They're not kidding

Culture | FEATURE: Three best-selling liberal authors have come up with a clever tactic: Use humor to shield hate, cynicism, and unsupported accusations. Those who object just don't "get the joke"

Issue: "The Kennedy Assassination," Nov. 22, 2003

AL FRANKEN CALLS KARL ROVE "human filth," Ari Fleischer a "chimp," and John Ashcroft "something of a nutcase." Michael Moore calls President Bush a "nitwit" and (in the voice of God, no less) a "devil." Molly Ivins manages to insult millions at once when she approvingly quotes William Brann's crack that "the trouble with our Texas Baptists is that we do not hold them under water long enough." Mean-spirited, you say? No, it's all in good fun, the authors say.

That's their technique: spewing hatred but saying it's funny. Or as Mr. Franken likes to say, "kidding on the square," purporting to tell a joke but really meaning it. Though he might not admit it, Mr. Franken, along with fellow humor writers Molly Ivins and Michael Moore, specializes in kidding on the square. You don't care for their reliance on ad hominem, innuendo, guilt, and distortion? Why, you must have missed the joke. As Mr. Moore once remarked, "How can there be inaccuracy in comedy?"

It's a clever tactic, really. Mr. Franken and company can assert anything they want, no matter how ludicrous, to prove that President Bush and his cohorts are bent on destroying America-and anyone who complains is branded a sourpuss. Nor are these writers above poisoning the well with innuendo and gossip. Convinced that Mr. Bush has been corrupted by money and religion, they never tire of pointing out his supposedly incriminating associations with business and religious leaders.

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Is the president doing enough to protect the environment? Of course not: He received contributions from Big Oil. Is he doing enough to promote women's health? How could he? He campaigned at Bob Jones University. What about tax cuts, the war in Iraq, judicial nominations? No arguments needed. We all know, the humorists remind us with a wink, what deep pockets the president's friends have.

Instead of supplying evidence of real conflicts of interest in the White House, all too often Mr. Franken and company prefer simply to mutter "cronyism" and move on. Hey, it's only satire.

Mr. Franken's preferred strategy is guilt-mongering. He writes a darkly comic chapter from the perspective of a fictional teenager working under miserable conditions in a Bangladesh shoe factory. The moral of the story? "Free trade may not be good for everybody. It may not be good for you, my reader, or for the Kharap Jutas of the world, of which there are three or four billion." There is no excuse for hazardous working conditions or forced labor, as almost any conservative will grant, but what Mr. Franken doesn't mention is what life would have been like for Kharap Juta had the factory not been built. Why work in such a factory in the first place if it didn't promise a better life? Mr. Franken never answers this question. Once he's pushed our buttons, he moves on, apparently uninterested in discussing any merits of global free trade. Devious, you say? You must have missed the joke.

Mr. Franken asserts that compassionate conservatism is "the biggest lie of all" and that the American public is as liberal as he is. His proof? "Most Americans believe in a safety net. Most Americans believe the government has a role in protecting the environment and making sure the marketplace isn't abused. They just don't understand yet that this is what being a liberal means."

Hang on a second. By this definition, anyone who endorses litter laws and opposes mail fraud is a liberal. Mr. Franken has confused conservatism, which promotes limited government, with extreme versions of libertarianism, which endorse virtually no government. Acknowledging government's "role" in the areas mentioned, as nearly every American does, is a far cry from supporting liberal hobby-horses like universal health insurance, protectionism, and affirmative action.

Michael Moore specializes in outrageously cynical rumor-mongering, and devotes the first chapter of his book to entertaining paranoid theories about the president's supposed protection of Saudi dignitaries in the wake of Sept. 11. Mr. Moore suggests that "certain factions within the Saudi royal family" masterminded the attacks, and that Mr. Bush helped many Saudis evade prosecution, obstructing justice to protect his family's financial interests.

These allegations would be disturbing indeed if they weren't utterly groundless. In a recent article for, a nonpartisan media watchdog, Bryan Keefer points out that Mr. Moore ignores "mountains of evidence connecting the hijackers to al-Qaeda." Although there is some evidence that the hijackers received funding from the Saudis, Mr. Keefer notes, "there is no evidence that the Saudi government or Saudi officials helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks." It appears Mr. Moore's imagination got the better of him. As he said himself in his Oscar acceptance speech, "We live in fictitious times."


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