Tuesday, December 25, 2007

South Park’s Anti-Semitic Xmas

Early on Christmas morn I saw a rerun of South Park’s Xmas episode in which Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo is introduced. I thought the Mr. Hankey character was over the top the first time I saw him. But since I got over the shock value of seeing South Park (largely in reruns) and of getting used to what’s now allowed on television (on network TV and not just cable anymore), I’ve had a chance to scrutinize South Park’s ideology more closely.

The 1990s was a fantastic decade for comedy, all the better as American society degenerated even further beyond repair. But at some point a line was crossed, and the subversive power of comedy was neutralized by mindless cynicism that ceases to promote social critique and instead serves to further adjust us to our dehumanization.

This is true both of normal sitcoms and adult cartoons. The critical thrust of The Simpsons at its best was blunted by the growth in pure decadence of the adult cartoons that succeeded it.

Some years ago a friend summed up it up this way: “South Park is for people who are too dumb to understand The Simpsons.” Or, as I concluded eventually, the baby boomers knew rebellion against social convention and hypocrisy; but the new brand of humor was designed by slackers for clueless teens and twenty-somethings who never knew anything before Reaganism, who never rebelled against anything, and who have no perspective beyond mindless cynicism which at the end of the day manages to serve the status quo.

After a while I learned to laugh at South Park’s outrageous humor. Funny isn’t supposed to be moral; if it’s funny to you, you laugh . . . but in it there’s also ideology. South Park is gratuitously vicious and sadistic. The gruesome death of Kenny in every episode alone testifies to the sadism at the bottom of this kind of humor, and, by implication, much other humor. But South Park is not mindless cynicism alone, for there is also quite a bit of moralism mixed in with the cynical filth, summed up in the resolution or even a speech at the end of an episode. If you examine these episodes carefully, you will also discover that the perspective of the series’ creators is completely confused, and in the end, rather conservative. These slackers mock redneck values, presumably thinking they are above them, but in the final analysis, they’re idiots.

Another feature of South Park is the pervasive anti-Semitism contained within it. Ostensibly, the ignorant anti-Semitism, racism, nastiness, and piggishness of Cartman is an object of ridicule, but after a while, one wonders. The Jewish stereotypes go beyond Cartman’s constant nasty remarks about Jews, mostly targeting his “friend” Kyle. Kyle’s father is a yarmulke-sporting greedy lawyer; his mother a matronly New York stereotype. When Earth is discovered to be a reality show for the entertainment of the rest of the universe, the cosmic media moguls are a species conspicuously modeled on the Jews.

This is the sort of humor beloved of the young and stupid—what, did I repeat myself?—who think they are too hip to be taken in by anything. So naturally, they don’t take the anti-Semitic stereotypes seriously; it’s all in fun. But then again, given what this nation is like, I have to wonder . . .

Seeing some of these episodes for the umpteenth time, the contradictory messages, splitting the difference, ideological incoherence, and platitudinous morals mixed with cynical degeneracy reveal a pattern.

Viewing this Xmas episode this time around revealed this pattern in a way I hadn’t paid attention to before. It begins with Kyle performing in a sleazy school nativity scene. When his mother walks in on a rehearsal, she hits the roof, and complains to Mr. Garrison that this is an affront to Jews. He dismisses her as a nuisance, but thanks to her agitation soon the whole town is up in arms about public displays of religious symbols and Santa too. Everything has to be modified to placate everyone who finds the least little holiday decoration offensive. Meanwhile Kyle, who feels lonely as a Jew at Christmastime, is judged to be losing his sanity as no one believes that he has seen his object of veneration, Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo. His friends have him committed to a mental institution where he sings the dreidle song in a straightjacket in a padded cell. When Chef reveals that Mr. Hankey is real, the other kids have Kyle released. The dispute over holiday symbols in the school auditorium escalates into a brawl. Mr. Hankey comes to life and, calling the brawl to a halt, delivers the moral of the episode: Everybody’s fighting over what’s wrong with Christmas, they’ve forgotten what’s right with Christmas. It’s all about eating cookies and having a good time.

In the process, of course, the original affront to the Jews is reduced to mindless politically correct frivolity in the barrage of complaints that follow. Hence the anti-Semitic implications of forcing Xmas on Jews are conveniently lost in this display of degenerate cynicism mixed with cheesy moralizing.

Fame legitimates everything, in spite of controversy, and apparently, aside from the objections of traditionalist organizations, nobody sees anything wrong with this show. In the episode under review, the message of the true spirit of Christmas is delivered by a talking piece of shit. This is indeed a metaphor for our time.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Philosophers Without Gods

Written 17 Nov 2007:

Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Another book hot off the press and on the shelves. Gave it a scrute yesterday. This book is an anthology of 20 chapters contributed by professional philosophers. Naturally, writing about this topic is likely to be monotonous and repetitive after a while, but this book has its unique charms and could prove to be a valuable contribution. The editor attempts to show off the variety of atheists, from those who were once believers (orthodox Jews, Catholics, etc.) to those who never entertained the existence of God as a serious possibility. There are arguments against the existence of Gods and the authority of sacred texts as well as articles conerning the basis of ethics and spiritual concerns and emotions sans religions and gods. There were three articles that stood out for me:

(1) Anthony Simon Laden, "Transcendence without God: On Atheism and Invisibility", pp. 121-132.

