Saturday, July 5, 2008

Celebrating July 4th with Ridicule

Yesterday I wrote about how the ridiculous, if handled properly in a dramatic setting, could lead to insights of the deepest profundity. At the same time I have also argued that, when we try to take stock of the messes in which we are now bemired as a result of incredibly bad decisions in both the public and private sectors, ridicule is likely to be more effective than outrage. For one thing calling attention to outrage, particularly if it involves using an adjective like "bitter," may, as Barack Obama discovered, do more harm than good. On the other hand ridicule, if deployed in a manner that stresses shared humor, rather than insult or attack, can have considerable public appeal. Consider the extent to which the current electorate turns to The Daily Show to try to get a handle on serious issues of both national and global concern. Consider the extent to which Hillary Clinton attached as much value to appearances on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live as she did to being interviewed by the "established pundits" of the news media. Consider that, when the Nevada primary was coming right down to the wire, Obama delivered a speech in Las Vegas that is the closest he has ever come to a standup comedy routine. Finally, consider my favorite example, Dennis Kucinich, who discovered that the media would only cover him if he said something ridiculous and gradually (but not effectively enough, unfortunately) began to acquire Charles Ludlam's skill at using the ridiculous as a window into the profound.

There is no shortage of outlets for ridicule in San Francisco, but the one with the greatest legacy would have to be The San Francisco Mime Troupe, which prepares a politically satirical play that tours the Bay Area every summer. As an act of heart-felt political profundity, the tour traditionally begins in San Francisco on the Fourth of July; and the play is preceded by a benediction delivered by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (concluding with "Go forth and sin more."). Last year's production, Making a Killing, included performers who explicitly assumed the roles of Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice; but this year the District of Columbia is little more than a warped El Dorado in the imagination of Faustina Page, who is loosely based on Katherine Harris (who, at least as the story was told in Recount, was more than capable of ridiculing herself).

Indeed, this year's production, Red State, was, in many ways, a well-needed dose of ridicule to assuage all the aggravation stirred up by excellently-articulated outrage of Recount. Like Recount, Red State is all about the extent to which the electoral process itself has become fouled (as they prefer to say) up beyond all recognition; and, for an added measure, the very title revisits how we have endowed the semantics of "red" with a severe bipolar disorder. Thus, for the character Eugene "red" is a synonym for "Communist" and is therefore (still) the greatest danger of thinking that turns too far to the left (in the language of the Sisters' benediction). We still see this connection in Great Britain, where red is the color (or should I say "colour") of the Labor Party, while the Conservative color is blue. Over on this side of the pond, due to some fluke probably known only to the media, red has become the color of the Republican party on maps of election results, leaving blue for the Democrats. We also encounter the colors in the two settings, the town of Bluebird, Kansas and Ruby City (which figures in a clever deus ex machina shamelessly appropriated from The Wizard of Oz).

The basic plot concerns an election that is so close that the results ultimately depend on the outcome in Bluebird, whose only voting machine was delivered very late in the day and broke down before the votes could be tallied. This provides the "Mimers" with no end of targets for their agitprop barbs. We quickly see the extent to which Bluebird, itself, is fouled up beyond all recognition, primarily because it has always been neglected by the Federal government, particularly when it comes to budget allocations; and the plot revolves around a scheme to hold the results of their election hostage until all of its problems get fixed. At the risk of spoiling the punch line, the ultimate result is that, as a result of all the coverage Bluebird gets on CNN, other electoral districts across the country decide to withdraw their results in solidarity (and the hope of getting their share of that budgetary pie). The whole production thus becomes an outrageous parable of change, not in terms of the platitudes that drowned the electorate during the primaries but in terms of how to achieve useful actions. Thus, there may also be a lesson in here for the candidate who first thrust the concept of change into the current political discourse: Who would be seriously audacious must first learn to be seriously ridiculous.

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