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Courtesy of Comedy Central

Watching South Park at the End of the World

The soul of conservative America just might be found in a cartoon about a gang of vulgar little boys.

Writing about South Park, a silly cartoon, in the middle of an eminently predictable and yet entirely unanticipated global pandemic has an uncanny quality, like meeting a time traveler and realizing that he is you. If I could travel back in time now and meet myself circa, say, 2005, just a few years out of college and struggling to figure out how to become a writer, and tell that younger me that in 15 years, nearing 40 years old, I’d be locked in the house during a plague year writing a review of the political valences of South Park, which would still be on the air, I’d have probably gone to business school sooner than I did. Oh well.

But we are all stuck in the house and watching a lot of television, so perhaps this, too, like a globalized viral outbreak in the age of near-instantaneous air travel, is inevitable. “I should have realized,” murmurs a dour Nick Stahl in Terminator 3, that “our destiny was never to stop Judgment Day; it was merely to survive it.”

South Park itself feels like a transmission from what should have been an alternate past, the one that the desperate time traveler from our time went back to, Terminator-style, in order to try to prevent our present from happening, but which, in utter failure, he only managed to cement into place. Other artifacts from that fin de millénaire epoch—the bad clothes, the last triumphant guffaws of TV laugh tracks, the popular music—have settled into the familiar patterns of cultural ephemera: first kitsch, then nostalgia, and at last fashionable revivals that are usually less ironic than they seem. But South Park, though no less affected by the hyperbalkanization of media than any other entertainment, remains influential. True, it’s far less central to mass culture than it was in the earlier 2000s, when you could still crack up a conference room with a well-timed “Respect my authorit-ah!” joke, but it retains a kind of currency. (I almost wrote relevance, but thought better of it.)

People still think this show, about a gang of vulgar fourth-grade boys, their families, and the extended, eccentric everytown of South Park, Colorado, is important. I grew up in small, semirural towns myself, albeit in Appalachian Pennsylvania and not the Mountain West. I recognize the universal appeal. I was friends with guys like Stan Marsh, the show’s generally kind, usually moral protagonist, and guys like Kenny McCormick, the self-sufficient poor kid whose riotous, unsettled home life we all made fun of, even though we knew better. I knew guys like Kyle Broflovski, the lone Jewish kid in a sea of uncomprehending gentiles, because I was that kid. We were even friends with guys like Eric Cartman, an obscene, self-pitying little anti-Semite, for reasons we could not quite articulate or explain. And beyond these, the show’s bestiary of Main Street America, its hapless parents and inept leaders, its weird small businesses and petty local politics, its moral pretensions and amoral vanities do ring true, however exaggerated. Because it resembles them and their lives, people believe that South Park matters. And, in a way, it does.

Why am I writing this? Now? With everything else that’s going on? The truth is that an editor wrote to me a month ago and asked me if I had any thoughts about the purchase that South Park seems to have gained on contemporary conservative culture, especially in the post–Tea Party, now Trumpified era in which “owning the libs”—deliberately going after the various multiculti pieties of diversity, inclusion, and other supposedly softhearted liberal pathologies—has become an end in itself. Just a few weeks ago! That was back when we could still foolishly imagine that what we were still mostly calling simply “the coronavirus” would be another near miss, a grim warning of an inevitable pandemic that would remain, always, in the near future, the probability never quite collapsing into an event.

The conservative publication National Review had just published a piece in praise of South Park by a writer named Katherine Timpf. Timpf, in turn, was responding to a Twitter thread by the writer Dana Schwartz, who had tweeted, “In retrospect, it seems impossible to overstate the cultural damage done by SOUTH PARK, the show that portrayed earnestness as the only sin and taught that mockery is the ultimate inoculation against all criticism.” Schwartz went on to say that the show taught “that it was always cooler to be reactionary and contrarian, and anyone who criticizes anything is ‘offended’ and that’s the *real* problem.” She lamented that a “generation of boys [had] internalized it into their personalities.”

This is obviously—though perhaps not deliberately—hyperbole. It is not at all “impossible to overstate” South Park’s damage to American culture; quite the opposite: It is very, very easy to do so. Educated Americans like nothing better than to identify a single piece of cultural flotsam on which to pin the decline and fall of our civilization, like a guy in an undergrad survey course who is self-convinced that lead pipes alone brought down the Roman Empire. We are usually—no, always—wrong.

