There have only been two openly gay male cast members in the 40+ year history of SNL

James Adomian is a great comedy person more people should know about. In a recent interview he discussed, among other things, the lack of LGBT representation on SNL:

Perhaps even more shocking is the fact that there hasn’t been an out gay male full-fledged cast member on SNL since Terry Sweeney became the first and only one more than 30 years ago [As noted at the end of the article, John Milhiser was the second, appearing in 2013-2014]. He only lasted one season, from 1985-1986, and has since been more or less lost to history. It was another 26 years before the show brought on its next out cast member, current star Kate McKinnon. In 2016, Chris Kelly became the first openly gay co-head writer (along with Sara Schneider) in SNL’s history, but they left to create a new show for Comedy Central the following year.

“It would be nice if they put a gay man on camera on that show,” Adomian tells me over lattes in the lobby of his hotel in Austin. “I’ve been out of the closet the whole time since I auditioned 13 years ago. You would think that they would have tried to put someone else on that was a gay man. It’s about time.”

SNL declined to comment for this piece on the record. However, a source with knowledge of the situation says Adomian auditioned several times but the show decided his comedy wasn’t the right fit.

I believe SNL when they say he wouldn’t be a good fit. To me, SNL is where comedy goes to die (i.e. Amy Poehler, who was in Upright Citizens Brigade before SNL), while actual funny people exist in a state of arrested development until they leave (i.e. Will Forte and Bill Hader). But to each their own, of course.

I think a lot of people, myself included, have affinities for the cast of their formative years – for me the 90’s. Right around when Jimmy Fallon joined the show is when I stopped watching. Looking back, out of a sense of nostalgia, I can laugh at the likes of Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider but recognize it’s pretty bad (though some of the stuff from that era I think has stood the test of time). All of this is to say Adomian is too funny for SNL.

Despite being very well thought of in the comedy community and really fucking funny, he hasn’t been able to break through:

Adomian tells me that he has a lot of larger ideas for television and film, but he’s “not able to make them” because he’s never been given the opportunity. During his Bernie Sanders show last Friday night, he momentarily “broke the fourth wall” to reveal that he had recently pitched a show to Netflix, but was ultimately rejected because they are “only interested in doing deals with famous people.”

He tells me he’s had meetings with “every single network” that a comedy fan might be familiar with and they said no to his TV show ideas every time.

That he hasn’t been at least prominently featured on a show or gotten a Netflix special is bullshit. Despite having what I think is a solid roster (Another Period, Nathan For You, Broad City, Detroiters and Corporate), Comedy Central is apparently floundering and hasn’t had a sketch comedy since Key & Peele, something Adomian would excel at. Netflix is seemingly giving specials to everyone. Adomian thinks homophobia is one of the culprits:

“We are in a golden age of gay male comics, at live shows, around the country and at festivals like this. We are very well-presented at live shows and on the internet. Television? Not so much.” He jokes that gay men hosting TV shows is “almost illegal” in the U.S. (Andy Cohen notwithstanding).

Adomian chalks some of this up to “overt homophobia,” but says most of it is due to the “cowardice” of executives who will say, “I’m not homophobic, but I’m afraid that my audience is.”

Whereas the success of a film like Black Panther is making Hollywood reconsider its racist preconceptions about what audiences want to see, Adomian says it is “impossible to even imagine anything like Black Panther for gay people.”

The rest of this post will be a collection of his brilliance.

