Democratic Underground

Ask Auntie Pinko

June 30, 2005
By Auntie Pinko

Dear 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?


Appleton, WI

Dear Vern,

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 eyes.

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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