In the razor-close and nationally important Senate race in Minnesota, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman is presented with a unique political problem. Should he raise in his ads the issue of comedian Al Franken's offensive vulgarity? Or would this risk a backlash against Coleman for coarsening the public conversation? Remember that when Ken Starr detailed Bill Clinton's most repulsive antics -- stained dresses and such -- it was Starr who was accused of sexual obsessiveness.
Franken's defenders explain that his edginess is the result of being a "satirist" -- a term he embraces. "My work, dare I say, is provocative, touching and funny," Franken has explained. "It sounds immodest, but I now have a brand name in political satire."
Our popular culture, of course, violates even these expansive boundaries of tastelessness with regularity. We laugh at comedies featuring the C-word and at cartoons of foul-mouthed third-graders. In the cause of relevance and realism, our common life is already decorated with excrement. Why should political discourse be any different?
For at least one reason: Because vulgarity is often the opposite of civility. This is not, of course, always true. I know a brilliant and large-hearted academic with roots in south Philly who uses the F-word with the frequency of "like" or "and." But the vulgarity of "The Jerry Springer Show" or misogynous rap music -- the cultural equivalents of Franken's political "satire" -- generally expresses contempt and cruelty. Franken is not content to disagree with Karl Rove; he calls him "human filth." He is not satisfied to criticize Ari Fleischer; Franken terms him a "chimp." The objects of Franken's humor -- including political opponents and women -- are not merely mocked but dehumanized. His trashiness is also nastiness. Rather than lampooning the emptiness and viciousness of our political discourse -- a proper role for satire -- Franken has powerfully reinforced those failures.
Some institutions must be more than a mirror to our culture, including families, religious communities and government. At its best, politics can offer examples of civility and generosity that challenge selfishness and prejudice -- the tradition so far embraced by both John McCain and Barack Obama. At the very least, politics should not actively push our culture toward vulgarity and viciousness. This is not prudery; it is a practical concern for the cooperation and mutual respect necessary in a functioning democracy. And it is hard to believe those causes would be served by a Sen. Franken.
Where to begin?
First of all, Gerson warns the readers of the Washington Post that they may need to remain close to their fainting couches if they dare read his column today. It never ceases to amaze me--when someone writes this:
Warning: The following contains extreme vulgarity by a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
--you're not actually expecting the reader to put the paper down and flee the premises. You're expecting their eyes to bulge and their blood pressure to rise as they devour every word.
As Dick Cheney himself might say, "Go Fuck Yourself."
Second of all, Gerson relies almost entirely on quotes from a rather bland and unfunny piece Franken wrote for Playboy--a piece that is heavy on the naughty talk and light on substance. But here's what I want to know--who the hell is stupid enough to think you can pick up an issue of Playboy and NOT find something naughty and prurient and inappropriate for kids? I mean--common sense here. It would be news if everything in it were wholesome and appropriate for Mrs. Gerson's idiot kid Michael.
Third, Gerson comes off as a wet blanket. Has he actually lived in this country as an adult? What's obscene to him is bland and pedestrian to the rest of us.
Gerson reveals his ignorance of the culture in more ways than are possible. Al Franken is a long shot to win a Senate Seat in Minnesota because of the simple fact that people there got tired of the celebrity/politician freak show, thanks to the likes of James Janos, a man so enamored of himself he couldn't serve as the Governor without using a fake name. The state that sent Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone and Walter Mondale to serve in the US Senate has sent some lightweights and idealogues in recent years--most notably the "one and done" Mark Dayton and the wingnut TV announcer Rod Grams. Norm Coleman is merely the latest in a long line of lightweights, but he'll probably keep his job if he can continue to run from the policies of the Bush Administration.
Franken's problem is that he hasn't lived in the state as much as he probably needed to in order to build up legitimacy. What he needs to do is emphasize his intelligence, his grasp of the issues, and his dedication to public service. On the basis of his efforts to participate in the United Service Organization (USO) shows alone, he would definitely get my vote. He needs to run ads showing him on USO tours and he needs to run as someone who will end the war, bring the troops back home, and represent the state effectively.
Gerson's lack of understanding of the background of Al Franken is striking. Franken, at one time, was writing jokes for some of the most popular comedians in the country and his work was universally accepted into the culture, no rejected by it. The inherent crudity of the 1970s is well understood by anyone who lived during that time. Gerson, having been born in 1964, missed entirely what it was like to be Al Franken--someone who was living and working as a comedy writer in New York City in the late 1970s and was on television every week.
There's no way Gerson--who claims that Jimmy Carter was his childhood political hero--can understand that it was Al Franken's job to feed Dan Ackroyd lines on a weekly basis to mock Jimmy Carter in front of millions of people.
Franken went on to write books, movies, and appear regularly on television. Franken is merely getting the same out-of-context treatment that James Webb received when he was running for the Senate in Virginia. When voters were exposed to snippets of Webb's work, they were supposed to be outraged and reject him. When it was understood that Webb was a writer of substance and merit, and that his body of work was serious and literary in nature, they didn't fall for the trick. Franken has excellent work in his background--notably, the acclaimed film When a Man Loves a Woman and a whole host of biting pieces of satire. He can be described as an artist with a varied background, and the Playboy article he wrote that Gerson cites is merely a tiny fraction of his work and doesn't rate as one of his better pieces.
There's also no way that Gerson can get away with criticizing Al Franken on what he wrote without being criticized himself for coining the term "the soft bigotry of low expectations" and labeling Iran, Iraq and North Korea the "Axis of Evil" and for this statement:
Gerson proposed the use of a "smoking gun/mushroom cloud" metaphor during a September 5, 2002 meeting of the White House Iraq Group, in an effort to sell the American public on the supposed nuclear dangers posed by Saddam Hussein. According to Newsweek columnist Michael Isikoff, "The original plan had been to place it in an upcoming presidential speech, but WHIG members fancied it so much that when the Times reporters contacted the White House to talk about their upcoming piece [about aluminum tubes], one of them leaked Gerson's phrase — and the administration would soon make maximum use of it.
Now THAT'S an obscenity. Don't let your kids read that.