Saturday, January 14, 2017

"Don't normalize" is a losing argument

[Note: I've also posted this at Hitcoffee]

Some Trump opponents argue that we shouldn't "normalize his election." It's a losing argument and not likely to convince anyone of anything. In fact, it's likely to make some people defensive who can otherwise be brought to oppose Mr. Trump or at least some of his most egregious actions.

The intention behind the argument

Trump's campaign was based on an unprecedented appeal to racism, xenophobia, and violence. (Or "unprecedented" for the candidate of a major party since World War II.) A good number--perhaps small, but still too many for comfort--of his supporters identify openly with the "alt right" or other white nationalist creeds, and one of his "senior" advisors used to be an editor for an online magazine that gave a voice to some alt right groups. Further, it appears that Mr.Trump has either declined to disavow them, waited too long to disavow them, or has been too equivocal in disavowing them. (For a dissenting view, see Scott Alexander.)

There are other sins, too, and I haven't even touched on the in some ways more disturbing implications of Mr. Trump's presidency for foreign policy.

Those who say "don't normalize" the election are saying this is no ordinary transfer of power. They're pushing back against a tempting story that goes, "well, two people ran for election and one of them won, so let's all come together and support the new president, and better luck next time to the losers." The "don't normalize" people are saying that approach is insufficient. It doesn't represent the gravity of what has already happened and doesn't create a bulwark against what might happen. In a very real sense, that approach makes "normal" that which ought never be normal and until recently wasn't even openly sayable.

An unnecessary hurdle

But raising the "don't normalize" argument creates an unnecessary hurdle for Trump opponents. With the "don't normalize" argument, they now have to explain what normalization is, why it's bad, how not to normalize, and how any given action a "normalizer" undertakes actually constitutes normalization--all that before and in addition to criticizing anything of substance. And the what's, why's, and how's are more difficult than it might seem from a Trump opponent's perspective. For one thing, what does it mean as a practical matter to "normalize"? As Noah Millman has said,
If people who opposed Trump refuse to “normalize” his government, what does that mean? That they will, literally, refuse to recognize its authority — refuse to pay its taxes, resign from service in its military, and so forth? Surely not.
I'll add that it's impossible NOT to normalize (for certain values of "normalize") without making some very difficult decisions. If you have a 401k or an investment account, are you prepared to disinvest from any stocks or bonds that have a stake in "normalizing" the new presidency--which is pretty much all of them? Are you prepared, as Millman says, to refuse to pay taxes, etc.? Do we start a civil war? If so, who do we kill? (For the record, I disavow killing or civil war. I'm pointing out that one reductio to which the "don't normalize" talk can go is to a call for violence. Again, that's not something I'm willing to endorse.) More from the same Millman article:
I think what people mean when they say that we can’t “normalize” Trump’s behavior is some some version of “we need to keep reminding people that this is not normal.” But the “we” and “people” in that sentence are doing all the work.Whoever says that Trump shouldn’t be “normalized” is implying that somebody — the press, perhaps? — is in a position to decide what is normal, and to inform everybody else of that fact. But that’s not how norms work, and neither the press nor anybody else is in a position either to grant or withhold recognition to the new government.

In fact, the word is a way of distracting from one of the crucial jobs at hand. Trump, for example, is on strong legal ground when he says that he is exempt from conflict of interest laws. But laws can be changed — and in this case, perhaps they should be. To achieve that requires making a case, not that what Trump is doing isn’t “normal,” but that it is a bad thing worth prohibiting by law. Saying “we mustn’t normalize this behavior” rather than “we need to stop this behavior” is really a way of saying that you don’t want to engage in politics, but would rather just signal to those who already agree with us just how appalled we are.


What is to be done?

