Tag Archives: philosophy

The plight of conservative comedy: Where’s the right’s Daily Show?

Fox News has astronomically high ratings. Rush Limbaugh rules talk radio. But liberals dominate political comedy. The few attempts to create a conservative satire show have either not found mainstream success (News Busted, a YouTube series with views typically in the low 30,000s), aired far outside of prime time (Red Eye, filling Fox’s 3 a.m. slot), or been promptly cancelled (Half Hour News Hour, with 13 episodes on Fox). Are right-leaning satires doomed to failure?

The creators of Flipside don’t think so. Their once-a-week program, in the vein ofThe Daily Show or The Colbert Report but with a generally conservative tilt, hosted by comedian Michael Loftus, will premiere this fall. Can it work?

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Most explanations for why Republican-friendly satire struggles pin blame on conservative philosophy. Comedian Mike Macrae told me in an email,

Most American comedy traditions stem from the concept of resisting or questioning authority on some level. Our comedy is about rascals and rule-breakers. Mark Twain skewered the notion of Europe’s cultural hegemony over the rustic New World and its new nation of upstarts. Most Marx Brothers movies are essentially about them evading some arbitrarily deputized authority figure, be it the hotel detective or the sailor in charge of finding stowaways. Cheech and Chong wouldn’t be as funny if marijuana weren’t made pointlessly illegal by right-wing cultural pressures. The common thread in these and other American comedy staples has been that the foils are generally motivated by values that we tend to associate with conservatism or, in some cases, the Republican Party platform itself.

Alison Dagnes, an academic who examined politics and comedy in her book A Conservative Walks Into a Bar, came away with the conclusion that:

The nature of conservatism does not meet the conditions necessary for political satire to flourish: conservatism is harmonized and slow to criticize people in power, and it originates from a place that repudiates humor because it is absolute.

These theories may sound attractive—especially to liberals—but suffer from deep deficiencies. For one: Humor doesn’t rely on the objective nature of the social structure, but rather, one’s subjective understanding of it, which is often fraught with bias. For instance, majority of Republicans think that racial discrimination against whites is as bad as discrimination against minorities. “During the last four decades the Republicans and conservatives in general have conceded a lot of the progressive premises,” Kfir Alfia, one of the executive producers of Flipside, told me. “I would question that premise that conservatives are in a state of, or a position of authority.”

What’s more, skepticism of authority is a conservative tenet itself. It was the great conservative philosopher was Edmund Burke who said, “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” In the Obama era, there are plenty of liberal institutions ripe for mockery. South Park has brilliantly lampooned many of the left’s excesses, from PETA, to raceenvironmentalismAl Gore, San Francisco smugnessabortiontoleranceanti-smoking activists and celebritieslots of celebrities.

So philosophy isn’t the problem. Indeed, history shows that conservative-leaning comedy isn’t inherently unviable. Half Hour News Hour, for example, did well in its time slot despite weak reviews. Financial concerns, not low viewership, killed it. “Essentially, they were trying to run a broadcast show on a cable budget,” Matthew Sheffield, an executive producer atFlipside told me. “It was a lot cheaper to run Oliver North’s ancient war clip show than it was to do that.”

Before Comedy Central settled on the Colbert Report/Daily Show model, it hadTough Crowd With Colin Quinn, a well-liked panel comedy show with many very funny conservative commentators in conversation with liberal ones. (For a representative segment, watch the famous Giraldo/Leary fight over North Korea.)But Tough Crowd struggled with ratings, especially with younger audiences, so it was cancelled to make room for Colbert. Before Tough Crowd, there was Bill Maher’s Emmy-winning Politically Incorrect, which, unlike his current show on HBO, Real Time, had more equally balanced panels and less demagoguery.

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So if philosophy isn’t preventing conservative comedy from flourishing, what is? Structural, demographic, and financial issues.

Successful comics often rise up out of thriving, crowded standup scenes, which tend to mainly exist in urban areas. Jon Stewart, for instance, spent five years in the New York City comedy world before landing a show on TVBig cities tend to be liberal, and it stands to reason that so would be the people who attend comedy clubs in them. Funny urbanites who are conservative may decide that there just isn’t much of a market for their political material. One comedian who I was referred to declined to be interviewed because, the comedian said, the conservative label, “has never been good to me.”

Similar impediments exist in the entertainment industry, which has a not-undeserved reputation for being run mainly by liberals. “People always ask why there aren’t a lot of really big conservative comedians but I think the deck is stacked against that and I doubt it will ever happen in my lifetime,” Nick Dipaolotold The Daily Caller, mentioning that he suspected that his politics were why HBO wouldn’t air a recent hour-long special he taped. There just aren’t many outlets for conservative comics. The feeling, as Stephen Kruiser writes on Breitbart, is that “most liberals in the entertainment industry expose themselves to conservatives about as readily as they would a leper colony.”

But the problem for right-leaning televised comedy may also have to do with audiences. Historically, it’s young people who have favored news mixed with humor, and polls have shown young people trending liberal for years. Fox News’ viewership is older, of a different generation than any up-and-coming standup comics, and many of its members hold pretty traditional views. That’s not exactly the audience that’ll help nurture boundary-pushing, conversation-making comedy. On Half-Hour News Hour, for instance, one writer complained that “the best material we wrote was rejected because the network considered it too controversial.”

