When I was a teenager (back in the dark ages of the early 1960’s), people made fun of studying “the sex life of the tsetse fly” and used it as a metaphor for anything they wished to dismiss as a waste of time and money as well as a conservative proof of the folly of federal taxation and spending and of government itself. At the time, I knew the tsetse caused sleeping sickness and so was aware of the suffering and disability it visited upon populations in Africa, but even so I failed to comprehend how foolish we sounded repeating the phrase as a dismissive joke. I was an adolescent. We made fun of things, many things. The way to conquer the seriousness of life and the earnestness of adults was to make fun. We trivialized what we did not understand. Sex was funny, authority (federal or otherwise) was funny, and even sleeping sickness could be spoofed to amuse adolescent minds. We were sophomoric.
Paul Krugman was pointedly clever yesterday about the dangers of trivializing. On his blog, he wrote:
So Bobby Jindal makes fun of “volcano monitoring”, and soon afterwards Mt. Redoubt erupts. Susan Collins makes sure that funds for pandemic protection are stripped from the stimulus bill, and the swine quickly attack.
What else did the right oppose recently? I just want enough information to take cover.
But the left can be adolescent, too. The name Jesus seems quite funny these days, especially when pronounced loudly with the “e” absurdly extended, swooping to a blunt “us” at the end, mimicking the excesses of evangelistic preachers. Sure, Christianity has brought this mockery upon itself with its television theatrics and with its belligerent outcries and bathetic laments over its waning cultural establishment in the nation, antics that caricature the faith they claim to defend. Caricaturing the caricatures makes for easy adolescent humor but fails to consider or comprehend the faith itself.
We need to listen to American political discourse for the telltale signs of adolescent trivializing. We will always need political satire; it’s one of our great American strengths and an important manifestation and guardian of our freedom. But satire works because it recognizes the seriousness of the harm being done by people with power. Trivializing for the purpose of dismissing the seriousness of that harm, mocking the victims, and protecting the powerful doing the harm is a different matter. Pointing out the silliness of people taking themselves much too seriously as they dismiss the rights or sufferings of others is helpful. Dismissing matters as serious as the current recession, the damage to the nation’s soul and the souls of its young done by sanctioning torture, or the environmental disasters our world faces is red-zone adolescent and self-serving. We need grown-ups and grown-up conversation.