This sort of theorizing is also indicative of the liberal left’s occasional impulse to adopt what is itself a deeply reactionary framework for interpreting cultural phenomena. It has the slightly musty smell of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” in the much-mocked formulation of New York Times columnist Bari Weiss—a group that, before largely melting down amid the bitchy infighting and tyranny-of-small-differences schismatism of any self-styled and half-baked revolutionary movement, liked to proclaim that “politics is downstream from culture.” The idea is that varieties of cultural warfare (most of which consist of … tweets and memes, mirabile visu) are the root of the sociocultural change that will in turn drive power politics. This group, too, had aesthetic affinities for the South Park style, its envelope-pushing use of anti-Semitism, rape, disease, and violence as humor, ever-excused as we were only joking.

But politics is not downstream from culture. Quite the opposite. Art—and I am willing to admit that even South Park is a sort of art—may be a mirror, a camera, a conversation. But poets are not, alas, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley had it, no matter how much we still wish that it might be true.

As a mirror, South Park has tracked the right’s various and often fleeting obsessions with of-the-moment exemplars of what it imagines as liberal excess, from racial diversity (the show’s main recurring black character is a young boy named, very on-the-nose, “Token”) to gender-inclusive bathrooms to what it presents as the invariably hyperbolic rhetoric of the environmental movement. In 2015, National Review published a piece called “South Park Shows How to Defeat the Social-Justice Warriors,” which lamented the excesses of “PC culture” while complaining about such conservative bugaboos as Whole Foods and Lena Dunham. Other less rigidly ideological writers also got in on the act. Bret Easton Ellis, a former enfant terrible novelist who has matured into the kind of two-gimlet, country-club loudmouth that South Park—by no means exclusively a liberal-bashing show—would also delight in mocking, opined in a 2015 New York Times column that the “democratization of culture and the dreaded cult of inclusivity” had ruined critical culture, taking as his prime example a South Park episode that made fun of people’s self-serving, freebie-seeking use of the then-dominant review site, Yelp. He later recycled this column in his 2019 book, White, which sought to self-diagnose the “vague yet almost overwhelming and irrational annoyance” the author felt about being made to feel badly for being white, rich, etc.

Courtesy of Comedy Central

Ironically, Timpf’s National Review article, an ostensibly conservative reaction to Schwartz’s supposedly tearful liberalism, adopts precisely the doe-eyed, softhearted, cod-therapeutic language of the self-caring left. Its title? “South Park as Healing Mechanism.” “I have struggled with ADD, anxiety, and depression since childhood,” Timpf confesses, until the liberating, take-no-prisoners, pan-directional offensiveness of the show “gave me permission to laugh at myself when it came to something that everyone around me had only ever treated painfully seriously.” The people who are “accusing South Park of ruining our culture” only “think that they’re being compassionate.” In reality, they’re selfish and self-centered; far from standing up for the targets of the show’s derision and mockery, they are trying to deny people access to the psychic healing that only broad, vulgar satire can provide.

Conservatives have been trying to claim South Park as their own since the George W. Bush administration. As early as 2001, conservative blogger (and former New Republic editor) Andrew Sullivan was talking about “South Park Republicans” as a new political alignment combining vaguely libertarian economic ideas with equally laissez-faire attitudes toward sex, homosexuality, abortion, etc. In 2005, Brian C. Anderson, who holds a post at the Manhattan Institute—one of the many conservative “think tanks” that serve as holding pens for otherwise unemployable conservative gadflies—published South Park Conservative: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias. The book’s introduction, subtitled “A New Era,” begins as follows: “CBS’s cancellation in late 2003 of its planned four-hour miniseries The Reagans marked a watershed in America’s culture wars.” Talk about obvious—but probably not deliberate—hyperbole! This was in the flushed triumphalism of Bush’s still-new second term, just five months before the human disaster of Hurricane Katrina, “heckuva job, Brownie,” the deadly expansion of the Iraqi insurgency, and then, two years later, the implosion of the housing market and subsequent economic collapse, which sent Bush into retirement as the least popular president in modern American history.