In fact, the closest thing Fox News has to The Daily Show (Red Eye) is broadcast at 3 a.m. In Fox style, the show primarily takes the form of a panel and doesn’t include the more expensive-to-produce field pieces. Its racy humor might be off-putting to much of Fox’s primetime audience, but it’s doing relatively well with young people.

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Loftus already has had a successful career as a comic and a writer. He has an hour-long special to his name (You’ve Changed) and he can woo a city crowd (he often stops by Hollywood Improv in LA for a set). Though I’m a liberal, I’ve enjoyed his bits before (and was excited to see him hosting the show).

If Flipside succeeds, it might be because in this era where high-quality web videos for niche audiences are thriving, it can avoid some of the structural obstacles other attempts at conservative satire have faced. Flipside’s looking for broadcast distribution, but it’ll also try to build an audience online. One of its producers, Kfir Alfia, has worked in TV before and seen “really, really funny things go through a horrible development process and have the funny squeezed out of them,” he says. “We’re not going to have a board of directors with a stick-up-their-ass network to have battles regarding content.”

The pilot episode of Flipside proves there’s plenty of potential material, though the punch lines could use some tuning. One bit mocks Harrison Ford for warning about the effects of global warming and then “flying his plane to get a hamburger.” It’s a promising setup, but the payoff—Mattera spraying aerosol cans in studio—falls flat. Another bit lampooning the possible Hillary Clinton documentaries is funny, but a jab about her attractiveness stuck me as gauche.

Of course, politically infused comedy from both sides of the spectrum is tough to pull off. As Norm Macdonald put it to me, “The problem with coming to comedy with any ideology is the surprise is gone. We know the punchline.” Marc Maron told me that he moved away from his more overtly liberal jokes, because “when you’re doing ideological comedy, from a point of view that pre-exists you, it’s very tricky not to carry water for someone else’s agenda.” The Daily Show, for example, seems aware of this. Jon Stewart happily mocks Democrats, drawing vituperative harangues from lefty viewers. The first great conservative comedy show will put humor before ideology. As Mark Twain noted, “Humor is never artificial.”

Originally published on The Atlantic.

Natural Gas Will Not Save the U.S. Economy

Co-Written with Lew Daly

Economist Kenneth Boulding famously said, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” But it’s not just economists who believe that anymore. Such ideas are still widely accepted by thought leaders, journalists, and politicians who, together, form a strong consensus that the U.S. recovery should be bolstered by natural gas exploration and production. The McKinsey Global Institute claims in a recent report that a natural gas boom is one of the most important “game changer” ideas for U.S. economic growth, while The Economist writes, “Become a champion of a global fracking revolution, Mr. Obama, and the world could look on America very differently.” And in his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said “I’ll cut red tape” for factories that use natural gas, and that “Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas.”

But the belief that natural gas can be a “bridge fuel,” allowing us to grow rapidly in the age of global warming, is fit for a madman.

The current consensus is that if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the consequences would be catastrophic (the Arctic melt would raise sea levels by tens of meters). So scientists have proposed a “carbon budget”: the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere without raising temperatures by 2 degrees. Using a conservative carbon budget of 450 parts per million—which has been endorsed by the International Energy Agency and Britain’s Stern Review—economists Humberto Llavador, John Roemer, and Joaquim Silvestre have thrown cold water on the idea that natural gas is our nation’s economic savior. In a forthcoming paper, they argue that given that budget, the world’s two largest CO2 emitters, the U.S. and China, must keep GDP growth within the threshold of 1 percent and 2.8 percent of GDP per year, respectively, for the next 75 years.

These results may sound surprising, but they are in line with a growing body of research on stranded carbon assets, which are assets such as fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) that will lose their value well before they’re expected to. This can happen as a result of, say, market disruption (rapid advances in green technology like wind and solar polar or divestment) or government regulation (a carbon tax or stricter fuel economy standards). That latter is more likely because, even now, we have found way more fossil fuels than we could possibly burn without inviting long-term environmental disaster.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s carbon-budget model, widely considered the most reliable, puts the budget for 2012-2100 at between 886 and 1119 gigatons of CO2. Total known fossil fuel reserves in the world, if burned, would add 2860 gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Thus, simple math indicates that almost two-thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned if global temperatures are to remain habitable. And these are optimistic estimates. James Hansen of the Columbia Earth Institute and other leading scientists and economists argue that all extraction of coal and other unconventional fossil fuels, like the Canadian Tar Sands, must cease immediately and the extraction of conventional fossil fuels, like oil and natural gas, must be significantly pared down.

Projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and other attempts to revive the U.S. economy based on fossil-fuel extraction are the equivalent of running up billions in debt and then running off to borrow more. The international community is already blowing through its carbon budget; the IPCC predicts that given “business as usual,” we’ll burn 1,000 gigatons of CO2 between 2012 and 2033, depleting the more conservative budget entirely and nearing the upper bound. We’ve already seen the consequences of temperatures growing by less than one degree Celsius, yet we’re on track to see themrise by more than six degrees by 2100. Our current trajectory tempts ecological and economic collapse, and yet, many are arguing that we accelerate the process.

