One of the best current TV shows is the animation South Park created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who based the central characters Stan and Kyle on themselves. The show features elementary school kids who deal with many dilemmas in bizarre story lines which often push to the limits of the offensive, but always make good morally reasoned points about families, small town life, religion, politics, friendship and many other things.
The most recent episode (the most recent one broadcast in Turkey) is ‘Smug Alert’. Kyle’s father starts diving a ‘hybrid’ car that switches between petrol and electric propulsion, and is more environmentally friendly than a car which just runs on petrol. Kyle’s father embarrasses Kyle and annoys everyone in the town with his smug attitude which leads him to ‘ticket’ less environmental cars than his own. Seeking people as pure as himself, Kyle’s father takes the family to San Francisco, portrayed as a nightmare place of self-satisfied hippies, lacking in real life. Back in South Park, Kyle’s best friend Stan tries to get Kyle back by converting everyone to driving hybrid cars in a 60s protest style song. However, disaster strikes when it turns out that like San Francisco, South Park is producing a cloud of ‘smug’. What’s worse George Clooney’s Oscar acceptance speech has produced a virulent cloud of smug which keeps repeating phrases like ‘Hollywood is ahead of the curve on social issues’. If the Clooney ‘smug’ cloud hits the other ones destruction will rain down. Meanwhile Stan and Kyle’s ambiguous friend Cartman, who is anti-Semitic, selfish, and sadistic, misses ripping on Kyle’s Jewishness. His solution is to enter San Francisco in what looks like a very old fashioned deep sea diving suit he wears to avoid hippy contamination, and pulls Kyle’s family out before San Francisco is destroyed. The pay off is that Kyle tells the town’s people that hybrids might save the world, but that smugness is bad.
The Politics of South Park
Like many episodes of South Park, ‘Smug Alert’ attacks left-wing self-satisfied political correctness. The episode title really sums up that theme of the series as a whole. However, it also emphasises that environmental concerns are well founded and that individuals should take responsibility for protecting the environment. The emphasis on individual responsibility might be considered to oppose left-liberal big government, but it could also be opposed to conservative social disciplinarianism.
Reason: A few years ago, Matt, you said, “I hate conservatives, but I really f…..g hate liberals.” Who do you hate more these days?
Stone: That’s a tough question. Obviously, South Park has a lot of politics in it, but ultimately we want to make a funny show and a good show. We try not to be, “All right, here’s the point we want to make.” But things like California’s smoking ban and Rob Reiner animate both of us. When we did that Rob Reiner episode [2003’s “Butt Out”], to us it was just common sense. Rob Reiner was just a great target.
That’s when a lot of people started calling us conservative: “How could you possibly rip on Rob Reiner? You must be conservative.”
Parker: A big key to us is that we both grew up in Colorado in the ’80s, and we wanted to be punk rockers. When you were a teenager in Colorado, the way to be a punk rocker was to rip on Reagan and Bush and what they were doing and talk about how everyone in Colorado’s a redneck with a gun and all this stuff. Then we went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and everyone there agreed with us. And we were like, “Well, that’s not cool, everyone agrees with us.” And then you get to Los Angeles. The only way you can be a punk in Los Angeles is go to a big party and go, “You can say what you want about George Bush, but you’ve got to admit, he’s pretty smart.” People are like, “What the fuck did he just say? Get him out of here!”
The show is saying that there is a middle ground, that most of us actually live in this middle ground, and that all you extremists are the ones who have the microphones because you’re the most interesting to listen to, but actually this group isn’t evil, that group isn’t evil, and there’s something to be worked out here.
The interview, which is with a Libertarian magazine emphasises two things politically: Centrism and Libertarianism as opposed to Conservativism and (Left) Liberalism. This seem clear enough and is born out by the general tone of the series which tends to be for small government in the economy, and freedom in the social sphere. Conservative Republicanism is targeted with regard to stem cell research, religion and anti-gay attitudes. An episode about immigrants from the future mocks anti-immigrant attitudes which come from a left wing wish to keep up wages and a right wing dislike of people who come from the future. Mel Gibson is mocked as a ‘complete douche’ and his film The Passion is represented as anti-semitic. An episode, which refers to a fictionalised version of Walmart, mocks the Walmart equivalent as tuırning customers into shopping obsessives and mocks the town people who keep trying to destroy it but then flock back to it, or a new version of it. Though Stone and Trey seem generally sympathetic to the free enterprise spirit, in this instance they clearly parody consumerism and suggest that companies work by subordinating individuals who work for a remorseless inhuman process.
Despite the above, Conservatives and ‘Libertarian’ Conservatives try to claim the show as their own. Rather oddly, despite clear criticisms of Conservatism in conversation and in the series, there is a book called South Park Conservatives which assumes what the title says, the series belongs to Conservatives. The absurdity of this is made clear in an Amazon.Com review (‘All Humor is Conservative’) posted by the editor of a magazine which had published essays by the author Brian C. Anderson. The review is based on the truly pathetic position that SP is Conservative because there is a lot of humor direct at left-liberals. Humour directed at Conservatives is ignored. Significantly, the post argues that the private media companies in the US are largely left wing and that SP is part of a counter movement which all encompasses The Passion. That would be Gibson’s The Passion which is condemned in one episode of SP as ant-semitic, and as the rantings of a violent maniac.
This is a good example of the kind of contradiction, and outright nonsense right wingers get into when they appropriate Libertarianism. A more subtle but still distotring version can be found on Lew.Rockwell.com which is closely associated with the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The Institute claims to be Libertarian, but it stretches this to included self styled ‘PaleoConservatives who are nostalgics for the Slave owning Confederacy which fought Lincoln in the Civil War. Quite apart from all that, two articles posted on Lee.Rockwell.com make tendentious claims. The Politics of South Park by Michael Cust only refers to right wing targets on the show, and overlooks the strong advocacy of gay rights, embedded in all the mocking of political correctness and guilt grievance politics. The Invisible Gnomes by Paul Cantor is more balanced, but still tries to define the show as more conservative than liberal, and assumes that the show only has good things to say about big corporations. Cust gets his history of Libertarianism completely muddled. He argues that it starts with Adam Smith and is carried on by Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Mises and Murray Rothbard. Smith was taken by Hayek as the starting point, though this kind of reading of Smith has been widely contested, in the blog Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy, along with books by Jerry Evensky, Samuel Fleischacker, and others. What is even more serious is the failure to recognised that Hayek placed Smith on pedestal (possibly ignoring him most of the time), Mises gave him credit but wrote little about him, and Rothbard condemns Smith as the precursor of Marxism, looking for roots to Libertarianism in 16th Century Jesuit Natural Law thinkers. Despite his role as Mises heir, Rothbard differed strongly from Mises in following natural law ethics, and in his condemnation of Smith. Silly Cust. Or as the South Park kids might say, Cust sucks *ss.
Sadly Cantor and Cust in their conservative version of Libertarianism, don’t get SP, because they think it must be Libertarianism of the anti-left kind, and just think that all Libertarianism is like that. Like the characters in the show, they are childish but with less reason.