By Mr. Fish / Original to ScheerPost
“Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” – Mark Twain
In 1992, the late great comedian Bill Hicks, easily one of the most viscerally recalcitrant critics of US foreign policy, police brutality, and mush-head Christian duplicity, was featured in a BBC2 production titled Funny Business: A Question of Taste that asked when an artist should refrain from using vernacular language that is too blunt in its criticism of the government, the church, or the most toxically vanilla presuppositions of the dominant culture. Exhausted by the familiar argument often leveled against stand-ups who use humor to advance contrarian ideas that could be misconstrued as anarchistic or blasphemous – ideas, that is, that could implicate the listener in some way and pull them out of a spectator role and into a participatory one – Hicks interrupted his interviewer’s insistence that people don’t come to comedy clubs to think by saying, “Gee, where do [they] go to think? I’ll meet [them] there.”
Hoping to reaffirm the legitimacy of her position with volume over substance, the interviewer then interrupted Hicks to say, “[Audiences] don’t want to think – they want to laugh!” to which Hicks responded, “What am I supposed to do, go out and tickle [each audience member] individually? We have to express [ideas in art].” When the interviewer finally proposed that comedians should sometimes self-censor in deference to good taste because an artist, like the rest of the population relegated to the cramped quarters located in the increasingly crowded lower tiers of the hierarchy, is required to have the wherewithal to know when to draw the line when speaking hard truths to those unrehearsed in hearing them, an exasperated Bill sighed and asked wearily, “Can I suggest some jugglers you might like?”
Unfortunately, this is where we are now as a culture, surrounded by the distracting burlesque of inarticulate clowns juggling our common fate like raw eggs while we are confined to our seats and made to sit on our hands, wincing powerlessly in anticipation of an endless cascade of ghastly splats.
Of course, this is not the first time our country has faced apocalyptic disintegration. Consider the late 1960s, for example, a time famous for its political and cultural turmoil, when every day seemed riotous and terminally combustible, when optimism choked perilously close to death on the unrelenting smoke of seismic discontent day in and day out. An unpopular president sat in the White House while his party controlled both chambers of Congress and his critics, at home and abroad, ridiculed him as a fascist and a moron. Russian espionage was rumored to be yanking on innumerable puppet strings sewn covertly into the national fabric, while professional athletes showed their support for the Black struggle against white supremacy and were banned from future competitions. Mass demonstrations by people opposing war, discrimination, censorship, and income disparities crowded the streets and disrupted traffic. Cartoonish politicians blew racist dog whistles and won elections after appealing to voters made witless by frustration over the white-powered notion that brown-skinned people were on the verge of becoming their neighbors and taking their jobs and raping their daughters and, worst of all, stealing their television sets. LGBTQ people were demanding equal respect and the decriminalization of their lifestyles, while women raged against the groping misogyny of a male dominated society headed by a cock-centric bureaucracy that wanted to own every uterus cowering behind every vagina like a hundred million innocent souls concealed behind a hundred million bookshelves; bookshelves where the unbroken spines of books offered the only temporary protection against the thuggish illiteracy of a lynch mob out for blood.
It was also a time when U.S. interventionist wars polka dotted the horizon like ghoulish campfires alive with sizzling indigenous meats and nuclear warheads swam through the depths of our national consciousness like ravenous sharks circling a dying leviathan, having only several years earlier been re-released into the dark waters of our paranoia by a blue-blooded prom king of Camelot who, mistaking himself for Arthur, drew the Sword of Damocles from Hiroshima’s headstone to proclaim himself the Prince of Peace. Environmentalists presented scientific evidence that industry was threatening the survival of the species with balance sheets, and whole police forces were under investigation for terrorizing private citizens. The chasm separating the Right from the Left was too wide to bridge and the dystopian stirrings of public surveillance, extraordinary rendition, and mass incarceration seemed to prove that we were a free society in reputation alone and that our demise was imminent.
But somehow, the country survived and, for a moment even, seemed on the threshold of successfully recalibrating the democracy in a way that might’ve eventually had us thriving responsibly and morally as a nation. So just how did we survive, if only for the meager reward of preparing now to fail catastrophically once more, with the threat of doomsday looming even larger on the horizon than it did before? Of course, the answer, if there is one, is likely way too complicated to cleanly decipher and adequately streamline with either brevity or accuracy in such an essay as this, written by such a wildly impatient and snarky cartoonist as myself. I will, however, offer the following with some measure of confidence that it could be at least part of the answer and perhaps even a serviceable starting point for anybody claiming to possess both the stamina and interest in extending the conversation further.
