Ask Auntie Pinko
June 30, 2005
By Auntie Pinko
I have been listening to Air America Radio lately and it is
a welcome change from airwaves filled with right-wing blowhards
like Sean Insanity and Flush Limbaugh. But although its popularity
is growing, it is still a very small part of the radio fare compared
to the vast wasteland of conservative talk radio. Do you think its
possible for leftie radio to ever reach the same popularity levels?
Also, although I enjoy it very much (sometimes I laugh so hard
my coffee comes out my nose), a lot of the leftie talk on Air America
is basically just as over-the-top as the rightie stuff that Limbaugh
spouts. Is this a good thing? Should I be laughing? Is it part of
the solution or more of the problem?
If it's funny, by all means, laugh. Auntie gets many a guffaw
from the local Air America affiliate. Laughter can be a catharsis.
It's better for your blood pressure than gnashing your teeth with
rage. Even "guilty pleasure" laughs can discharge tension
and diffuse hostility.
This is not to say that some laughter isn't inappropriate. Jokes
that perpetuate hostile or hurtful stereotypes, or encourage cruelty
or insensitivity to others' pain are at best in poor taste, and
at worst can validate anti-social behaviors. Even so, we all laugh
at them occasionally, and then we may feel uncomfortable for doing
so. I have felt uncomfortable, sometimes, for laughing at jokes
told by members of ethnic and religious minorities, mocking the
stereotypes of their own people. Who am I to laugh, I think.
Yet self-deprecating humor can be a positive way for people to
cope with the pain of being "outside." And by inviting people to
laugh with them, the jokers can be breaking down barriers between
"outside" and "inside." Jokes featuring stereotypes can be a way
of mocking the stereotypes themselves, and can subtly rob those
stereotypes of their power by exposing them to laughter.
Political satire and ridicule have a long tradition; they are
certainly nothing new in America in the 21st Century. Right-wing
talk radio hosts didn't invent it. When Auntie Pinko was young,
Lenny Bruce exposed "the establishment" to devastatingly
witty and withering mockery. Ambrose Bierce, Sinclair Lewis, Will
Rogers and others all poked at the exposed nerve endings of pretension
and pomposity. They built on a much longer tradition that goes back
to ancient Greece and Rome, and probably before.
That said, let's explore the difference between laughter and gloating.
It's a broad gray stripe with different boundaries for everyone,
but at some point it becomes clear that you have crossed from one
side to the other. Laughter tickles your sense of the ridiculous,
it highlights human folly and gives you a sense of relief that you
weren't the only one who thought that (whatever) was incredibly
silly. Gloating gives you a sense of triumph, a reveling in the
imagined humiliation of others, a sense of having struck a blow
in a righteous cause to damage something that needed damaging.
I have heard and laughed at many jokes that poke fun at the follies
of the left (and oh, my, do we have them!) And I have mixed infuriation
with reluctant chuckles over pungent satire of liberal stereotypes
and famous people on the left, delivered with devastating effect.
And, yes, sometimes snorted indignantly at how unfair and untrue
some undeniably witty joke at progressive expense might be. There
are some pretty funny folks out there on the right, and it's a salutary
experience to see myself through their eyes from time to time.
What concerns Auntie Pinko about right-wing talk radio is the
proportion in which its hosts try to provoke gloating, as compared
to laughter. There's some of that on Air America as well. It's like
the difference between taking anti-stress medication in healthy
doses prescribed by a doctor, versus shooting heroin or smoking
crack to feel good. Playing to the lowest common denominator and
the most ignoble of human impulses may drive up ratings and boost
commercial advertising revenues, but it does little to improve and
much to damage our ability to get along with people whose opinions
are different than our own. And that ability is essential to maintaining
our freedom and keeping our democracy healthy.
To the extent that Air America and other liberal talk radio resists
the temptation to indulge in such tactics, it will probably never
be able to equal right-wing talk radio in market share and popularity.
It's human nature to love stuff that makes us feel good even if
(and sometimes especially if) it's bad for us. On the other hand,
if they can keep dishing out the genuinely funny stuff, they will
continue to grow, and provide liberals with healthy stress reduction
and conservatives with salutary views of themselves through our
Part of the solution, or part of the problem? They can be either
one, Vern. Listen and decide for yourself, and then vote with your
radio dial. And thanks for asking Auntie Pinko!
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