I don't know the answer to that question. Perhaps because Trump hasn't even assumed office yet, "don't normalize the election" might be a more winnable or at least plausible argument because he hasn't had a chance to do much yet other than signal certain policies and criticize people's acting ability. Maybe when the time comes, we can follow Matt Yglesias's suggestion and focus on the actual policies and humdrum of politics. Or maybe we could do more than that (although we should probably do that). Take Rebecca Trotter's blog. She'd possibly disagree with my admonition against the "don't normalize" argument, but even if she does, she offers concrete things we can do in her series of "daily acts of resistance" posts and her ideas on "what resistance to Trump looks like." I'm don't read her as often as I should--and I'm not prepared to say I necessarily agree with her ideas for resistance--but she's offering something concrete.


Maybe Trump is an authoritarian who may bring us closer to the coming next presidential tyranny. Maybe he'll turn out to be the weak-willed, thin-skinned, incompetent his actions so far suggest he is. A third possibility is that he's just a regular politician who'll both modify, and fit in to, the institutional norms and incentives that are the presidency.

I realize there is real fear out there. Perhaps events will prove that fear unfounded, but I can't and won't deny that the fear is genuine and plausible. I'm not part of the demographics most likely to be targeted by what's going on, and I realize that this fact gives me a detached view that others can ill-afford to take. My historian's sensibility warns against judging people who are in circumstances I can never understand perfectly. But I do believe the "don't normalize" argument at best will simply not work and at worst will help foster a defensive reaction in favor of Trump.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Reviving the forbidden analogy

[I originally posted this item over at Hitcoffee about a month ago.]

The forbidden analogy.

According to Godwin’s law and its corollaries, Hitler and Nazi analogies are almost always a bad idea. They are more likely to derail a conversation than add to it.

If you’re trying to convince someone of something, comparing them to Hitler and the Nazis is probably the wrong way to get them to listen to you. It also leaves room for one objection. If someone is so like the Nazis that the comparison is apt, they might not amendable to argument anyway. (Actually, I’m not so sure. I see some moral distance between the German who didn’t approve of but who acquiesced to Nazi rule and high-ranking leaders of the party. This might be offensive, but most citizens of the United States acquiesce to some pretty brutal policies who if asked would claim not to approve. Not saying that’s the same thing….which is one of the problems with Nazi analogies in the first place.)

The analogy is distracting. If someone is to be opposed because he is “a lot like Hitler,” then it shouldn’t be too hard to point out the ways he is objectionable without saying “and this is what the Nazis did, too.” If someone really wishes to single out an ethno-religious groups for “special treatment,” or if he endorses politically motivated violence, or if he threatens to revive something like the Palmer raids, then it shouldn’t be too hard to argue that that person is proposing something wrong. If it is hard, then your problem is different from mere analogizing.

Finally–and I’m not sure I’ve heard this objection raised before–the analogy can normalize Nazism. For the purposes of naming things as they are, of course, Nazis should be called Nazis. Neo-Nazis should also be called Nazis. The “alt right”….maybe call them Nazis, I guess, depending on who we’re talking about and what they advocate.

I’m not sure how far down the ladder it’s okay to go, though. If someone is in principle persuadable to your view, or if they supported the “unsupportable” for non-Nazi’ish reasons, then it’s possible overusing the word “Nazi” in describing that person might make less illegitimate a term that heretofore has been an automatic insult.

In a sense, overuse of the word grants Nazis “official opposition” status. If that’s how things are, then that’s how they are. But we shouldn’t overdetermine the result.

Please don’t misunderstand me. If someone comes to think the term “Nazi” is now “less illegitimate” than it was before, the fault lies primarily with that person. People sometimes choose evil, and if we make it easy for them to do so, we share some of the blame. But the principal responsibility lies with the chooser.

The analogy revived.

In two fairly recent posts Over There, I’ve seen something like that analogy used for our present situation.Before I discuss them, I’d like to point out that I am citing only the parts that speak to the issue of Nazi analogies. Each post makes more complex arguments and should not be judged solely by what I excerpt here. So read the whole thing(s).

The first post is Saul De Graw’s reflections on how bad the new presidential administration might be:
We also like to think that our laws and Constitution will protect us from the worse from happening but laws and Constitution are only as strong as the people themselves. A friend of mine posted another story on Facebook. The author of the post’s grandmother was a Jewish elementary school student in Hitler’s Germany. She needed surgery in 1932 and 1933. In 1932, all of the girl’s classmates and teachers came to visit her in the hospital. In 1933, no one did.

