on that forever!
Try healthcare while you're here, too!"
I've been to about five comedy shows in my life, and yet
I had heard most of these "jokes" before. I'd heard the one
about Sally Struthers eating all the donations for the starving
children, as well as most of the other fat jokes. I'd heard
the homophobic and racist jokes too, but I was surprised they
were still being told. (In the case of welfare support for
immigrants, I would have thought its nonexistence would have
some relevance.) I'd even heard the phony self-critiques by
which these cruel topics were introduced as ways to supposedly
shatter politically correct taboos without meaning any harm.
The worst of the three comedians said he used to tell gay
jokes but stopped when two gay men beat him up after a show.
"Of course, they were gay, so it didn't hurt." He then launched
into a string of gay jokes.
He said a group wanted to rename a racistly named sports
team "the Whities." That wouldn't bother him, he said. "If
you want to offend a white guy, call him a nigger." This launched
him into a discussion of how one woman in the audience looked
disgusted with him and was apparently unsure whether it was
OK to laugh, given her silly hang-ups. He pointed out the
one black man in the club, who - like most of the crowd -
was laughing along amicably.
He accused women of being horrible drivers and generally
unintelligent, and then said he'd just proved men were pigs.
He proceeded to prove that at least he was a pig by telling
some more sexist jokes.
As with Carlin, or any comedian, but more so with the less
talented, a large part of the act involved cursing, talking
about sex, and otherwise trying to shock people. I probably
shouldn't be surprised that racist and sexist jokes are "still
told." They are only breaking taboos now that there are taboos
against them. When it was perfectly acceptable for white people
to call black people niggers, it wasn't considered the least
bit humorous. As long as racism continues to be largely unacceptable
and yet still prevalent, there will continue to be racist
I read a column recently in which Christopher Hitchens suggested
that the best way to defuse the word and the hatred behind
it would be to find ways to use it, but I doubt he had in
mind the sort of isn't-it-funny-that-I'm-a-pig-and-know-it-and-still-like-being-a-pig-because-aren't-we-all
performances they put on at the Improv.
Grover Norquist has better manners and does that sort of
performance much more effectively by intending it not to be
David Swanson's website is at www.davidswanson.org