September 11, 2013

NG: The Non-Politics of South Park Politics

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I’m a college student, which means that by default I like South Park. It is crassly hilarious, relevant to current events and in-pulse with pop culture. It also makes me feel uncomfortable.

South Park’s business is to insult. It lampoons celebrities, religions and ethnicities, etc. etc. — nothing is held sacred. In an age when everyone takes themselves too seriously, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It does become a problem when the show tries to tackle politics. “Cartoon Wars Part II” tried to depict the prophet Muhammad in order to make a point about free speech, but Comedy Central infamously censored those images against the creator’s wishes. “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson” tackled the use of the N-word, and the phrase “People Who Annoy You” is now the stuff of memes. “Sexual Harassment Panda” satirized how “easy” it is to sue others for sexual harassment — that episode ended with the lawsuit Everyone v. Everyone.

The show only occasionally addresses political issues; its topics of choice are almost always free speech, political correctness and uncool bureaucracy. Given Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s political beliefs, this isn’t surprising. Both say they “hate liberals more than conservatives.” Both engender a libertarian strain of conservatism popular among college campuses and younger people. Pundit Andrew Sullivan coined the term “South Park Republican” to describe the new wave of young adults who align with the show’s beliefs — a misnomer if anything, because Trey Parker is registered with the Libertarian Party.

The problem with South Park’s politics is not its content, but its presentation. if they are heavily libertarian, then more power to them. But the show chooses to espouse these beliefs though disingenuous, dishonest arguments that reveal the show as sheltered and sophomoric.

Accusing South Park of spectatorship is strange, because the show looks like it jumps headfirst into the foray as the most vile and enthusiastic of commentators. Take season four’s “It Hits the Fan,” where the word “shit” was used over a hundred times in reaction to media uproar over a single use of “shit” on CBS in the ‘90s. On the bottom left was a counter that tallied the number of times “shit” was said on air. The counter made clear that the episode’s goal was to provoke controversey in order to make a point. Yet, rather than engaging with debate, the show calls for reason through ad hominems by showing that those on the other side of the debate are much more insane. And this works pretty well — in response to that episode, one advocacy group denounced South Park as “dangerous to democracy.” Suddenly South Park doesn’t look so bad.

Encoded within this tactic is a disavowal towards political action. Lampooning liberals and conservatives “for the lolz” is perfectly fine because everybody does stupid things, but the show’s ultimate message is not “do something about these stupid people,” but “look at these stupid people.” We are told to see the show’s creators as witty truth speakers, to focus on the satire but not the issues. Mocking Al Gore in “ManBearPig” was hilarious, but also encouraged viewers to tune out An Inconvenient Truth because “Al Gore is desperate for attention.” Every episode tacking political correctness concludes that the offended need to grow a thicker skin.

David Foster Wallace, in his profile of the conservative talk show host John Ziegler, criticized how “Even though there is plenty of stuff for reasonable people to dislike about Political Correctness as a dogma, there is also something creepy about the brutal, self-righteous glee with which [Ziegler] and other conservative hosts defy all PC conventions. If it causes you real pain to hear or see something, and I make it a point to inflict that thing on you merely because I object to your reasons for finding it painful, then there’s something wrong with my sense of proportion, or my recognition of your basic humanity, or both.”

It’s unfair to compare Ziegler with South Park, but the logic is perfectly applicable. The show’s self-righteousness when it gleefully mocks offended parties to make a point about free speech, or when it tells others what they believe is stupid and doesn’t matter, is just as obnoxious as the guy in high school who quoted Nietzsche in English class. South Park’s most obscene example of insufferable sophistry was “Cartman’s Silly Hate Crime 2000,” where Parker and Stone play a useless game of semantics to say that hate crime legislation is unfair because all crimes are hate crimes.” If life were only that simple.

Everybody attempts satire, but few are actually good at it. Admittedly, South Park is still great at it. It’s still hilarious. Its points, regardless of how they’re presented, are well taken. The show only becomes a problem when you treat it as a serious political commentary with more meaning than it actually has.