This story might seem hyperbolic (and it does raise Godwin’s Law) but it demonstrates that the norms of bigotry can change rapidly and seemingly overnight. Maybe the girl’s classmates and teachers did not become more anti-Semitic, but they knew it would be a serious social cost and possibly a physical cost to visit their Jewish classmate in the hospital. Most people are go along and get along types. You don’t need a nation of willing executioners. You just need enough people willing to commit acts of violence with the consent of government, and most of the rest of the people will just put their heads down to save themselves and their families.
The second is Mike Schilling’s takedown of the argument that liberals’ alleged smugness played a role in the president-elect’s victory. (In my opinion, the Nazi analogy lurks in the background, although Mike himself makes no explicit reference to it and the person he’s referring to is a post-World War II “scholar.”):
In case you’re not familiar with the work of Kevin Macdonald, let me summarize. In analyzing the recurrence of anti-Semitism through history, he found the usual explanations wanting, and hit upon one that, while not new, had been oddly absent from almost all recent academic discussions: they deserve it. Jews really are awful, he observed: clannish, avaricious, and amoral, with disdain for societal norms and non-Jews in general that makes them a cancer on any society foolish enough to admit them. Anti-semitism is an entirely natural response, in effect the immune system working to fight an infection.

Much of the reaction to the recent election has included a similar insight, which, much like Dr. Macdonald’s, is moving beyond the area that once hosted it. [The president-elect’s] popularity among voters is explained by the fact that liberals are smug. Of course voters dislikes liberals: who wouldn’t? They’re whiny losers, overeducated but lacking any sense, haters of patriotism, religion, and everything genuinely American, nanny-staters, Godless socialists, baby-killers, special snowflakes who need safe spaces. And worst of all, smug. No wonder their political fortunes are slipping; no one can stand them. (Even worse for fans of Dr. Macdonald, liberals are often… Well, you know.)
What surprised me wasn’t so much that the analogy was used (or in Mike’s case, implied). That’s to be expected on a liberal-leaning blog in which almost all authors and contributors opposed the president-elect and believed his campaign represented an unacceptably racist, xenophobic, or authoritarian turn in US politics.

What surprised me slightly more was that no one, as far as I can tell, actually complained about Godwin’s law. The closest was one comment to Mike’s post, which complained that “[i]t seems like the point of this article was to stack the concepts of liberalism, smugness, and anti-Semitism on top of each other in so many combinations that it will seem like anyone who accuses liberals of smugness is anti-Semitic.”

A lot of things could explain the unwillingness to call out Godwin’s law.  It is a liberal-leaning blog, after all. And for each OP, the main point wasn’t the Nazi analogy but some other thing. In Saul’s case, he forthrightly admits the dangers of “Godwin’s law” and in Mike’s case, as I’ve said, the analogy was only implicit. And maybe those posts just happen to show up on the right day/time so that no one chose to discuss the analogy’s aptness.

Directing the analogy inward.

I’m not inclined to call Godwin’s law, either. Whatever differences I might have with Saul’s post, I have no standing whatsoever to tell him that he doesn’t really fear what he says he fears. I’d go even further and say his”…and most of the rest of the people will just put their heads down to save themselves and their families” is too charitable.It’s far from clear that the question was always saving oneself and one’s family. It might have been more like “saving oneself the inconvenience and opportunity cost” of raising even a token opposition.

For Mike’s post, a more charitable reading of his analogy is that he’s identifying a prior instance of fallacious reasoning and noting how in his opinion current commentary succumbs to similar reasoning. I’m not sure I agree completely–and I see more disanalogy than analogy–but I can’t say he’s wholly wrong, either.

In fact, looking to myself, the chance that the analogy might have some teeth haunts me in our present situation. My insistence on “understanding the voters, my own “gut” preference for the president-elect, and my perhaps too cheerful optimism that (to use what seems to be our newest cliche) “our institutions can survive the stress test”–these all suggest to me something similar to the German citizen who silently disagreed with the Nazis’ racial policies or who complacently believed Hitler might not be so bad or that his ministers and the institutions of civil society could control him.

