In their insightful and offbeat Freakonomics Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner tell the remarkable story of Stetson Kennedy’s important role in preventing a substantial national revival of the Ku Klux Klan following World War II. Kennedy first infiltrated the Klan on his own and learned its secret structure, terminology, and passwords and then, in a stroke of genius, provided these to . . . The Adventures of Superman radio show. The script writers made great sport of the Klan’s goofy terminology (“Exalted Cyclopses,” “Kleagles,” “Klaverns,” etc.) as Superman battled against them. Very soon all over the country children were playing Superman vs. The Klan and mocking the Klan’s bizarre and murderous thuggery. Members began to leave in droves.
Kennedy’s success demonstrates that it is much more difficult to strike fear into a society when its children are laughing at you. Some six decades later the comic geniuses behind South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have on occasion turned their attention to a different set of bizarre and murderous thugs. In an episode shortly after 9/11, “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants” (originally titled “Osama bin Laden Has a Tiny Penis”) the potty-mouthed South Park kids go to Afghanistan. Bin Laden does not come off well. Then in their first full-length film (South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut) Parker and Stone explore the implications of a hilariously romantic involvement between Saddam Hussein and the Devil.
But to date the piece de resistance of axis-of-evil mockery is their side-splitting latest film, Team America: World Police. An all-marionette musical, the film satirizes everybody within reach and is, well, gross (both characteristics are constants in Parker’s and Stone’s work). For example, the three-man two-woman American team of terror fighters is composed of good-hearted and brave but naïve and corny bumblers equipped with the highest technology, which they tend to misuse–accidentally destroying, say, Paris. They lapse into psychobabble with one another while discussing their relationships (“I have feelings for you, too”). All authority figures are fair game for these two. And an edited version of the film is available for those of tender sensibilities who might want to give a pass to the most scatological marionette sex scene in the history of film.
In the film, Team America battles Kim Jong Il, a wonderfully nasty, pompous, tyrant who wears his heart on his sleeve and is the mastermind behind the world’s terrorists. (Many of the latter are from Durkadurkastan and say “Durka Durka” a lot.) Kim’s principal sidekicks–Lenin would have called them useful idiots — are a bevy of remarkably life-like marionettes of Hollywood liberals, headed by Alec Baldwin. Parker and Stone give Kim a unique accent that combines Elmer Fudd’s (“wicked wabbit”) with some confusion between “l’s” and “r’s” so his angry song about the Hollywood stars’ failure to live up to his expectations comes out, “Ooo are worfwess, Arec Bardwin.” Kim’s melodic lament, “I’m So Ronery,” is similarly, uh, memorable, and concludes:
I work wery hard and I’m physicary fit
But nobody here seems to wearize it
When I wule the world maybe they’rr notice me
But untir then I’rr just be
Ronery, so ronery
Pool witter me.
After seeing Team America it is virtually impossible, for any of the five of us anyway, to see a picture of Kim Jong Il or even hear his name without the goofy South Park puppet leaping to mind.
Parker’s and Stone’s special gift is to see the pompous, the absurd, and the self-important through the eyes of the young and to caricature these with Chaplinesque comic sensibility. The Middle East–where there is plenty of pomposity, absurdity, and self-importance–is a place where satire and ridicule can be particularly powerful weapons, especially with young people. We should not fight the spirit of rebelliousness of the region’s youth but go with it. It is now the case, and sometimes we even deserve it, that we are that spirit’s target, but we should do our best to help it focus heavily on the real and entrenched enemies of young people’s freedom: the Middle East’s pompous totalitarians.
Instead our current public diplomacy seems to stress broadcasting to the young people of the Middle East bowdlerized songs from Britney Spears and Eminem, a few talk shows and offering pictures of American life such as the State Department Magazine Hi’s now-famous article for young Arab readers on American metrosexuals (“Real men moisturize.”) Rather than just playing records on the air and branding ourselves as folks who really care about guys getting pedicures, maybe we should try to liven up the Middle East’s airwaves with some of Parker’s and Stone’s inspired irreverence.
In World War II our most talented writers, directors, and actors helped the war effort. This time around we might similarly challenge young, creative Americans who understand the streets of the Middle East, the humor of the young there, and what forms of ridicule could really work against the Baathists, the Shiite theocrats in Tehran, al Qaeda, and the Wahhabis. It should be possible to figure out how such a team could be guided by Parker’s and Stone’s genius. But this would have to be an undertaking of the young, by the young, for the young.
Recently one of us was testifying on Iran before a Senate Committee and was asked, in effect, what steps short of force might help undercut the authority of Iran’s hideous government. The response–see if you can encourage the creators of South Park to go after Ahmadinejad and Khamenei they way they went after Kim Jong Il in Team America: World Police–produced an interesting reaction. The younger Senate staffers, reporters, and members of the audience giggled and grinned wickedly. Everyone over 40 looked absolutely clueless. Definitely the right demographics.
–The Woolsey family, led by its younger members, are South Park fans.