He’s a very frequent guest on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast and show, where he’s done a plethora of different characters:

  • Christopher Hitchens:

  • Slavoj Žižek:

  • Paul Giamatti

  • Gordon Ramsay

I believe he started doing Sebastian Gorka first on Chapo Trap House and has recently portrayed him on the Chris Gethard Show and Comedy Bang! Bang! (as a side note, he portrayed Elon Musk on the most recent Chapo episode, most of which was about Jordan Peterson)

Paul F Tompkins had a wonderful podcast with the premise of H.G. Wells having a working time machine which allowed him to interview dead authors. Adomian did two episodes, one as Nietzsche, the other as Walt Whitman

http://thedeadauthorspodcast.libsyn.com/chapter-28-walt-whitman-featuring-james-adomian

http://thedeadauthorspodcast.libsyn.com/appendix-b-friederich-nietzsche-and-h-p-lovecraft-featuring-james-adomian-and-paul-scheer

Some other impressions:

  • Marc Maron:

  • Jesse Ventura:

  • Chris Matthews:

Stand-up:

And, finally, here he is on Homophilia where he talks about his life:

Betty Boop, Meeting at the Counter and Looking for Role Models

 

Guns

I’ve only fired a gun once or twice in my life. I don’t really know if that’s more or less than most. In my family, all of the males, and a few females learned to hunt at an early age. I’m hazy on the temporal details, but it must have been around middle school. At that time, my brother and similarly aged immediate cousins were formally introduced to hunting as a thing to do. I was the only one that was unable to comprehend why it would feel good to kill an animal. At that point, I had no ethical issues with it, or anything like that – I just didn’t want to kill anything. I’ve generally understood on an intellectual level, but I can’t fathom feeling it.

My grandpa, a hard man who looked down on soft city living of which I was accustomed to, took me and others to a shooting area. I was given the gun, and a few instructions. I have no idea if I shot anywhere near the target. All I remember is the gun smashing into my face, and the subsequent pain and embarrassment. I was told I needed to hold the gun tighter, something that should have been self-evident. I can’t remember if I took a second shot.

***

At my house, we have no weapons, unless you count a cracked wooden baseball bat that I’ve somewhat inexplicably kept through the years. Up until recently I counted it as a viable weapon. That is, until I took a swing and instantly realized that I would only get the one, which would almost certainly break it. There’s also the fact that I don’t think there’s enough open space that have enough room for a hard swing. So the vague plan is to use a fire extinguisher, which I think could double as a weapon in self-defense.

For myself and family, I’m not convinced that having a gun would actually increase my safety. This is grounded in a fear of weapons and distrust in my abilities to use them adequately when the time comes. It’s not just guns. I’m deeply uncomfortable with sharp objects and fire. I can be clumsy and am prone to dropping things. In the event that a weapon may be necessary, I have a hard time believing I could use it effectively.

However, there is a part of me that DOES want a gun. The alluring narrative of guns providing a sense of safety is apparently seared into my brain but is contrasted with my unease at having that kind of destructive power. Nonetheless, if I wanted to, I could very easily get a gun now and in the future – even in the event that gun laws are strengthened.

***

What we are doing (or not doing) is not making things better in terms of gun-related violence. There are two general, opposing sentiments voiced on either side of the divide in terms of increased regulations:

  1. If someone wants to commit violence with a gun, they will get one no matter what. People have a right to defend themselves and should be able to do so without, or with very little governmental restrictions.
  2. Increased restrictions will increase the difficulty in procuring guns. These difficulties will curb violence since it could lead to a “cooling off” period or altogether prevent those whom would enact violence from having guns in the first place.

These are inherently simplistic characterizations, and neither should be seen as completely true or completely false. If there are X amount of incidents of gun violence, it stands to reason that there are Y amount that may not have occurred due to the inability to procure weaponry. How large of a proportion that is is impossible to say. So it appears that certain regulations, such as policies preventing children from gaining access to guns and bans on assault rifles, might be warranted – after all, the status quo is not working.

But does it necessarily follow that any kind of change would be beneficial? We don’t really have enough data to say one way or the other. A new report by the RAND corporation summarizes the state of the research. Via NPR’s synopsis:

They found, for example, no clear evidence regarding the effects of any gun policies on hunting and recreational gun use, or on officer-involved shootings, or on mass shootings or on the defensive use of guns by civilians.

There were some categories with better data, however, Morral says. There is relatively strong evidence, for example, that policies meant to prevent children from getting access to firearms — such as laws that require guns to be stored unloaded, or in locked containers — reduce both suicide and unintentional injury and death.

