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.
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 spinsanity.com, 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."
Mr. Moore uses the tried-and-true method of depicting Americans as greedy overconsumers to bolster his case for expansive government. After citing the oft-quoted fact that Americans consume a disproportionate share of the world's resources (but without mentioning that we also produce a disproportionate share of the world's goods), he proposes that the United States vow to "provide clean drinking water for everyone on Earth within the next five years." Indeed, he declares, "There is no excuse ... for not ensuring that everyone on this planet has safe, clean, and sanitary living conditions." The sheer impossibility of doing so seems a pretty good excuse, but why should this trouble Mr. Moore? He's already accomplished his objective: making us feel guilty for our paychecks.
Mr. Moore also criticizes the Patriot Act, citing eight shocking examples of what he calls "FBI abuse." But as Mr. Keefer points out, "None of the incidents he lists ... happened as a result of the Patriot Act, nor did any of them involve the FBI." Mr. Keefer learned this in many cases from Mr. Moore's own sources.
Molly Ivins lives by cynical innuendo, especially concerning the president's Christian faith. Of course she's not alone. Mr. Moore calls him a "nitwit" for believing in Providence, and Mr. Franken, after noting Mr. Bush's belief that Christian faith is necessary for salvation, counts him among those who "like to exclude others from heaven." But Ms. Ivins seems to harbor a special animus toward Christians, at least those Christians with the gall to believe Christianity is true. She scoffs at Franklin Graham's prayer "in Jesus' name" at the president's inauguration, and records with evident horror the president's claim that he could never have stopped drinking without the grace of God. How retrograde!
Ms. Ivins is convinced that the president's foreign policy is dictated by apocalyptic theology. She blames Pastor James Hagee of San Antonio, to whom (she fails to note) Mr. Bush has no direct connection. Pastor Hagee is from Texas; he has apparently said that the United States should help Israel destroy Yasser Arafat's regime and seize full control of Jerusalem and the West Bank; he pushed for the removal of Saddam Hussein; Mr. Bush has shown support for Israel and recently invaded Iraq. Conclusion? The Bush administration has decided to "fall in behind the likes of the Reverend James Hagee."
Ms. Ivins insists that "an avalanche of statistics, facts, numbers" shows that anyone who believes that private charities might meet our social needs is "criminally stupid." If the case is so overwhelming, we might expect Ms. Ivins to share some of those facts and figures with her readers. But she doesn't. However, she does provide facts when they appear to support her claims. For example, to defend her claim that things are getting worse for American workers, she notes that in one decade "the typical American worked 350 hours more per year than the average European." What she doesn't mention is that Americans do this largely by choice, and that they enjoy a substantially higher standard of living than Europeans.
Ironically, the three authors attack the alleged dishonesty of the president and his supporters but apparently have very few scruples about their own practices. Each relies almost exclusively on insults, unsubstantiated allegations, and misrepresentation of the facts to "prove" that conservatives are liars. Why not? This is satire, after all-the more outrageous, the better. Strangely, for all his talk of "kidding on the square," Mr. Franken never mentions what is most obvious: It's an essentially deceptive strategy. Kidding on the square lets us say whatever we want without having to own up to it. If someone takes offense, we don't have to give an answer. We can just wink and ask, "Can't you take a joke?"
-Mr. Goss is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin