Return of the Justice Squadron
A long time ago, back when the invasion of Iraq was as fresh as a spring rain and hadn’t yet curdled into the biggest waste of life, wealth, and moral authority in this country’s history, I found myself reading an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that was strongly against the war. This caught me by surprise, because its author, once a minor functionary in the Ronald Reagan administration and then a notable conservative economist, was usually well to the right on almost any issue I could be bothered to have an opinion about — which is, of course, how he got a job penning op-eds for the Journal in the first place. I was something of a hustler in anti-war blogging circles at the time (yes, there was once such a thing as anti-war blogging once; for that matter, there was once such a thing as blogging), and I was so surprised to find this fellow had become apostate with the Republican majority on this issue that I considered spreading word of his heresy far and wide, and claiming him as an ally for the noble cause of opposing our lunatic misadventure in Baghdad.
Then, thankfully, I remembered: this is a guy who once wrote an article claiming that black slaves in the antebellum South actually had it better than millionaires in modern-day America, because a slave at least had the possibility of escaping his lot, while no mere mortal can escape the grasping hand of the tax man. Even if he had it right about the war, he had it wrong about practically everything else, and surely the cause didn’t need fatheads like him making its argument. His arguments against the Iraq invasion may have been on point, but so were those of a thousand other smart people who didn’t have utterly ridiculous views on the good old days of slavery and the horrors of confiscatory taxation. Causes come and causes go (since that day, the anti-war libertarian — then something of a rarity — has become a dime-a-dozen creature on the sea bed of internet opinionating), but one thing that never changes is what you wake up with if you lie down with dogs.
Patton Oswalt has been lying down with a whole lot of dirty, smelly dogs lately. The comedian, who seems to think himself at the vanguard of some heroic struggle against the voices of cruel and blind censorship, has done a lot of questionable things lately: he lashed out at Boston magazine for mocking Macaulay Culkin’s vanity-project cover band (an odd choice considering his own comic career is almost entirely built on poking fun at vapid pop culture); he approvingly quoted Steve Sailer, a racist demagogue and eugenics enthusiast, as part of his quixotic crusade against ‘political correctness’; he enthusiastically circulated a similarly themed article by right-wing Canadian Islamophobe/fraud Mark Steyn; and, recently, he engaged in a bit of high-wire trolling, ‘apologizing’ for having ‘deleted’ a bunch of Twitter posts of suggested offense, while disingenuously covering his eyes at the shitstorm that followed.
Oswalt, a comedian who peaked early and has gone into a rather embarrassing decline where his comedy suffers but his pandering to a loyal fanbase equally gains, should know better. It’s not that his campaign against the hypersensitive, inwardly focused legion of social justice warriors on the internet is completely off base; goodness knows I’d be a hypocrite for calling them off-limits for jokes, as I’ve made fun of them plenty, in this very space. It’s a curious thing: like a lot of leftists, I find myself far more often bristling at the behavior of my fellow liberals than I do conservatives. The main reason, naturally, is that I expect right-wingers to be lying, hurtful, small-minded shitbags; I just automatically assume my own crowd, despite all evidence, knows better. But they don’t, not always, and it always hurts a little when I feel compelled to goof on people who I know are, at heart, decent and well-meaning and generally want the same things I want. I can’t blame Patton Oswalt for his motives, at the very least.
Part of this is the much-discussed echo-chamber effect of social media. The fact is, most advocates for social justice — people who believe sincerely in standing up against racism and sexism, in helping victims of rape and domestic abuse, in opposing anti-gay bigotry and transphobia — are out there actually, well, advocating. They don’t spend their time dicking around on the internet all day, and so they aren’t constantly on the alert for someone uttering a word, a phrase, a joke seen to be lacking in rectitude; they’ve got better things to do. Twitter activists are often sincere but overmediated college kids for whom the whole world is split into their own heads and a computer screen, and they settle into a caricature of political correctness because they lack experience of the world.
Unfortunately, this cuts both ways. Comedians and wise-asses also take to Twitter because it’s the perfect medium for short, cutting humor, and it’s a great place to workshop jokes; but because it’s also the perfect medium for short-fused and easily outraged kids who are easily offended, these two groups come into contact all too frequently in an arena where neither of them are necessarily at their best or most effective. Comedians resent the idea that someone might take them to task for a joke removed from its natural habitat (that is to say, in front of an audience of fans looking to be entertained by a particular brand of humor), and social activists resent the idea that these comedians feel like they can say anything they want, regardless of who it might hurt, because they think of the internet as a thing and not a place made up of people. It’s a recipe for destruction, and, things being how they are, both sides are almost immediately drawn to taking an extreme and intractable position.