The book itself is a hasty, tossed-together tour d’horizon of conservative media in the early 2000s: the Drudge Report, talk radio, Fox News, the “Blogosphere.” It devotes only one chapter to “South Park Anti-Liberals,” and only half of that—about a dozen pages in this barely 150-page book—to South Park itself, before pivoting to talk about the anti-P.C. stylings of past-their-prime comedy-scene fixtures Nick Di Paolo, Colin Quinn, and Dennis Miller. These few pages are in turn padded out by synopses of episodes and long excerpts of “politically incorrect” and otherwise offense-provoking dialogue of which Anderson approves. Insofar as he locates an actual Republican ideology in the show and its creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it’s in an old, possibly apocryphal quote from Stone: “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.”

Threadbare as Anderson’s book is, it does contain within it an intimation of a tendency in conservatism that Donald Trump would eventually ride into office: that the animal spirits of popular American conservatism lay not in the corporate libertarianism of the sort that the Manhattan Institute itself has long championed, but in an ethnonationalism that increasingly expressed itself in various forms of jocular oafishness. This was vulgarity deployed not as a fantasy of liberation from sexual and social strictures, as it had been in the hated 1960s, but as a cudgel against a cultural and political leftism that sought to carve out safe spaces (a term that, of course, became a great target of conservative mockery) for various minorities and historically disadvantaged people.

It’s a curious historical coincidence that, in praising his favorite offensive comedians, Anderson also praises in passing Gavin McInnes, then best known as the party-boy co-founder of Vice, later to become an avatar of the so-called alt-right, before that dark movement, too, collapsed in recrimination after one of his fellow-travelers murdered a woman in cold blood after a neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Now this was, and is, the real heart of modern American conservatism, from Nixon moaning about Jews, Negroes, and fags on his secret White House recordings, to George W. Bush’s dick-first aircraft-carrier landing to pronounce “Mission Accomplished,” to Donald Trump’s, well, many personal peccadilloes.

If all this is not really funny, it is at least entertaining. Nixon shitting on the Bohemian Grove, an upper-crust Northern California retreat for politicos and captains of industry to play dress-up and indulge in mock secret ceremonies, is revealing. “The Bohemian Grove, which I attend from time to time. It is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine, with that San Francisco crowd. I can’t shake hands with anybody from San Francisco.” He and his suck-up lawyer and factotum, John Ehrlichman, then turn to speculating on women’s fashions. Ehrlichman mentions “hot pants.” “Jesus Christ,” is Nixon’s deadpan reply. Put Nixon’s lines in the adenoidal voice of Eric Cartman and Ehrlichman’s in the voice of Cartman’s perennially abused sidekick, Butters, and you have an entirely believable snippet of a lost episode of South Park.

In other words, contra Schwartz’s complaint that “a generation of boys” had “internalized” South Park’s reactionary, mockery-as-virtue ethos, South Park externalized a long-extant but little-acknowledged tendency with American culture, and particularly within American conservative political culture. It is the old “I got mine” ethic that views with contemptuous suspicion any person or group that comes along and asks for a share of the rights, privileges, and material advantages that those who already have them simply know that they deserve based on their own skills and innate merit. All these jockeying newcomers, well, they’re clearly running some kind of scam.

For example, in the eighteenth-season episode “The Cissy,” which tries to satirize the then-hot topic of so-called transgender bathrooms, Cartman transparently feigns that he is trans in order to access the girl’s bathroom for his own convenience. The girls revolt; the school, seeking to avoid a scandal, builds him a luxurious private bathroom; Wendy, a girl, then feigns being trans herself to get into the private bathroom. In the end, everyone is told to use whatever bathroom they are most comfortable with, and the private room is given over to the people who are uncomfortable potentially sharing a bathroom with an actual trans person.

In all of this, there are no actually trans characters (insofar as there could be “actual” characters in a crudely drawn cartoon), nor even the slightest intimation that there might be some legitimate claim about an iniquity that would legitimately demand accommodation or remediation. Everyone is just scamming, trying to get one over on each other. (South Park’s satirical depiction of a trans person came in a much earlier season, when the gay teacher Mr. Garrison had sex reassignment surgery, followed by a belief that he’s pregnant, followed, a few seasons later, by a bizarre de-transition that involved growing a penis on the back of a mouse. It has not aged well, to say the least.)