The dangerous thing is that I could probably get away with complacency. I’m not a member of the demographics most likely to be targeted, although some of my loved ones are. And Saul said, who’s targeted and who’s not targeted can change, sometimes very quickly.

I really want to agree with Scott Alexander. He has written that as bad as the president-elect is likely to be, he’s not the white nationalist wolf some people are crying. And on paper, Mr. Alexander is right. As far as I can tell, the last president who indulged in overt racism and white nationalism was Woodrow Wilson, and the next president ain’t no Wilson. That’s probably both a good thing and a bad thing. But I also fear the new guy is as much of a wolf as he can be.

More to the point, I do realize that the way things happen in the US are different from how they happen in Europe. Not “exceptional,” just different. Our persecutions and oppressions tend to be more decentralized, though no more benign for that. And I must keep things in historical perspective. Maybe a few months from now I’ll find the new president is just a regular politician with a populist streak, of the sort we’ve had before and have survived.


Even flirting with the Hitler analogy by implication compares those of my family, friends, or readers who voted for the president-elect to Germans who voted for national socialism in the 1930s. I ask only that they realize I’m directing this analogy to myself and my own complacency. I disagree strongly with their decision, but I refuse to direct the analogy to them. As an analogy, it works best for removing the beams in the eye of those who use it. Motes in others’ eyes require a more precise instrument.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Trump and defensiveness

(Note: this is a re-post of something I wrote a couple months ago at Hitcoffee.)

I don’t like Donald Trump. I hope he’ll be merely a bad president and not a disastrous one. I don’t like Trumpism, either. I hope (but am not optimistic) the anecdotes of racially and sexist motivated violence are either exaggerated, reported only because they’re topical, or at least don’t represent a new trend. The night of the election I was depressed and worried. You might not believe it, but I didn’t sleep at all. Not a wink. I just lay awake in bed thinking about the future.

And yet, when people in my life criticize Trump or his supporters, I get very defensive for some reason. By “people in my life” I mean family members, close friends, coworkers, and people on the blogosphere. Even my belief that we do indeed need to understand our opponents represents a certain defensiveness because my go-to (with some past exceptions) is usually to understand Trump supporters or non-liberals in general and not to understand the liberals who oppose Trump.

Perhaps some of this has to do with “flippism,” an idea I got from Jaybird, a commenter Over There. In relevant part,
It’s the basic idea that if you don’t know which of two choices are before you, you should flip a coin. Not because you should do what the coin says, mind, but because the moment the coin is in the air, you’re a lot more likely to say “OH I HOPE IT’S HEADS” at which point you’ll know which choice you actually prefer in your gut.
Then you just have to figure out how much weight to give your gut.
I bring that up because hypocrisy can work that way for people who are on the fence. Let’s say that you’re torn on a particular policy. There’s this way, there’s that way… you don’t know which is the best one… then you encounter a hypocritical politician. Are you inclined to snort and reach conclusions about all those people? Are you inclined to get defensive and start defending the guy even before you read a single attack? Well, now you know what your gut thinks.
As upset as I was about Trump’s victory, I can’t deny that somewhere in my gut I wanted him to win, if not the presidency, then at least the GOP nomination, and not in the way that some liberals wanted him to win the nomination in order to ensure a Democratic victory. In the voting booth, even though I voted for Clinton, part of me wanted to vote for Trump just to be contrarian. In Sangamon that vote wouldn’t have affected the outcome, but it’s still something I might have done.

Some of this defensiveness and “gut support” is a luxury. I’m not among the demographics most likely to be hurt by Trumpism if the worst (or even just the “moderately bad”) predictions about what it means come true. Some of it is probably also due to what my co-blogger Oscar recently described as the “-ism-lite,” which is the type of racism (and other ism’s) that are not quite as nefarious or bad as the more obvious or open kinds, but are still wrong and withal easy for its practitioners to overlook. As he puts, it instead of rejecting out of hand, “I have to parse it, process it, and then I recognize it and decide it’s not OK.”