There’s a famous maxim that has been used for decades to describe the very foundation of headline news and the mainstream press: When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news. While this may serve beautifully as a style guide for fiction, it’s a profoundly corrosive deterrent to useful journalism because it insists that one accept without question the overly broad assumption that dogs have always, will always, and therefore must always bite men. Indeed, there are equally suspect assumptions often made about our politics, our history, and our cultural perspectives; these uninterrogated proclamations made true by the redundancy of their own lore and the perpetuation of a timeworn and exaggerated mythology popularized by rote repetition and nothing else. Once such assumptions are embraced as fact, there can be no further deductions made on the nature of either man or beast, of us or them, of truth or consequence. Hence, there can be no comprehension of the roots that sustain and contribute to the health, longevity, fruit, and shade of the sprawling tree we call knowledge.
Enter, the alternative and underground press – enter independent journalism. Enter the non-corporatized arts community.
Ever since the arrival of journalism as the first draft of history there have been artists and writers working in contempt of mainstream thinking and conventional wisdom because there has always been an innate understanding, by those least offended by contrarianism and most attuned to the magnificent multiplicity of the human heart and head, that truth is an average, not an absolute. In other words, there have always been those who recognize that we all have a different favorite color and that because there are no fewer than 10 million colors visible to the average human eye – just as there are an infinite number of opinions with which to decipher the meaning of life from every conceivable angle – it has always been of the utmost importance to warn against how much would be lost if, for the sake of seeking a universal concept of truth, all rainbows were consolidated into a single hue so we might all share the same pacifying indifference for mud. Such is the danger of codifying a consensus by proclaiming that an amalgamation of compromised truths will produce a convenient one only vaguely true to those involved in crafting it.
Indeed, disappearing from our culture is the imperative that we are rendered more humane and better equip to grapple with our innate and, yes, unavoidable differences of opinion when we are encouraged to celebrate the polychromagnetism of an alternative and underground and independent press that propagates art, activism, contrarianism, individualism, and bohemianism in its many forms – that is, any and all forms of communication capable of giving voice to both an old and a young generation’s embrace of a worldwide people’s movement built on socialized empathy, communalized self-reliance, the intellectualized passions of the id, and a radical intolerance of the automatizing institutions that have only given us several hundred years of grim and unrelenting dung-colored tribalism.
What we need, specifically, because it is precisely what we’ve lost as a multiracial, multiethnic, multi-partied, omnistic, and pan/tri/bi/cis/agendered society, is a tolerance for the multiplicity that surrounds us, for without the uniqueness of others to exist contrary to we would not thrill to what makes us unique as individuals. What we need is something that we once had and have subsequently lost: a modern media capable of expressing and demonstrating that the diversities that comprise our communities is not a threat to our eccentricity but rather the very thing that defines it, in much the same way that there is no light without darkness, no comedy without tragedy, no truth without bullshit, and thusly no learning without an open mind wherein genuine comprehension can occupy any and all empty spaces found wanting.
When we lost the active participation of an independent press that refused to allow the powerbrokers of government and big business to frame the parameters of all public debate on how to craft a meaningful life, and when we lost the radical hospitality of an arts community that was once fearless in its mission to produce dissenting proclamations about the status quo – knowing full well that disagreeability promotes candor and, in the end, that candor is all that can saves us – we lost a profoundly important mechanism that played an integral part, perhaps the most integral, of our democracy. After all, left in the wake of its absence – some might say its systematic eradication – is a corporate media modeled entirely on the principle that the public cannot be trusted to comprehend, let alone traverse, the complicated curlicues of its own interdependent destiny so it must be placated with distracting fairytales that perpetuate a wholly myopic vision of American™ exceptionalism. After all, when the marketplace of ideas becomes a literal marketplace and news and information become the privately owned and publicly traded inventory controlled by for-profit institutions, there can no longer be a commonwealth of well-informed citizens capable of guiding the republic forward in alert deliberation of truth, equity, and justice for all. No, there can only be a consumer class of customers who rely on big business to help them curate the intake of their news and information the same way they help them curate their intake of everything else for sale; that is, in accordance with an economic model designed to conceal the manipulation of market forces whose only purpose is to guarantee that capital flows in one direction, upward, and that shoppers be made compliant and even enthusiastic about their participation in the pecking order of hierarchy by buying into the sadistic hoax that the rich and powerful have always been and must always be allowed to remain as the trusted arbiters of our collective fate.
“This is where we are at right now, as a whole – no one is left out of the loop,” said Bill Hicks thirty years ago to an audience where only a few had come to think and the overwhelming majority sat staring at the stage, perplexed and disappointed at having paid for the opportunity to disappear for a time into the disorienting spectacle of dick jokes and the confectious escapism of folly while the world burned. “We are experiencing a reality based on a thin veneer of lies and illusions. A world where greed is our God and wisdom is sin, where division is key and unity is fantasy, where the ego-driven cleverness of the mind is praised, rather than the intelligence of the heart.” Then there came the pause that elucidated the significance wherein self-reflection is supposed to happen and didn’t. “This is the material, by the way,” Bill continued, “that has kept me virtually anonymous in America for the past 15 years. Gee, I wonder why we’re hated the world over?”
Then there was another pause. And lucky for us, it’s still with us, but just barely. And it won’t be around much longer.