Previous work has also found that places that require a permit (issued by law enforcement) for the purchase [of] a firearm do reduce violent crime.

There is also some evidence that prohibitions against purchase by people who have been diagnosed with mental illness reduce violent crime, and that “stand your ground” laws, which allow citizens who feel threatened in public to use lethal force without retreating first, lead to an increase in violent crime.

In general, however, good studies were few and far between, the RAND researchers say.

[…]

[T]hose surveyed varied widely in their predictions about how different policies would affect each outcome.

“Where they disagree is on which laws will achieve those those objectives. So this is a disagreement about facts,” says Morral. “And the facts are sparse.”

I understand the sentiment that change is needed, but this should give one pause before accepting as fact that increased legislation is the ultimate panacea.

***

Unexamined by RAND are the effects of gun policies on marginalized communities, whom are disproportionately more likely to experience violence and may wish to arm themselves for protection. How would stronger gun laws affect them? Alex Gourevitch, professor of political science at Brown University stresses that

[H]ow our society polices depends not on the laws themselves but on how the police – and prosecutors and courts – decide to enforce the law. Especially given how many guns there are in the U.S., gun law enforcement will be selective. That is to say, they will be unfairly enforced, only deepening the injustices daily committed against poor minorities in the name of law and order.”

This is further explicated by Natasha Lennerd at The Intercept, who bluntly (and rightly in my opinion) states that

there’s no reason to think new legislation and bolstered government profiling in the name of gun control would suddenly take aim at dangerous white supremacists, instead of continuing to criminalize people of color.

Given the history of policing in America, this should be intuitive. One only needs to consider law enforcement’s racist beginnings, and then compare the State’s treatment of the Black Panthers to Cliven Bundy’s gaggle of dipshits. Even today, the FBI is apparently more concerned with “Black Identity Extremists” than white nationalists, despite the glaringly obvious fact of which is responsible for higher body counts.

From what I can tell, the above isn’t much considered by those calling for more gun control. The totality of the carceral state has been and will continue to be a categorical failure that is unequipped and unable to address the underlying structural problems brought about by capitalism and institutionalized racism. That its traditional victims would likely be subject to even more adversarial involvement with the authorities  as a result of increased gun laws is worthy of intense scrutiny.

On the other hand, there are portions of the dominant class that are unable to leverage their privileges to achieve what they are led to believe they deserve, and scapegoats are needed. This can be due to personal failures, trauma, or, more likely, some mixture of both. Such damaged persons exist in an increasingly atomized, alienating and hyper-competitive social structure that can be a breeding ground for latent fury when desires – valid or invalid (such as access to women’s bodies, the denial of which can lead to violent responses) –  are thwarted. However, in contrast to this widespread atomization/alienation, the ubiquity of social media has made it much easier for the angry and violent to locate and feed off of each others’ heretofore impotent rage against society at large.

The problems that emerge from the foundational issues described above are as numerous as they are varied. We graft solutions onto them while neglecting the rot festering beneath the surface. But if those issues are unlikely to be meaningfully addressed, much less solved, in the foreseeable future, what can be done in the meantime? For solving the gun crisis, any kind of reform is likely to be akin to a band aid on a gaping wound.

(None of this should not be seen as a negation of the admirable Parkland students and the awesome things they’re doing. Likewise, none of this negates the utter contempt and scorn that should be directed at the NRA and their gun fetish cult at every opportunity.)

***

I don’t presume to know what state and federal governments should do with regards to guns. I’m not very knowledgeable in this area and I can’t say I’m too confident in anything I’ve written other than my anecdotes and quotations of those who know much more than I. I do think I should be able to get a gun if I want. I’m lucky enough that stricter laws would not exclude me, and I wouldn’t have to worry about increased scrutiny from the authorities.