I realize that in this post, other than noting that I do get defensive, I haven’t really explained the defensiveness or even the types of situations that elicit that defensiveness. I’m simply noting that it’s there and I’m not sure what to do with it.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Update on posts

I have for a while neglected this blog, for two reasons. One, and I know I've said this before, I have been invited by Will Truman to blog at his Hitcoffee site. The other is that I've been a bit more aggressive about writing guest posts at Ordinary Times.

I probably won't do a lot of cross-posting between here and at the other sites, mostly because I'm too lazy. I may, however, continue to post here from time to time on matters that are more "personal," perhaps even "experimental," and that I don't think the people at Hitcoffee or Ordinary Times would necessarily be interested in. Each of those sites has its own comment culture and "audience," and I want to respect that.

I still welcome comments here, and my email account, which I try to check at least once a weekday and usually on the weekend, too, notifies me when they're made.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Observations about Spain, part 2 (politics)

(This post is cross-posted at HitCoffee.)

In my last post, I promised to write about Spanish persons' thoughts on politics.  But what I have to say is probably more about the process of observing others' views and my wish to avoid at least some of the pitfalls when doing so.  In short, this post will be more about me than about Spain or the Spanish.

First a preface.  I'm aware of (many of) my limitations.  I know little of Spanish history beyond what anyone would know after having taken two semesters of Western Civ.  I probably know even less about Spanish politics, and I haven't gone out of my way to educate myself.  I also spoke with only a few people in Spain.  And those people had their own motivations, their own biases, and their own reasons for saying what they did.  The language barrier probably also prevented me from discerning much of the nuance of what they said--and probably prevented me from even understanding much, although my wife was there to translate.  I write this because I don't want to be that guy who goes to Europe or who has European friends and says, "they believe x," and then uses that generalization as evidence in favor of their own preferred policies in the US.

One of my wife's set of friends is a family that is probably "middle class" in the sense of "people who do non-manual and professional-like labor and are relatively better off than most people" (and not in the American sense of "everybody who is alive and not super poor or a billionaire").  They had a lot of complaints about the government's restrictive laws for businesses.  One person wanted to start up an internet business and sell things online, but the licensing and other regulations made it way too costly.  That family also seemed to be concerned that those regulations created a too large black market economy.

That critique meshes pretty well with my own neoliberal views.  But my wife and I met others who probably would have disagreed with her friends.  For instance, one taxi driver we met was upset, if I understood him correctly, over the Spanish government's proposals to endorse austerity programs and taxes on workers and over its complicity with German monetary policy.  That taxi driver, I assume from his comments but I'm also putting words into his mouth, wanted to keep many of the regulations which he believed protected workers like him but which my wife's other friends wanted to lessen or liberalize.

The Spanish people I talked to seemed much better informed about US politics than I was/am about Spanish or European politics.  While it's probably a bad thing for Americans not to know as much about politics outside the US as they do about politics within the US, I decline to chide my compatriots too much for their ignorance, which as it happens is my ignorance, too.  Spain is a smaller, less powerful country than the US and and daily life in Spain seems to be enmeshed in international affairs in more obvious, or at least more obviously direct, ways than daily life in the US is.  It's not because Spanish people are more virtuous or American people are more "anti-intellectual."  It's largely because circumstances demand greater attention to international matters.

Also, and with due respect to the people I met, their knowledge of US politics seemed on some level superficial.  The people I talked to, not surprisingly (to me), disliked George W. Bush and "the Republicans."  One person said, if I understood right, that the Republicans were the party of the past or the old guard (I believe his word was "ancianos"....although I might be misremembering or I might have misheard). However, I suspect, that the persons I spoke with don't quite understand how our system of single member district representation, along with our presidential (non-parliamentary) system, works.  In other words, I don't think they fully realize that someone can vote for the Democrats or the Republicans without necessarily supporting even most of that party's platform.

