The Good, The Bad and the Smugly
Caitlin Flanagan’s piece in The Atlantic is the latest in a long line of articles berating American liberals for their condescending attitude towards their more conservative fellow citizens, and suggesting that this attitude may have contributed to the coronation of President Trump. A thread running through these articles has been the role of satire, and in particular the late-night talk-show monologues of John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah et al. As Emmett Rensin put it in a widely-discussed piece from last year,
Over 20 years, an industry arose to cater to the smug style [of American liberals]. It began in humor, and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy and that its opponents were, before anything else, stupid.
He also correctly predicted the wages of this style:
Faced with the prospect of an election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the smug will reach a fever pitch: six straight months of a sure thing, an opportunity to mock and scoff and ask, How could anybody vote for this guy? until a morning in November when they ask, What the fuck happened?
There are points in both Rensin and Flanagan’s pieces with which one could take issue. For instance, one could certainly question whether, as Flanagan suggests, the late-night hosts decided en masse during the election to criticise not just Trump and his retinue, but anyone considering voting for him. But it is hard to deny the thought that for someone inclined to support Trump, it was reasonable to feel that their views were being dismissed; or that the perceived smugness of late-night comics and their liberal fans provides a convenient way of capturing the liberal media and the whole liberal elite’s disdain, as more conservative Americans see it, for Trump and his supporters.
Smugness is a term which is hard to pin down, but which feels right in certain circumstances – and as someone who watches a fair bit of these late-night comics, I have to say that they often do come across as smug. This is not so much a matter of what they say but as how it is said: it is a question of tone, a sense of being overly satisfied with one’s own correctness and of talking down to those who might disagree.[i] Flanagan picks out the following clip from John Oliver as epitomising this:
When John Oliver told viewers that if they opposed abortion they had to change the channel until the last minute of the program, when they would be shown “an adorable bucket of sloths,” he perfectly encapsulated the tone of these shows: one imbued with the conviction that they and their fans are intellectually and morally superior to those who espouse any of the beliefs of the political right.[ii]
Something which has not been much discussed in many of these articles is the possibility that a certain format may contribute towards the sense of smugness. All of the shows that Flanagan mentions involve their hosts performing straight-to-camera monologues. Their styles vary (Samantha Bee often comes across as irritated, verging on furious; Stephen Colbert as trying to be suavely above it all; Seth Meyers as a little goofy) but in each case the set-up involves the host assuming a position of authority. They know what’s going on, they use this knowledge to expose the stupidity, ignorance or hypocrisy of others (preferably Republican others), and they invite you to follow their direction in laughing at the target. This is not a format which tends to convey much self-doubt, even if the host acknowledges that a particular issue is complicated or that different viewpoints are legitimate; by acknowledging this, they are often implicitly contrasting their open-mindedness with the dogmatism of others.
Of course, any form of satire will involve poking fun at a target, and will implicitly set up the satirist (and the audience) as above the butt of the joke. But not all satire conveys a sense of superiority, even if it is predicated on it. For instance, Stephen Colbert rose to fame playing right-wing wing-nut ‘Stephen Colbert’, delivering straight-to-camera monologues eviscerating spineless liberals, while of course really sending up the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Insofar as Colbert’s persona was modelled on right-wing talk-show hosts and commentators, he was implicitly claiming superiority over them in order to heap scorn upon them. But this sense of superiority isn’t manifest in his performance.
This may be as simple a matter as Colbert’s not talking down to his targets, but rather enacting their hot air-fuelled rhetorical flourishes. The joke is still at their expense, but it’s not spelled out. Colbert, in his old persona, showed the ridiculousness of right-wing blow-hards rather than stating it. In contrast, a format in which the comedian is constantly telling the audience just how wrong-headed certain people are can hardly help being smug, whatever political stance the comedian is adopting.
[i] Rensin subsequently pointed out that he was not so much concerned with liberal smugness as with what he termed the ‘Smug Style. This phrase is somewhat misleading: as Rensin defines it, the Smug Style is not really a style but a set of beliefs about politics, liberals and conservatives. In any case, what I am more interested in is what is properly termed ‘style’, a style of comedy which conveys a sense of smugness. This style may in part be rooted in the beliefs which Rensin identifies, but it is not a matter of having those beliefs but rather of how they are conveyed.
[ii] Actually, I found this example unconvincing. Oliver’s segment on abortion is predicated on the assumption that abortion is a legitimate option for a pregnant woman, at least in some circumstances. The people he was advising to switch over were those opposed to allowing abortion in any circumstances whatsoever. Given the particularly divisive nature of this issue, it is hardly the epitome of liberal smugness to suggest that those holding such a view would get little of value out of what was to follow.