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Touchy, Aren't We?

Geoffrey Nunberg

Longer version of "Fresh Air" commentary,
June 29, 2006

It may be hard to believe when you listen to the ambient chatter, but contemporary public discourse is actually no more rancorous than it was in ages past. As Eric Burns shows in his new book Infamous Scribblers, the American press was malicious and mendacious from the outset, and by most historical standards the tone of our present dialogue is positively genteel.

What's novel now is the tone and setting of the chatter. Americans have always enjoyed the spectacle of political brouhahas, but before the advent of talk radio and Fox News, nobody realized that you could build a successful business model on political contumely all by itself. If you care to, you can hear more political name-calling in a single week than Americans of earlier eras could experience in an entire lifetime. Political chatter has become a form of performance art, as artificial and formulaic as reality TV.

Take Ann Coulter's recent description of the 9/11 widows as self-obsessed witches who were enjoying their husbands' deaths. As calumnies go, it doesn't have a patch on the things people were saying in the 1864 election, when the Democrats called Lincoln a leering buffoon, and Horace Greeley accused the Democrats of stealing the votes of dead Union soldiers. But it's only in the current age that remarks like those could turn someone into a media celebrity who's invited to appear on Jay Leno and the Today Show to repeat her choicest remarks for the delectation or outrage of their viewers.

Coulter's celebrity is a good measure of what has become of political discussion. You'd scarcely describe her as a political thinker, no more than you'd describe Simon Cowell as an critic of the arts. But like Cowell, she has an unerring gift for media theatrics. It isn't just her penchant for making snarky or outrageous remarks. Plenty of people do that without being invited onto the Today Show, and in fact Coulter doesn't get a lot of national attention for her run-of-the-mill ruminations about giving rat poison to Justice Stevens or fragging John Murtha. But the remark about the 9/11 widows was irresistible for its brazen and gratuitous tastelessness and the obvious pleasure Coulter took in consternation she created.  

Is Coulter is sincere about the things she says? That's a silly question, like asking whether schoolchildren are sincere in the taunts they throw at each other across the school yard. But that doesn't make her a satirist, as her defenders like to claim -- usually with the implication that her literal-minded liberal critics don't get the joke.

Satire depicts things as grotesque in order to make them seem ridiculous -- what Stephen Colbert does in his Bill O'Reilly persona or Christopher Buckley does with the pointed caricatures of Thank You For Smoking. But Coulter isn't actually sending anybody up -- not herself, certainly, and not the targets of her remarks. Her fans may enjoy hearing her talk about poisoning Justice Stevens or say that it's a pity Timothy McVeigh didn't park his truck next to the New York Times building. But that's not because the remarks make either Stevens or New York Times seem particularly ridiculous. It's because Coulter seems to be able to get away with unbridled aggression by presenting it as mere mischief, leaving her critics looking prim and humorless. ("Perhaps her book should have been called 'Heartless,'" said Hillary Clinton after Coulter's remarks about the widows, inviting the response, "Oh lighten up, girl.")

That rhetorical maneuver doesn't really have a name, but it's a close relative of what we think of as smut. In the strict sense, of course, smut is the leering innuendo that veils sexual aggression.[1] But in a broader sense, smut can be any kind of malice that pretends to be mere naughtiness. It might be a leering vulgarity, a racial epithet, or simply a venomous insult -- what makes it smut is that it's tricked out as humor, so that if anyone claims to be offended you can answer indignantly, "Can't you take a joke?"

In that broad sense, smut can sometimes be innocuous fun. It's a staple of sitcoms, in what you could think of as a Wooo! moment. That's the moment when a character who's comically malicious or catty (think Betty White, Rhea Perlman, Joseph Marcell) makes a remark that's just offensive or risqué enough to brush the limits of taste, and the studio audience reacts by saying "Woooo!!"

The political talk shows traffic in these moments, too -- not surprising, considering how much those shows owe to the classic sitcom. When you think of the most successful practitioners of the genre, whether Coulter, O'Reilly, or James Carville, there isn't a one of them who couldn't be the model for a recurring character on Cheers or Drew Carey -- the waspish virago, the bombastic blowhard, the sly yokel.

And as on the sitcoms, the drama of the political talk show is character-driven rather than plot-driven. Watching O'Reilly or Hannity and Colmes, you can't help recalling the bickering on All in the Family, where politics was always just a pretext for the clash of personalities. It doesn't matter whether the ostensible issue is the massacre at Haditha or an increase in wild bachelorette parties; it's going to be reduced to grist for the eternal squabble between liberals and conservatives -- not as adherents of opposing political philosophies, but more as distinctive political genders. ("Who are these parents who allow their kids to sleep with Michael Jackson?," Alan Colmes asked a couple of years back, and Sean Hannity answered, "Liberals.")

It's that underlying comic framework that creates the opportunity for political smut. However rude or offensive a remark might sound in the abstract, it's all in the spirit of entertainment. And as Coulter and other adepts of the genre understand, the ultimate effect is to aggravate the affront, not alleviate it. You not only get to offer an insult, but to discredit the anger or outrage it evokes as prim political correctness: "My, we're touchy, aren't we?"

That's the singular rhetorical achievement of our age. Other periods may have been our equals at mere abuse, but no one can touch us when it comes to driving people up a wall.

1. This is basically the analysis of smut that Freud offers in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, III, 2: "A person who laughs at smut that he hears is laughing as though he were the spectator of an act of sexual aggression." Return

Copyright © 2006 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.