Mockery is the Point

I can’t remember where I saw it, but somebody posted a tweet that said, “You know, I’m starting to think that Biden and Ryan may not actually be friends.” This is, of course, satire on the political insistence on referring to one another as “my friend” when they are clearly ripping into each other. But I think it’s important to note why this is funny.

We’ve come to expect that people who despise one another will make a show of being friendly and cordial. We associate it with maturity, rising above the fray. The problem is, do we even really respect it once it’s reached a certain point?

Michael Medved at the Daily Beast reacts to last night’s VP debate in the way of most conservatives: Biden was too aggressive, with his smirk and laughter, and that will turn off independent voters. I think Medved seriously misunderstands human nature and how we react to things.

Why, then, did he decide to snicker, chuckle, grin, smirk and shake his head at the one GOP nominee for national office in the last 50 years that even partisan Democrats acknowledge as a serious, substantive, and formidable guy?

The answer to this is simple. Paul Ryan is not a serious, substantive, and formidable guy and never has been. He relies on the perception that he is so far ahead of the pack, so smart and wonky, that we could never understand how his big brain has solved any given problem.

The issue with that, however, is that he is not that amazingly smart and clever. Even if we give that he’s no idiot, that he may be wonky and even intelligent, he is not the only wonky, intelligent person out there. And when those other wonky, intelligent people look at his plans and proposals they either find that the plans are devoid of substance entirely or they are mathematically impossible, it’s permissible to go back and question Ryan’s smart guy cred.

So seriousness and substance gets thrown out for the familiar “trust me” of less wonky, intelligent candidates, and it doesn’t really much matter then how smart Paul Ryan may or may not be because the products of that intelligence are not being brought to bear in the discussion.

The rap on Paul Ryan has always been that he might prove too wonkish, numbers-driven and detail-oriented to connect with average Americans, not that he counted as some sort of laughing stock who’s beneath contempt.

Not since the convention when Paul Ryan’s speech was almost literally nothing but lies. And even then, only among his most ardent fans was he considered too smart for the average person. I find this a somewhat bizarre humble brag on Ryan and always have.

It’s actually Biden himself who has inspired gales of bipartisan laughter with his potent parade of gaffes over the duration of his long political career.

Also, Paul Ryan is rubber and Joe Biden is glue. Thought we’d clear that up.

The oddest aspect of his patronizing performance involved the complete disconnect between his derisive laughter and anything that Paul Ryan actually said. Where, exactly, did the GOP nominee make some point so ridiculous, or express himself so clumsily, that the only appropriate response would be the uncontrollable urge to titter or chortle?

Do we really need to get into this? How about where he insisted that the administration is responsible for there not being enough people in Benghazi on guard duty when he voted to cut the State Department budget that paid for guards on consulates? Or the laughable suggestion that his running mate has been consistent on abortion when he’s changed his opinion on it twice in 24 hour this week alone? Or, my absolute favorite, he says he’s pro-life because of “reason and science”, but apparently defines “science” as that fuzzy warm feeling he got looking at the ultrasound of his kid.

Paul Ryan does not get to invoke “science” until he learns what it means and starts respecting it.

All of these are, literally, laughable positions, and Joe Biden laughing at them was the only appropriate response. If this were an issue where Ryan clearly had the better points or contributed something of substance, I would agree that the derision was nothing but an attempt to hide (apropos of nothing, remember last week when Romney being similarly aggressive was the bestest thing in the whole wide world?). But the fact of the matter is that Paul Ryan relies on people not questioning him, taking him on faith, because he’s “serious, substantive, and formidable.” But he really isn’t any of those things, maybe the last when he’s not debating Joe Biden, and the air of courtesy that surrounds modern political thinking is just there to shield the fact that nothing he says makes any sense upon closer examination.
I think the mistake that Medved makes, ultimately, is that he assumes that people are more interested in the appearance of congeniality rather than the presence of honesty. There’s a reason why “malarkey” was the word of the night: Joe Biden stopped pretending that his opponent was presenting an honest opinion bent to good governance and correctly identified that he was lying. And continued to correctly identify when he was lying.
We have to stop being afraid to call liars out in politics. We have to be comfortable enough to point out when people are being awful, when they say things that are patently false, when they are demonstrably incorrect and pretending that they don’t think so. When we, under the guise of politeness, let inaccuracy and horrid behavior slide, we tacitly endorse it by pretending it has equal validity, and it doesn’t. You can have your own opinions, but let’s not pretend for one moment that they are worth anything until they are supported with facts.
For example, Joe Walsh in Illinois is running for Congress against Tammy Duckworth, a veteran and amputee from the war. Walsh has recently started attacking Duckworth for a picture of her picking out a dress for the DNC. It’s a strange line of attack, but it’s supposed to be about her as a person (with a little bit of “how dare somebody in a wheelchair think they could look pretty” thrown in). The thing is, responding to this nonsense as if it weren’t nonsense grants it validity. I hope the Duckworth campaign responds with something along the lines of, “The deadbeat dad is trying to attack on character? You’re kidding, right?”  It’s laughable that a guy like Walsh who owed more than a hundred thousand dollars in child support and only worked out a deal after national media attention spotlighted what a scumbag he was would bother trying to call somebody else’s character into question, and we should laugh at it.

Have you ever wondered why, as much as people say they hate negative ads, those are centerpieces of most campaigns? They’re the ones we talk about, the ones that have the most impact, and the ones that the most money is spent on? Because, despite the insistence of the chattering classes, negative ads work. People claim not to like them, but clearly they find them persuasive. We don’t want reasoned debate. I think a lot of this has to do with schadenfreude, but an optimistic part of me hopes that we also want our candidates to fact check one another, to present their evidence so we can examine it.

I don’t need Joe Biden to be reasonable. I can be reasonable. I need Joe Biden to not let Paul Ryan get away with saying demonstrably untrue things in front of people who don’t waste as much time as I do reading and thinking about this stuff. And mockery, satire, has always been one of the most effective ways to do that.

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