Published on Sunday, May 1, 2005 by the New York Times
Conservatives Love South Park
by Frank Rich
Conservatives can't stop whining about Hollywood, but the embarrassing reality is that they want to be hip, too. It's not easy. In the showbiz wrangling sweepstakes of 2004, liberals had Leonardo DiCaprio, the Dixie Chicks and the Boss. The right had Bo Derek, Pat Boone and Jessica Simpson, who, upon meeting the secretary of the interior, Gale Norton, congratulated her for doing "a nice job decorating the White House." Ms. Simpson may be the last performer in America who can make Whoopi Goldberg seem like the soul of wit.
What to do? Now that Arnold Schwarzenegger's poll numbers have sunk, the right's latest effort to grab a piece of the showbiz action is a new and fast-selling book published by Regnery, home to the Swift Boat Veterans, and promoted in lock step by the right-wing media elite of Fox News, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page and The New York Post. "South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias," by Brian C. Anderson of the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, gives a wet kiss to one of the funniest and most foul-mouthed series on television. The book has even been endorsed by the grim theologian Michael Novak, who presumably forgot to TiVo the "South Park" episode that holds the record for the largest number of bleeped-out repetitions (162) of a single four-letter expletive in a single television half-hour. Then again, The Weekly Standard has informed us that William Bennett, egged on by his children, has given the show a tentative thumbs up.
Cynics might say that conservatives, flummoxed by the popularity of Jon Stewart, are eager to endorse any bigger hit on Comedy Central: The animated adventures of four obstreperous fourth graders in the mythical town of South Park, Colo., outdraws "The Daily Show" by a million or so viewers. But Mr. Anderson has another case to make. He quotes "South Park" profanity without apology and cheers the "scathing genius" with which it mocks "hate-crime laws and sexual harassment policies, liberal celebrities, abortion-rights extremists."
In one episode he praises, "Butt Out," a caricatured Rob Reiner journeys from Hollywood to South Park to mount a fascistic antismoking campaign that "perfectly captures the Olympian arrogance and illiberalism of liberal elites." Mr. Anderson also applauds last fall's "South Park" adjunct, "Team America: World Police," the feature film in which the show's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, portray Michael Moore as a suicide bomber and ridicule the antiwar activism of Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn and Janeane Garofalo by presenting them as dim-witted, terrorist-appeasing puppets (literally so, with strings) who are ultimately blown to bits at a "world peace conference" convened by Kim Jong Il. (The film is out on DVD, with an expanded marionette sex scene featuring coprophilia, on May 17.)
So far, so right. Among their other anarchic comic skills, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone have a perfect pitch for lampooning what many Americans find most irritating about liberals, especially Hollywood liberals: a self-righteous propensity for knowing better than anyone else and for meddling in everyone's business, whether by enforcing P.C. speech codes or plotting to curb S.U.V.'s and guns.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the publication of "South Park Conservatives": Emboldened by the supposed "moral values" landslide on Election Day, the faith-based right became the new left. Just as Mr. Anderson's book reached stores in early April, Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone, true to their butt-out libertarianism, aimed their fire at self-righteous, big-government conservatives who have become every bit as high-handed and meddlesome as any Prius-pushing movie star. Such is this role reversal that the same TV show celebrated by Mr. Anderson and his cohort as the leading edge of a potential conservative victory in the culture wars now looks like a harbinger of an anti-conservative backlash instead.
In the March 30 episode, Kenny, a kid whose periodic death is a "South Park" ritual, lands in a hospital in a "persistent vegetative state" and is fed through a tube. The last page of his living will is missing. Demonstrators and media hordes descend. Though heavenly angels decree that "God intended Kenny to die" rather than be "kept alive artificially," they are thwarted by Satan, whose demonic aide advises him to "do what we always do - use the Republicans." Soon demagogic Republican politicians are spewing sound bites ("Removing the feeding tube is murder") scripted in Hell. But as in the Schiavo case, they don't prevail. Kenny is allowed to die in peace once his missing final wish is found: "If I should ever be in a vegetative state and kept alive on life support, please for the love of God don't ever show me in that condition on national television."
