From the Department of Missing the Point

Despite my recent disagreements with Conor, one area where he is indubitably correct is in criticizing conservatism’s inability to engage the culture in which it must exist.  This, to me, is not a political issue – it has little to do with winning elections or with governance – but it leaves conservative cultural critiques utterly tone-deaf, ghettoized, irrelevant, and incapable of understanding context.  Sonny Bunch and Peter Suderman notwithstanding, there are few things more dreadful to read than a conservative television, music, or movie critic or even just a conservative attempting to discuss television, music, or movies.  Today presents us with Exhibit 1,234,324 (estimated) of this problem: conservative outrage over this week’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The cause of the outrage?  In the episode, Larry David accidentally urinates on a picture of Jesus Christ hanging in a bathroom.  The typical Curb Your Enthusiasm set of misunderstandings, inappropriate conduct, etc. follows. 

The result is a series of headlines decrying the blasphemous contempt for Christians this displays – how, after all, could anyone think urinating on a picture of Jesus Christ is amusing or socially acceptable or anything other than a blatant attempt to marginalize Christians?

The problem is that this line of thinking completely, utterly, and preposterously misses the point of the show, not to mention the punchline: Larry David is an asshole.  Not just a little bit of an asshole, either, but quite possibly the world’s biggest asshole.  That Larry David’s politics happen to be liberal has not a lick to do with why his show is funny.  Indeed, to the extent his politics are involved at all, it is to make fun of his own politics, which in some cases result in him being an even bigger asshole (witness the episode where he abandoned a woman mid-coitus because he learned that she was a Republican).  David’s character in many ways is in fact supposed to be a liberal Archie Bunker, just without the lovable core.  As such, Larry David’s character is the type of character that could only be played by a liberal; were he played by a conservative, liberals everywhere would be complaining about how the show paints an unfair picture of liberals. 

The point of Curb Your Enthusiasm is absolutely, positively never that you’re supposed to laugh with Larry David, it’s that you’re supposed to laugh at Larry David.  If you ever – ever – think that Larry David is supposed to be a hero or a decent person or that his character intends his actions to be humorous, then you’re not only missing the point of the show, you’re probably a complete asshole yourself.  What makes the scene in this particular case funny isn’t that someone urinated on a picture of Jesus Christ, it’s that Larry David is the type of asshole who would urinate on a picture of Jesus Christ and show absolutely no remorse for it.  In short, he’s not mocking Christians, he’s mocking himself.

And if you honestly don’t think that David would have been willing to, say, draw a picture of Muhammed for similar purposes, then you’re just not getting the point.  Indeed, the main reason why you’re unlikely to see David do that on his show is that in this country it wouldn’t be remotely asshole-y enough; too many people would be cheering him on for it to have any kind of comic effect in the context of the show.

Via Memorandum.

UPDATE: In case the above is still unclear, the difference between laughing at and laughing with a character is summed up by the fact that Larry David’s character on Curb is the type of person who would think that “Jerk Store” is a witty and funny comeback:

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

23 thoughts on “From the Department of Missing the Point

    • ED- Question: You use the phrase culture war. Why? Or more specifically are you buying into Pat Buchanan’s philosophies about said culture war?

      I have to say I hate the phrase and all that it implies. American’s overuse the war metaphors and it directly pits American against American. It implies loss and destruction for one side which leads to enraged bitter conflict instead of respect and belief that others can act in good faith. In a war there are few if any rules and destroying your opponent is the goal. In a war people demonize the Other. And describing the process of democracy as a war seems to miss the point of how and what democracy is.

      The belief and use of the term “culture war” is one of things that is holding back healthy dialogue in this country.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  1. Well I don’t know. It seems like this conservative criticism of not conservative CYE is completely conservative and supports conservative principles. Conservative cultural criticism is in line with conservative thought, conservative values and is just really , really conservative. conservatives should be conservative in the best conservative tradition of being conservative.

    So anyway , maybe the problem is conservatives having to wrap everything in “conservative” values and principles as if their political views have to be some complete guide for how to live every aspect of life. Some conservatives seem stuck on having their chosen political label be an entire life plan.