That isn’t to say there is nothing funny about the episode. The show generally and quite explicitly depicts Cartman as a villain—vain, stupid, and mean—and it’s often either silly or satisfying to see him reap what he sows. If the show’s largely male audience misidentifies him as a protagonist worth emulating, then that isn’t really the fault of the show’s creators and writers, just as Martin Scorcese can’t be blamed for the fact that a lot of dumb straight dudes think Joe Pesci’s psychotic, murderous Tommy in Goodfellas is some kind of hero.

Likewise, the show’s depiction of a strain of officious bureaucracy that uses an ostentatious form of well-meaning solicitude to mask various forms of self-serving malice occasionally strikes home. In this same episode, the flummoxed principal barely knows what “trans” means, and Mr. Garrison wearily advises her to just give Cartman what he wants—a cynical gambit to avoid a scandal. They then thoughtlessly fund a preposterous facility for one troublesome boy rather than even try to consider the implications or work out a fair or just solution. Are all administrators like this? No. But I have spent my career outside of writing in arts management and higher ed, and if you imagine that there is no cynicism among Americans With Disabilities Act compliance administrators or school diversity officers and H.R. departments, you may be living in a cartoon yourself.

Nevertheless, there is no avoiding the nagging feeling that the show’s sensibility represents precisely the kind of durable anachronism that has rendered us so paralyzed in the face of what used to be onrushing calamities of climate, health, and inequality that have now, very definitively, arrived. Like Donald Trump himself—surely as close to a grown-up Eric Cartman (from his gross appetites to his whiny, self-serving obscenity) as we are ever going to get—the show’s political and cultural obsessions seem beamed in from the 1980s and ’90s, despite its frequently “ripped from the headlines” plot devices. It has the sour stink of old squabbles over “political correctness.”

Political correctness is itself a fascinating term. Its elastic, capacious usage has grown to encompass just about anything conservative political culture would prefer not to talk about. Like South Park’s own essential premises, it judges the crime of bringing things up—grand injustices or just hurt feelings—to be worse than any unfairness, inequity, or simple rudeness. It is a sort of singular and universal commandment: Moses gone up the mountain to return with a single tablet that proclaims, “Stop complaining!”

This is where the show ultimately aligns with the conservative political project, for in the end, its principal quality is not offensiveness, obscenity, vulgarity, humor, satire, iconoclasm, crudeness, or topicality. Rather, it is a mawkish defeatism in the guise of childish delinquency. If the defining characteristic of left politics, even the callow, timid, technocratic liberalism of the modern Democratic Party, is a desire to answer the old, animating question, “What is to be done?” then its conservative opposite is a desire to enforce precisely that popular paralysis that renders all action futile, all improvement vanity, all solidarity fraud, all hope fantasy. Conservatives like South Park because it keeps saying that things are fine, and that even when things are getting worse, they’re as good as you ought to get. When all else fails, do nothing, and above all, do not complain.

How thoroughly has this attitude assimilated into, or been assimilated by, the American conservative movement? In response to the current epidemic, we have in effect seen the plot of any average episode of South Park play out. Our vainglorious Cartman president glibly declares that there is no problem; then, when the crisis becomes indisputable, he cries that he never said that and moans that he hasn’t been given credit for being right all along. He manages to muster an almost hilariously incompetent response, precisely the sort of discredit to the idea that people and institutions can engage in collective efforts at all, let alone in the face of crisis. Now, not three weeks into that response, he has already grown tired of it and has publicly speculated that perhaps the best response is no response. Go back to Walmart. Go back to work. It is worse to worry than to die.

Among the many absurd side-plots to the ongoing pandemic that I expect South Park, if it survives, to try to satirize, one is surely the specter of lunatic college students partying and fucking across Miami for Spring Break as the state looked on in impotent wonder, too busy rousting the homeless or continuing to arrest young people of color for rinky-dink offenses to even attempt to disperse the virological bacchanals. The show has long since exhausted any capacity to produce original material, and the episodes write themselves. The disease will be absurd and gross (South Park has always been fond of playing fluid discharge for humor). The government will be dumb and lazy, then increasingly hysterical. Everyone will dress in garbage bags or space suits, and all the businesses will go out of business. In the end, everyone will kiss, and the whole world will be infected; there will be a funny song. In the next episode, the main characters will still be in fourth grade. The dead, if they have recurring roles, will come back to life. Life will go on. It will not get better. It will probably get worse. But only in increments, and probably for someone else.