One of the more interesting findings from RAND is on the banning of assault rifles and high capacity magazines: it’s inconclusive if it actually curbs mass shootings and violent crime. It’s hard to say, in light of the above hypotheses that increased regulations would disproportionately affect marginalized populations, if this would be beneficial – especially in light of the dearth of research that answers authoritatively in the affirmative. But I can’t help but think that would at least be worth a shot, as is restricting the access of children, for which there is some evidence for its efficacy. Both seem like common sense measures that should be adopted.

When they’re not busy securing money and power, and bickering along party lines, politicians throw shit against the wall to see what sticks. If/when they decide to throw more restrictive gun laws against the wall, who can say whether they will stick or not (stick being synonymous with “work” in this tortuous metaphor)? Maybe gun violence will decline, but if history is any indication it will fucking stink for many.

Or maybe we can just stay with the tried-and-true blueprint of the last decade or so: thoughts and prayers from the ignorant and spineless, and their subsequent, righteous flagellation by those whom are sick of insipid thoughts and prayers by duplicitous cowards.

Remembering Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael

It had been a long time since I thought about Daniel Quinn and his book Ishmael when I learned of his passing on February 17th.

Ishmael is an incredible, profound book that examines the mythological elements underpinning modern civilization. The narrative is framed as a conversation between a man and a telepathic gorilla. A central theme is the dichotomous separation of mankind into Takers and Leavers, and from there branches into different areas of philosophical inquiry. One can guess which group the majority of modern humans are categorized under.

It’s been well over a decade since I read it, and I decided to leaf through it. Looking at some of my past blogs, I can see the subtle influence it had on me, despite my rarely thinking of it. I consider it odd that Ishmael was the only thing I’ve read of Quinn’s. There must have been reasons why this is so, but whatever they were I don’t remember.

There are a few things I take issue with in Ishmael, one of them being the book’s conception of contemporary “Leaver” cultures as existing since time immemorial, which isn’t always the case – some of the extant “Leavers” are indeed descended from former agriculturalists. Also, there is a certain amount of romanticization of life without agriculture that I’m not sure is entirely warranted. I think this is a line of thinking that many of the authors in the broad milieu to which Quinn belonged are guilty of. Of course, I haven’t reread the entire book, so perhaps I’m off in my very short critique.

Here are some excerpts (“I” always refers to the narrator/human character and not Ishmael, the gorilla):

“Famine isn’t unique to humans. All species are subject to it everywhere in the world. When the population of any species outstrips its food resources, that population declines until it’s once again in balance with its resources. Mother Culture says that humans should be exempt from that process, so when she finds a population that has outstripped its resources, she rushes in food from the outside, thus making it a certainty that there will be even more of them to starve in the next generation. Because the population is never allowed to decline to the point at which it can be supported by its own resources, famine becomes a chronic feature of their lives.”

The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man. They want desperately to perceive a vast gulf between man and the rest of creation. This mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world, just the way Hitler’s mythology of Aryan superiority justified his doing whatever he pleased with Europe. But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness.

The story the Leavers have been enacting here for the past three million years isn’t a story of conquest and rule. Enacting it doesn’t give them power. Enacting it gives them lives that are satisfying and meaningful to them. This is what you’ll find if you go among them. They’re not seething with discontent and rebellion, not incessantly wrangling over what should be allowed and what forbidden, not forever accusing each other of not living the right way, not living in terror of each other, not going crazy because their lives seem empty and pointless, not having to stupefy themselves with drugs to get through the days, not inventing a new religion every week to give them something to hold on to, not forever searching for something to do or something to believe in that will make their lives worth living. And — I repeat — this is not because they live close to nature or have no formal government or because they’re innately noble. This is simply because they’re enacting a story that works well for people — a story that worked well for three million years and that still works well where the Takers haven’t yet managed to stamp it out.

***

“Leaver peoples are always conscious of having a tradition that goes back to very ancient times. We have no such consciousness. For the most part, we’re a very ‘new’ people. Every generation is somehow new, more thoroughly cut off from the past than the one that came before.”

“What does Mother Culture have to say about this?”