I don't say this as an indictment against them.  I have an even less firm grasp on Spanish politics and how the Spanish government works.  When I saw mention on Spanish TV about "el presidente del gobierno," I thought they were referring to something like a prime minister--and wikipedia says I'm right--but I the word "presidente" tripped me up and for a second I thought Spain had a presidential system like the US or a presidential/parliament system like France.   I'll repeat what I said above.  The Spanish people I met know more about the US government than most Americans, including me, know about the Spanish government.

My lesson from all this is the unsurprising one that people resemble each other in their propensity to frame things in ways they can understand and that supports their own biases.  The Spanish are human, just like me.  That lesson seems corny or even "awe shucks-y," but the fact that I "learned" that lesson means that I had a caricature of what it meant to be European or Spanish or non-American.  And now that caricature is less strong.  (I'll concede that, as commenter David Alexander suggested in my last thread, I'd have a chance to learn even more lessons if I had gone to India or Saudi Arabia.  I don't claim that my 9 days as a tourist in a western country necessarily exposes me to difference.)

In other words, and still not surprisingly, travel might help expose people to other worldviews in a way that my own provincialism does not.  I don't mean provincialism as a self-deprecating epithet, either.  I have a lot of reservations about cosmopolitanism and about "travel culture" and I believe those reservations still have merit.  When one cuts oneself off from the local, one loses something and the loss is real.  But going to Spain has demonstrated that those reservations have their limits and that if the loss is real, so is the gain.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Observations about Spain, part 1 (random stuff)

(Cross-posted at Hit Coffee.)

My wife and I just returned from our honeymoon in Spain.  (We had actually gotten married about two years ago, but for a variety of reasons we’ve had to wait until now.)  Here are some of my observations/thoughts.

1.  I had never been to Europe or to any country other than the US or Canada before our trip. It was weird to be crossing the Atlantic, knowing that what once had been a great barrier could be crossed in hours.

2.  My Spanish is very poor.  I can understand my wife (who speaks it well), but my ability to speak the language is, err, “challenged.”  Still, I was surprised at how much I was able to understand when others spoke it.  It was also interesting to hear the use of “vosotros”/”vosotras” and what is known as the “Castillian lisp.”  I knew both features marked Iberian Spanish from the American Spanish I’m more used to.  But it was interesting to hear it in person.

3.  I was oddly surprised at how much American influence was evident in the culture.  I say “oddly” because I knew/know that American culture has a pretty wide reach and that Europe is in that “western” mold.  But still, it was striking to me how much Spain seemed like the US.  The fact we were in only two locales may have affected my impression. We stayed in what is probably downtown Madrid, although we visited some friends of my wife in a more residential area of that city.  We also stayed in Santiago de Compostela, in what is probably the touristy part (where the big Cathedral is).  We visited some friends there, too, but they lived nearby that area.

4.  The disaster with the Lufthansa airplane happened the day before we left for Spain.  My wife and I had both read about it, but declined to mention it to the other for fear that it would make the other nervous about the flight.  We thought we were keeping it a secret.  However, Spanish media covered the disaster quite extensively. (The plane had taken off from Barcelona).  I’m not sure how the coverage there compares to coverage in the US, or how it compares with coverage of other air disasters, like the TWA 800 flight in 1996.  (I mention that flight because my niece knew two of the people who died.)
In my next post, I’ll make a couple of observations about what little I grokked of Spanish persons’ thoughts on politics.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Family Guy and the Banality of Evil

[A version of this is posted on Ordinary Times here.  This version is slightly edited for some typos and formatting.]

This post is about "Family Guy," and I promise I'll get there.  But first I'll start with a long passage from George Orwell's 1984 (hat tip, Eric Blair).  Toward the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, Winston Smith, writes the following in his diary [bold added by me]:
"April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didnt oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didnt it aint right not in front of kids it aint until the police turned her turned her out i dont suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction they never "


Now back to "Family Guy."  I'm not sure it's okay to watch the show.  I like it.  I don't watch it much anymore, but that's mostly because it's on at inconvenient times for me.  But it's hard to know whether I should laugh at the humor.