    Full disclosure

    I’m a liberal who enjoys John Wayne movies and the movie Dirty Harry, even though, shock of shocks, those movies don’t support my political beliefs.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • True, but it wasn’t always like this. ee cummings would fit comfortably within conservatism under just about any modern definition, yet no one would deny that he understood art. Similarly, John Wayne and Dirty Harry were frickin’ decades ago. If I were not insistent on being more or less done with the topic for the moment, I could probably outline an argument as to why this particular problem of conservatism has its roots in the same issues of incoherence that I have diagnosed as being at the root of conservatism’s more political problem. In some ways, I’d even argue that solving this problem is part and parcel of solving those larger problems – current disagreements with Conor aside, I’d even go so far as to say that the Electric Kool-Aid Conservatism project, as outlined in that essay, is precisely the type of thing that conservative elites ought to be doing if they want to modernize conservatism.

        Quote  Link

      Report

      • One other thing, if I may briefly run the risk of getting accused of concern trolling: liberals should beware the influence of Media Matters. It can serve a useful purpose to be sure (and I myself am not above citing it favorably on occasion), but its interest in dissecting the political leanings of all media pushes it down a path where it can and sometimes does wind up having a view of art that exactly corresponds to what I’m discussing here. At the moment, it’s not nearly as problematic for the Left as it is for the Right (and to be honest, given the nature of art, it probably never will be) but Media Matters definitely has a penchant for completely missing the point of what little conservative-leaning “art” there is.

          Quote  Link

        Report

  2. “The problem is that this line of thinking completely, utterly, and preposterously misses the point of the show, not to mention the punchline: Larry David is an asshole.”

    I don’t see what this has to do with it. Your absolutely valid point about “conservative” culture criticism aside, the issue isn’t just the question, “how could anyone think urinating on a picture of Jesus Christ is amusing?” (which might fall under conservative misunderstanding of culture), but also, “why is it OK for someone to actually piss on a picture of Christ, whatever the context?” (i.e., does cultural understanding/laughing-at take the actual piss off the actual picture?).

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. Mark, before I say anything else let me just say this: if you think there’s a point to Curb Your Enthusiasm, you’re the one who is missing the point.

    You are definitely right about the politics of this, but you are quite wrong that Larry David (the character) is never a hero. In fact, he is routinely wronged by others, especially by the superficiality-obsessed society that surrounds him. Indeed, the audience is supposed to actively root for him in these situations. I think Wikipedia’s paragraph character description is very accurate:

    Self-centered, misanthropic and regularly difficult, Larry creates awkwardness and discomfort in social situations. His problems are often caused by his own neuroses and an obstinate faith in his own understanding of ethics and etiquette. At the same time, he usually has good intentions but often finds himself a victim of circumstance and social convention, not to mention most of the people around him are almost, if not more, as self-centered and stubborn as he is.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. Fantastic post. Quietly righteous. Just two points, one, I actually think Douthat’s film writing is pretty good (much better than his political writing). Two — Larry bailing in that context might be said to demonstrate uncommon conviction to his political views! Likely you are right, though, about what he means it to say about the warping effect of politics on life. (But it’s also probably based on an exaggerated account of a real incident!)

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. Wow…before I clicked over, I had to think of what might be so offensive to “conservatives” about this week’s Curb episode. Oh, the Jesus thing! But what’s “conservative” about this particular critique? Seems this isn’t a conservative complaint so much as it is a Christian complaint.

    You can see that most clearly in the link to the Corner, where the big complaint is “mocking Christ.” And you know, even allowing for religious sensitivity, it’s a HUGE stretch to say that accidentally (because that, too, was part of the joke in the show….the pissing on Jesus was an accident!) peeing on a picture of a very European-looking Jesus is, indeed, “mocking Christ.” Idolatry much?

    At any rate…they picked the wrong episode to cry about. What about the one where Larry interrupted the baptism of a Jewish-to-Jesus convert, thinking he was drowning? Or the one where he used his father-in-law’s Jesus Nail to hang up his Jewish Mezuzah? Or the one where he tried to hook up his blind friend with a burqa wearing Muslim?

    Weak…and not conservative.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *