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Comics, journalists & preachers

Comics, journalists & preachers April 15, 2007

Happily, big-time movie director John Rogers still finds time to do a bit of blogging, including yesterday's post clearing up the confusion on the Imus affair.

Rogers' main point has to do with the way comedy "steals power":

I think this is the key to understanding why the Rutgers incident suddenly brought the whole Imus parade to a halt. The guy's been a frikkin' cretin for years, and this was really not that different objectively — you really have to listen to the whole thing, by the way, to get that this was a good solid chunk of time dumping on these young women, not just the magnificently constructed "nappy-headed hos" sound bite. McGuirk in particular is just hateful … Anyway, why this comment and why now?

For all these years, Imus stayed, barely, on the right side of the power equation. Always gone after public figures, or his bosses …

… but then he screwed up. He didn't steal power, he used it. Used it to say just shitty things about people who, in our minds, just didn't deserve it. He broke the power equation. And when he did, we balked, even if we don't quite understand why this one got under our skin. The wiring goes both ways. It's actually heartening, because it confirms one of the admirable things about American society at large:

America loves a rebel.

America loves a bad boy.

But America hates a fucking bully.

The gist of what he's saying echoes something I was taught both in seminary and in the newspaper biz, the shared motto of preachers and journalists: "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." That's what good preachers, and good journalists, do. It makes sense that comics, who sometimes preach and sometimes report the news, would follow this motto as well.

Imus "broke the power equation," Rogers says. He afflicted the afflicted, which made him a bully instead of a comic. That's not funny.

This happens a lot, not just with comics, but with journalists and preachers too. They get the motto backwards, they break the power equation. The journalists cozy up to the powerful, the preachers become bullying scolds. Both start to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. It's nothing new, Jesus described the same thing thousands of years ago, "They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them."

The tricky thing — whether you're a journalist, preacher or comic — is that "the comfortable" and "the afflicted" are not immutable categories. Anyone, at some point, might be in either category. White House spokesman Tony Snow, for example, has had a lucrative career as a dishonest and thoroughly unprincipled apologist for power. That made him fair game for exposure, for jokes and jeremiads. But Snow now has cancer in his liver and the prognosis is not good. And jokes at the expense of a cancer victim just aren't funny. Kicking a man when he is down is the work of a bully.

This is, again, what I think Orwell was getting at in that essay on Charles Dickens I've taken to quoting a bit too often:

Where [Dickens] is Christian is in his quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors. As a matter of course he is on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere. To carry this to its logical conclusion one has got to change sides when the underdog becomes an upperdog, and in fact Dickens does tend to do so.

Which underscores Rogers' point, that context matters. The transgressive humor of the underdog is funny. The transgressive "humor" of the upperdog is merely bullying. And that's not funny. (It's not even really transgressive, since the upperdogs make and enforce the rules.)

The dynamic at work here is, of course, justice. Comedy doesn't so much "steal" power as reclaim it. Undermining injustice is funny. Enforcing it is not. This is as true for preachers and journalists as it is for comics.

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