This essay is prefaced with quotes from Thomas Hobbes and . . . Ralph Ellison! There is no mention of Ellison's non-religiosity (now documented by Arnold Rampersad), but Laden borrows Ellison's concept of "invisibility" (which begins with the issue of race but is universalized by Ellison and others) to explain his non-religious sense of transcendence. For me this is definitely the most interesting and original contribution in the book.

(2) George Rey, "Meta-atheism: Religious [Avowal--handwriting illegible] as Self-deception", pp. 243-265.

Seeing as how simple, obvious, and irrefutable the usual arguments against religious beliefs are, and the imperviousness of believers to them, Rey steps back and analyzes belief as a form of willed self-deception. I suppose this is why he coins the term "meta-atheism".

(3) Simon Blackburn, "Religion and Respect", 179-[???].

Blackburn deals with the problem of respecting people and the fact that they hold beliefs which he cannot respect, delineating those aspects of religious expression he can relate to and those he can't. He makes a useful distinction between "onto-theology" and "expressive theology" (or religion), also contrasting transcendence with immanence. Expressive theology can be found in religious art, music, literature, architecture, etc., and Blackburn can appreciate the spirit and enthusiasm that went into it, even though he doesn't take the belief systems seriously. Believing in religious doctrines is what he labels onto-theology. When they become liberalized when putative believers can't swallow them literally any more, they tend to become more and more symbolic and metaphorical, less literally held to be true. I don't recall whether Blackburn says this, but it is just this slipperiness that makes religious liberals so weaselly, as literalism gives way to metaphorization without cutting ties to the tradition as it was originally conceived. Expressive theology is then the hook for the unwary; the difference being that atheists can understand the expression without being tied to tradition and authority, however watered down and concealed.

If the other essays approach being this interesting, you should check out the book.

Atheist & the Crucifix (2)

Written 18 Nov 2007:

I don't remember how it happened, but somehow I was led to this blog entry:
The Atheist and the Crucifix by Menachem Wecker
Mr. Wanker is an artist and writer living in DC. I'm not aware of ever coming across him in person, but how would I know? Anyone, after reading this, on 25 May I wrote my own blog entry (which see).

The same day I received an email from Mr. Wanker out of the blue asking if I wanted to discuss this further. In turn, I asked him: what is there to discuss? Never heard from him again.

I found this entire web site sickening, not surprisingly, but I wasn't about to devote a lot of thought to it. However, certain parallels to this scenario surfaced from time to time and it occurred to me at those times that I will have to return to this theme.

Recently, I made a mental note of it, but then I could only remember that I forgot something I wanted to do. Then, when I read the essay cited below about onto-theology vs. expressive theology, it all came back to me. It's a muracle!
Blackburn, Simon. "Religion and Respect," in Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 179-[???].
Why did this bug me so? Is it just because I hate evangelism on G.P.? I think there's something more. The idea that a person would be interested in specifically religious art in the contemporary world rubs me the wrong way, just the stomach-churning feeling I would get from contemplating the notion of "Christian rock", or Christian music as a pop music form. It's not that I would not appreciate the religious artistic products of the past, but there is something contrived and dishonest or just plain tacky about this sort of thing in the present.

Why do I think this? Well, one approach to art is propaganda, but I don't think that art with religious content that genuinely moved people in the past was merely propaganda, and in any case did not have to compete with a secular society in order to prove itself as an alternative message. The conditions of the time, in concert with symbolism and the avenues of expressivity, would tend to create a genuine concrete content that could outlive its time and intention. Someone could have thought to himself: well, I want to create Christian, Buddhist, etc., art, but to do that today, in the Western nations anyway, seems to me rather hollow and kitschy.

Let's look at this from another angle. If, to simplify matters, that art expresses its time, if someone has something to say, (s)he will say what needs to be said via the tools and perspectives endemic to that era. An equally passionate and creative person would not express himself in the same fashion at every point in time and space, but would push the envelope given the tools and information at hand in any given cultural environment. So the question is not who is capable of admiring the artistic products of the past, but what are the needs of the present, and given what we know now, how would we best express ourselves now? There are, for example, whole genres that could not have existed as such way back when, such as science fiction, which presupposes a (pseudo-)naturalistic universe in which some questions would be raised that could not have been posed in the pre-modern world. What needs to be said now, on however profound the level, cannot be sought after by imposing a prefabricated religious doctrine that does not express the knowledge and full reality of our time. I think this is why this preoccupation with religion in art is so shallow and debased.

I could conceivably transmit this message to Mr. Wanker, but there's nothing in it for me.