Or some of the humor.  Many of its jokes are pretty innocent.  Take the scene where an errant golf ball crashes through a china shop and destroys all the porcelain vases and other breakable things.  A bull, who had been in the china shop innocently browsing the wares, now faces blame from the owner who was in a back room and didn't see what caused all the damage.  (Sorry, I can't seem to find a YouTube link to it, but it's funnier if you watch it than if you read my description.)  Some of the humor also strikes me as decent social commentary.  When Peter meets the crows from Dumbo and makes his comment about "good ole fashioned family racism" [not really offensive, but probably not safe for work], it's hard to deny he's on to something.  There are also a lot of fart jokes that aren't really my thing but are harmless.

But some humor crosses the line.  Take the scene where a barbershop quartet makes fun of an AIDS patient, or the repeated jokes about and abuse toward Meg, or the neighborhood pedophile character.  Everyone's mileage varies and the line-crossing jokes can sometimes be argued to have a point beyond harming others for the sake of laughter.  Examples [not safe for work]:  here, here, and here.

Finding the point—finding the justification for the humor—requires us to rely on irony.  We don't really think that it's appropriate to make fun of someone with a terminal illness.  We don't really think bullying a teenage girl is a good thing to do.  We don't really find pedophilia funny.  Instead, we (by which I mean, "me and others," because this is something I do) say it's so bad it's funny.  In fact, it's funny precisely because it's so bad, because we would never do those things or condone them being done outside movies or tv, or at least outside the cartoon world.  It's the type of thing we laugh at everyday.  We might also say that "Family Guy" is "an equal opportunity lampooner."  I have problems with that argument, both as a general argument and in the particular case of "Family Guy."

But how can we be sure that our laughter or enjoyment is not just another way of performing cruelty?  It's not right to make fun of people with terminal illnesses, but there was a time not too long ago when it was okay or at least not beyond the pale in at least some otherwise respectable circles to make jokes about "the gay disease."  Bullying isn't funny except when it is.  How many times have I made a comment on the internet that I believed to be funny but was probably on some level bullying?  (Answer, probably at least a few.)  Pedophilia and other forms of sexual abuse isn't funny, but I suspect a goodly number of people here have occasionally laughed at "prison rape" jokes or whatnot.

Most people who make such jokes or who find troublesome things to be funny aren't sociopaths.  But I'm not so sure that sociopaths don't make such jokes.  And while it's a fallacy to say that because Socrates is a man, therefore all men are Socrates, the family resemblance between "Family Guy" humor and what cruel people do and probably laugh about is disconcerting to me.  Think of the bullies you may have known or people who have punched down (or even up) at you and the jokes they tell.  I'm not so sure they don't tell themselves they're not laughing at the person or the disability or the racial or sexual identity.  I wouldn't be surprised if they say instead that they're just laughing at the irony of it all.


I began this post with the Orwell quotation for a reason.  What Winston Smith observed at the movie theater is what I'm suggesting happens with "Family Guy."  What entertainment we consume and partake in is also part of what we put out there and might very well contribute to a violent project.  Think of the history of blackface minstrel shows, which arose during slavery and flourished during Jim Crow. 

The analogy is not perfect.  I wouldn't be surprised if in Smith's dystopic world, people are required to watch such movies whereas in our real world we have a choice whether or not to watch "Family Guy."  And Jim Crow has been dismantled, at least formally.  There's also the idea that as consumers of entertainment we are detached.  We suspend disbelief.  And in so doing we are, as I noted above, "laughing at the irony of it all."

Am I just being puritanical?  Not in the Menckenian sense of the word.  I'm not tsk-tsk'ing.  I'm not arguing that "Family Guy" should be banned.  I'm not endorsing a letter-writing campaign or boycott to get it off the air.  I'm not even urging anyone else not to watch it.  I'll probably watch it or reruns someday in the future.

Maybe I am being puritan in another sense, though.  I believe that what we--by which, again, I mean "you and I"--perform and do is part of who we are and shapes what we become.  I resist calling that "puritanism" because doing so seems to imply that only puritans care about such things.

And we should consider what we laugh at.  It's not always an easy call.  The "prole" in Smith's passage might be on to something.