This remarkably prescient scenario, first broadcast on the eve of Terri Schiavo's death, anticipated just how far the zeitgeist would swing in the month after the right's overreach in her case. A USA Today poll a week later found that Americans by 55 to 40 percent believe that "Republicans, traditionally the party of limited government, are 'trying to use the federal government to interfere with the private lives of most Americans' on moral values." In other words, what Hillary Clinton's overreaching big-government health care plan did to the Democrats a decade ago is the whammy the Schiavo case has inflicted on the G.O.P. today. And like the Democrats back then, the Republican elites have been so besotted with their election victory and so out of touch with the mainstream they didn't see their comeuppance coming. At the height of the feeding-tube frenzy, Peggy Noonan told her Wall Street Journal troops that federal intervention in the Schiavo family brawl was a political slam dunk: "Politicians, please, think of yourselves! Move to help Terri Schiavo, and no one will be mad at you, and you'll keep a human being alive." (Italics hers.)
Oops. But what's given the Schiavo case resonance beyond the Schiavo story itself is that it crystallized the bigger picture of Olympian arrogance and illiberalism on the right. The impulse that led conservatives to intervene in a family's bitter debate over a feeding tube is the same one that makes them turn a debate over a Senate rule on filibusters into a litmus test of spiritual correctness. Surely no holier-than-thou Hollywood pontificator could be harder to take than the sanctimonious Bill Frist, who, unlike Barbra Streisand, can't even sing.
The same arrogance that sent Republicans into Terri Schiavo's hospice room has also led them to try to police the culture of sex more rabidly than the left did the culture of sexism. No wonder another recent poll, from the Pew Research Center, finds that for all the real American displeasure with coarse entertainment, a plurality of 48 percent believes that "the government's imposing undue restrictions" on pop culture is "a greater danger" to the country than the entertainment industry itself. Who could have imagined that the public would fear Focus on the Family's James Dobson more than 50 Cent?
But in this crusade, too, few on the right seem to recognize that they're overplaying their hand; they keep upping the ante. One powerful senator, Ted Stevens of Alaska, has proposed that cable and satellite be policed by the federal government along with broadcast television - a death knell for even the Sirius incarnation of Howard Stern, not to mention much of Comedy Central. A powerful House committee chairman, James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, topped that by calling for offenders to be pursued through a "criminal process." Last week President Bush signed a Family Entertainment and Copyright Act that allows "family-friendly" companies to sell filter technology that cleans up DVD's of Hollywood movies without permission or input from the films' own authors and copyright holders. That sounds innocuous enough until you learn that even "Schindler's List" isn't immune from the right's rigid P.C. code. As the owner of CleanFlicks, the American Fork, Utah, company that goes further and sells pre-sanitized DVD's, once explained to The New York Times: "Every teenager in America should see that film. But I don't think my daughters should see naked old men running around in circles." And so Big Brother can intervene to protect our kids from all that geriatric Holocaust porn.
On the first page of "South Park Conservatives," its author declares that "CBS's cancellation in late 2003 of its planned four-hour miniseries 'The Reagans' marked a watershed in America's culture wars." It did, in the sense that the right's successful effort to stifle what it regarded as an un-P.C. (i.e., somewhat critical) treatment of Ronald Reagan sped the censorious jihad that's now threatening everything from "The Sopranos" on HBO to lesbian moms on PBS. Of course "South Park" is also on this hit list: the Parents Television Council, the take-no-prisoners e-mail mill leading the anti-indecency charge, has condemned the show on its Web site as a "curdled, malodorous black hole of Comedy Central vomit." Should such theocratic conservatives prevail, "South Park" conservatives will be hipper than they ever could have imagined - terminally hip, you might say.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company