I Am South Park!
For each of these gems, however, you have to sit through a tedious attempt at provoking controversy like the “manbearpig” episode, which seems to have had no motivation other than disliking Al Gore and calculating that skepticism about global warming would somehow be edgier than joining all the popular kids on the Eco-bandwagon. And Lord knows Parker and Stone can simply be dicks from time to time, like with those narcissistic swipes at Family Guy for not having exactly the same structure and sensibility as…well, South Park (somehow the world survived having both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton—two comedians with diametrically opposed approaches to comedy—I think in the new multi-billion channel universe there is room for both South Park's juvie-picaresque and McFarlane’s dada factory. Plus, can't both empires see they have common enemies in Dane Cook, Carlos Mencia, and Jeff Dunham?).
It wasn't some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too.
So in the world of TV comedy, the terrorists do indeed seem to have won…for now at least. And in a somewhat pyrrhic victory, Parker and Stone have demonstrated once again that media conglomerates only really invoke P.C. sensitivity when it dovetails with C.Y.A. anxiety.
No doubt there is some legitimate concern here. As an extension of Viacom, Comedy Central does not want to endanger personnel, property, publicity, and stock shares by provoking a nasty little incident at their corporate headquarters. And who could blame them? After all, why should one little cable network (even if it is part of a global media behemoth) shoulder this First Amendment struggle all on its lonesome?
But has no one seen Spartacus? Specifically, isn’t there at least one industry vertebrate who remembers the scene where the Romans demand the slaves surrender their rebel leader, inspiring the men to stand up one at a time to proclaim, “I am Spartacus!” In a class I’m teaching this term on the classical Hollywood Studio System, we’ve been looking back at how the industry—through both friendly cooperation and illegal collusion--used to work together to solve the various knotty little problems facing their collective empire: sound, censorship, rogue talent, rebellious exhibitors, etc. While still in competition against one another, the old studios also realized that it was in their collective interest to solve certain structural challenges together. So, like the mafia, once the movie family made a decision, it became the law of movie-land.
Given the intervening history of media mergers and conglomeration, such cooperation should be even easier today. If the “media” wanted to solve this embarrassing little First Amendment fiasco once and for all, they need only cooperate and all stand up at the same time. For example, after NBC-Universal-Comcast finishes with its annual “Green Week,” why not recruit the rest of the industry to sponsor a coordinated celebration of “Secular Humanism” or even a week of programming that extols the virtues of agnosticism and atheism? If every channel spent an entire week ridiculing every single organized religion, or indeed the very concept of organized religion itself, it would go a long way to diffusing the ability of any one sect to focus its wrath on an individual program or company. Rather than see more tired jokes about thrifty light bulbs and the virtues of water conservation, I would much rather watch a 30 Rock wherein Liz Lemon loses her glasses and mistakes a crucifix for an EPT stick. Or how about a trial on The Good Wife that radically contextualizes the historical genesis of kosher food practices? Or maybe a special live episode of Deal or No Deal in which every suitcase contains, not only a money card, but also a tasteful portrait of Muhammad that Howie Mandell then faxes one at a time to RevolutionMuslim.com.
Better yet, perhaps there is a way to pit religious extremists against one another directly for our televisual enjoyment. I see a reality show here, Battle Royale style, with various radical sects airlifted to adjacent training camps in the middle of Kansas where they are then encouraged to convert one another by the end of the month for cash, prizes, and the fate of all eternity. I would so watch the draining of that gene-swamp that I’ll make a pledge right now to buy every product advertised on the show in triplicate.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion as long as they also subscribe to modernity’s highest precept that all knowledge/belief is provisional and thus subject to debate, revision, and even occasional ridicule. But from the fundamentalist perspective, what could be more insane than believing matters of religious faith are open to dialogue or discussion? By refusing to play this Enlightenment game of honoring open and “rational” communication, radical Islam has very successfully thrown a monkey-wrench into the entire system. While many are mad at Comedy Central and Viacom for a gutless stifling of South Park’s imagined “freedom of speech,” much more unsettling is the realization of just how easy it has been for fundamentalists to derail three centuries of modernity by reverting back to the most primitive of all power configurations—moral absolutism grounded in magical thinking and bolstered by a willingness to commit physical violence. As the South Park episode itself demonstrates so powerfully, there is now one lone constituency in the world that has effectively leveraged itself to a place beyond representation-- not by “winning” any arguments in the west's cherished forum of open debate--but by regressing quite effectively back to the impervious childlike logic of supernatural certainty. Could we find a more persuasive example of the political advantages to be had in behaving like an irrational object rather than an "enlightened" subject, the gains one can accomplish simply by refusing to participate in another order’s system of meaning?