Part of the problem is that our measure of growth, GDP, does not take into account the costs or sustainability of growth. One billion dollars of growth in the production of solar energy is not the same as $1 billion produced by coal in terms of ecological harm and sustainability, but GDP counts them equally. Instead we should measure progress using more extensive metrics like the Genuine Progress Indicator, which factors the impact of greenhouse gas emissions into its calculations. Further, we should institute a carbon tax, preferably an international one. Some companies currently price carbon internally—meaning that they put a price on the carbon produced by their projects, and subtract that from any expected returns—but do so at widely varying rates. A Carbon Disclosure Project study finds that nine of the largest energy companies in the United States internally price carbon dioxide emissions, at a cost ranging from $15 per ton (Devon) to $60 per ton (ExxonMobil). Governments should consider the social and environmental cost of carbon dioxide when they are making infrastructure and research investments, regulating extractive industries like fracking and offering tax incentives. Against the EPA’s recommendation, the State Department decided not to consider the social cost of carbon in its analysis of the Keystone pipeline.

The State Department also didn’t consider the very likely possibility that the pipeline will become a stranded asset. We can only hope it will—because that would mean we’ve finally learned that if we don’t live within our carbon budget, the long-term ecological and economic harm caused by our relentless extraction and burning of fossil fuels will obviate any short-term benefits to the economy. If we build our recovery on natural resources that need to remain underground to keep global temperatures stable, then we’ll be like the foolish builder in the Gospel of Matthew “who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Originally published on The New Republic.

John Lennox is an idiot and other musings on intelligent design

Intelligent designers are hilarious, because they have all the blustering certainty and assholery that comes from being really smart and knowing it, without the actually being smart. Most of them come from scientific fields not associated with biology (Lennox, for instance, is a mathematician) and they regularly say hilariously idiotic things. I remember watching Lennox speak and he said, “There were three great thinkers of the 20th century, Marx, Freud and Darwin. Two have fallen, when will the third?” Obviously, only one of those men lived in the 20th century, and Darwin’s theories were pretty well-established within the scientific community before the turn of the 20th century, but we’ll skip over that. Have Marx and Freud fallen? Really!? I know it’s all in vogue to be like, all past Freud or whatever, but what happens here is that Marx or Freud are vulgarized (i.e. oh, Marx thought capitalism sucked and it was doomed and Freud that you could explain all human actions in terms of penises) and then kick the shit out of that vulgarization. To a large extent, this is what the ID community (which is creationism, let’s stop with the B.S.) does to Darwin. But if the idea that Freud and Marx could be dead given that every serious thinker has to grapple with them is absurd, the idea that Darwin could die is even more absurd. To even do biology, you have to accept Darwin’s theories. Important disciplines (paleontology and neuroscience come to mind) rely of Darwinian mechanisms. There are even fields dedicated strictly to a applying Darwinian methods more broadly (i.e. evolutionary psychology). Have we in many ways transcended Darwin? Not quite as much as with Freud and Marx, but certainly there have been modifications, brought about by fields like genetics, neuroscience and paleontology, but broadly speaking, even those who move beyond Darwin (say a Dawkins or a Gould) owe him a huge debt.

The Minimum Wage is Not an Economic Question

Today 75 economists, including 7 Nobel Laureates signed a letter advocating for a higher minimum wage. They sum up what is now the consensus among economists: a modest boost to the minimum wage won’t have a significant effect on unemployment and may boost the local economy. But it strikes me that focuses on the “economics” of the minimum wage is relatively unimportant; it’s the moral question that matters.

If I go to the bank and ask for a loan to finance a the development of technology to turn kittens into car sealant, they won’t ask about the return on investment, they’ll call the police. Similarly, when we banned child labor we didn’t ask if that would reduce GDP. We banned child labor because we aren’t a society that lets children work in dangerous factories. We passed OSHA because we aren’t a society where workers have to worry about dying on the job.

We should raise the minimum wage because we aren’t a society where a full-time worker can’t feed her family. Even if raising the minimum wage caused unemployment (it doesn’t) it would still be the right thing to do. Work should have dignity, and dignity means being paid enough to live.

The minimum wage debate is a microcosm of this problem. Conservatives constantly lament the fact that our society is too materialistic and atomized but when it comes time to give up material pleasure for social gain they run. Is it not a tad materialistic to eschew regulation to save jobs? Isn’t it materialistic to pollute the environment for economic growth? Too often the left falls into the trap of allowing our moral case to be diluted with the economics argument.

We should certainly point out that the minimum wage won’t kill jobs and neither will regulation, but it’s important to remind people that simply increasing GDP isn’t actually a good goal. Robert F. Kennedy put it best when he said of efforts to increase GNP (an economic indicator similar to GDP that measures production based on ownership):

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Are we proud to live in a country where full-time workers still struggle to eat? Then let’s raise the minimum wage.