The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Friday, June 08, 2018


Kevin Williamson is one of those commentators whose insight comes from writing outside the box. He is acerbic, brutal even, in his analysis of our current political landscape. He's also an African American conservative, making him an anomaly who drives his predictably liberal media colleagues just a bit nuts.

Williamson explores the underlying sociology of Samantha Bee's tasteless attack on Ivanka Trump by considering another commedian, George Carlin. Carlin has always been a social commentator, exploring the small things in life that can evoke a smile. Now at the very end of his career, Carlin's attempts at humor are angry, yet his followers laugh. Why is that?

Williamson comments:
What’s interesting about the late-period Carlin is that it illustrates how things that are not actually funny can still get a laugh provided they are presented in the form of a joke or with the familiar comedic bump set spike vocal modulation and other stand-up genre conventions. There is tremendous subconscious social pressure to laugh when presented with something that is shaped like a joke — how many times have you seen somebody laugh at a joke he didn’t get?

Williamson goes on to describe a sociological study at Duke University suggesting that "Humor is in part an exercise in tribe building." He writes:
This may very well be hardwired into us in the so-called mirror neurons that fire in primates both when they perform an action and when they see that action being performed by another. Tribes are hierarchical, and primate brains are evolved to accommodate those hierarchies: A paper authored by scientists at Duke and published in the March issue of Scientific Reports finds that mirroring (“interbrain cortical synchronization”) is strongly influenced by social status — among monkeys, at least. Among humans, social status can be permanent or situational: A celebrity has high status, a person standing on a stage at the center of attention has high status, and George Carlin in performance was both.

Williamson then transitions to Samatha Bee and writes:
Samantha Bee has never to my knowledge said anything that is funny. Her business is the sort of thing that would be of keen interest to those monkeys in the Duke study: the ritual raising and lowering of status — which, as Tyler Cowen and Arnold Kling and others have argued, is what politics is mostly about. The same holds true for media criticism, which is of course only another form of politics. Professor Cowen: “I have a simple hypothesis. No matter what the media tells you their job is, the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status. . . . The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close. . . . Indeed that is why other people enjoy those media sources, because they take pleasure in your status, and the status of your allies, being lowered.”
As a card-carrying member of the Trump Derangement Syndrome crowd (a definite tribe"), the entire Bee episode exemplifies the need to do anything and/or say anything that might lower the status of Trump, his supporters, or members of his family.

Yet, for reasons that are difficult to explain, the non-stop effort to lower Trump's status doesn't seem to work as it normally does. In fact, in a bizarre reversal (if you can believe the polls) it somehow improves his status. It might be that Trump, unlike most of celebrities/presidents, punches back—hard. But that in itself is a violation of the normal rules. Again, from Williamson:
Calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless c***” on television is a win-win for Bee et al.: One possibility is that Ivanka Trump offers no response, in which case her status is lowered by her being obliged to endure outrageous insults by a relative nobody on TBS; the second possibility is that she responds, in which case her status is lowered by her being obliged to condescend to respond to the outrageous insults of a relative nobody on TBS. The proverb holds that the problem with wrestling a pig is that you both get dirty but only the pig enjoys it. Samantha Bee is that pig.
But here's the thing—when Donald Trump wrestles the pig, he enjoys it. The pig is incapable of understanding that, and the result is bacon.