But here’s the real problem. Even if the social justice warriors are wrong (and they’re often wrong); even if they overreact (and they often overreact); even if they come across as humorless, censorious scolds (and they often…well, you get the idea) — engaging them the way Oswalt engages them can’t do anything but make him look bad. I don’t really think that Oswalt is a closet right-winger, but his gleeful dissemination of quotes by gloriously open right-wingers not only makes him seem like an ally of people with truly noxious ideas, but it breaks that very important rule I learned way back when: if you find someone shitty who says something you agree with, it’s just as easy to find someone decent who says the same thing. His antics with the ‘deleted tweets’ were nothing more than him finding a bunch of people he knew would be offended and offending them; this isn’t just boring, it’s easy. It’s baiting a hook and then acting shocked when you catch a fish. When practiced by non-famous non-comedians, it’s called trolling, and people who do it don’t get called ‘subversive genius’ as much as they get called ‘fucking asshole’.
To make things even worse, Oswalt, in each of these situations (as well as previous ones, including defending a fellow comedian’s pretty indefensible rape joke), he responded to the controversy — to a controversy, let’s remember, that he caused himself — by doing the weakest shit possible: he sicced his Twitter followers, nearly two million strong, on the people who were criticizing him. This is truly petty and low, not only because it lacks all proportionality (no one who criticized him is a famous multimillionaire celebrity with a fan base in the eight-figure range), but because it’s a gross contradiction of Oswalt’s own claim that he is a persecuted figure, being bullied into silence by the sinister forces of political correctness. If you troll your audience with jokes obviously intended to get a reaction, and then you unleash your vast number of defenders on the people who gave you exactly the reaction you wanted, you’re the bully, not the bullied. At the very least, if you stir the shit, then you shouldn’t enlist other people to keep the fumes out of your nose. What’s more, Oswalt also engages in the ugly habit of proudly retweeting people who agree with him, adding a smug whiff of self-congratulation to the chickenshit stink of hypocrisy — as music critic Al Shipley put it, apparently Patton’s middle name is Myselfontheback.
Worst of all, all that’s accomplished by this nonsense is for Oswalt to do exactly what he claims his opponents are doing: taking the very tiny and relatively unimportant world of social media and mistaking it for reality as a whole, and behaving as if the handful of things you read there are somehow indicative of the way the world really is. If the PC crowd is, as Oswalt believes, wrong about the world being an endless abbatoir of rape culture and trans-hatred, then, too, is Oswalt wrong about the joyous free spirit of the comedy world being threatened with extinction because of the iron fist of the Twitter Social Justice Mob. (In this, he’s disappointingly enlisted the aid of a lot of people who also should know better, such as the brilliant Sean Tejaratchi — who usually does an amazing job of skewering self-righteous identity politics without coming across as ideologically blinkered about it, but who has been going rather overboard in defense of Oswalt.)
No one has yet been censored because of a Twitter mob; no one has yet faced a show trial, a kangaroo court, or the threat of exile to Canada because of politically incorrect jokes; no one has suffered one iota despite the abundance of easily offended outrage brokers on the internet. Humor doesn’t seem to be suffering at all; in fact, even offensive, anti-PC humor is not just surviving, but thriving, as South Park heads towards its 20th high-rated season, Broad City lets women — quite spectacularly — get in on the crude humor act, and shocking, risqué humor about race, sex, gender, and religion can be found anywhere on the internet in no more than a 10-second Google search. Oswalt himself remains a well-known comedian loved by fans and adored by critics, with a burgeoning acting career and a whole lot of money to support his wife and child. So for him to blatantly troll his audience and then put on an aggrieved face, claiming to be the victim of some imaginary jihad against free expression, and then sit back basking like a toad in the sun at all the faithful gathering around to coo ‘No, Patton, you were right all along, they’re the jerks, the ones who don’t get what you’re doing, which is so, so great’ — it’s frankly embarrassing. People are always willing to forgive a comic for being offensive; what they can’t forgive is a comic not being funny.