“Ah,” I said, and closed my eyes. “Mother Culture says that this is as it should be. There’s nothing in the past for us. The past is dreck. The past is something to be put behind us, something to be escaped from.”

Ishmael nodded. “So you see: This is how you came to be cultural amnesiacs.”

“How do you mean?”

“Until Darwin and the paleontologists came along to tack three million years of human life onto your history, it was assumed in your culture that the birth of man and the birth of your culture were simultaneous events — were in fact the same event. What I mean is that the people of your culture thought that man was born one of you. It was assumed that farming is as instinctive to man as honey production is to bees.”

“Yes, that’s the way it seems.”

“When the people of your culture encountered the hunter-gatherers of Africa and America, it was thought that these were people who had degenerated from the natural, agricultural state, people who had lost the arts they’d been born with. The Takers had no idea that they were looking at what they themselves had been before they became agriculturalists. As far as the Takers knew, there was no ‘before.’ Creation had occurred just a few thousand years ago, and Man the Agriculturalist had immediately set about the task of building civilization.”

***

“The gods have played three dirty tricks on the Takers,” he began. “In the first place, they didn’t put the world where the Takers thought it belonged, in the center of the universe. They really hated hearing this, but they got used to it. Even if man’s home was stuck off in the boondocks, they could still believe he was the central figure in the drama of creation.

“The second of the gods’ tricks was worse. Since man was the climax of creation, the creature for whom all the rest was made, they should have had the decency to produce him in a manner suited to his dignity and importance — in a separate, special act of creation. Instead they arranged for him to evolve from the common slime, just like ticks and liver flukes. The Takers really hated hearing this, but they’re beginning to adjust to it. Even if man evolved from the common slime, it’s still his divinely appointed destiny to rule the world and perhaps even the universe itself.

“But the last of the gods’ tricks was the worst of all. [This final trick is the subject of the next several pages and, to me, isn’t very persuasive or interesting.]

***

“There is one significant difference between the inmates of your criminal prisons and the inmates of your cultural prison: The former understand that the distribution of wealth and power inside the prison has nothing to do with justice.”

I blinked at him for a while, then asked him to explain.

“In your cultural prison, which inmates wield the power?”

“Ah,” I said. “The male inmates. Especially the white male inmates.”

“Yes, that’s right. But you understand that these white male inmates are indeed inmates and not warders. For all their power and privilege — for all that they lord it over everyone else in the prison — not one of them has a key that will unlock the gate.” “Yes, that’s true. Donald Trump can do a lot of things I can’t, but he can no more get out of the prison than I can. But what does this have to do with justice?” [note that this was written 28 years ago]

“Justice demands that people other than white males have power in the prison.”

“Yes, I see. But what are you saying? That this isn’t true?”

“True? Of course it’s true that males — and, as you say, especially white males — have called the shots inside the prison for thousands of years, perhaps even from the beginning. Of course it’s true that this is unjust. And of course it’s true that power and wealth within the prison should be equitably redistributed. But it should be noted that what is crucial to your survival as a race is not the redistribution of power and wealth within the prison but rather the destruction of the prison itself.”

“Yes, I see that. But I’m not sure many other people would.”

“No?”

“No. Among the politically active, the redistribution of wealth and power is … I don’t know what to call it that would be strong enough. An idea whose time has come. The Holy Grail.”

“Nonetheless, breaking out of the Taker prison is a common cause to which all humanity can subscribe.”

I shook my head. “I’m afraid it’s a cause to which almost none of humanity will subscribe. White or colored, male or female, what the people of this culture want is to have as much wealth and power in the Taker prison as they can get. They don’t give a damn that it’s a prison and they don’t give a damn that it’s destroying the world.”

Ishmael shrugged. “As always, you’re a pessimist. Perhaps you’re right. I hope you’re wrong.”

“I hope so too, believe me.”

***

Ishmael frowned. “Of course it’s not enough. But if you begin anywhere else, there’s no hope at all. You can’t say, ‘We’re going to change the way people behave toward the world, but we’re not going to change the way they think about the world or the way they think about divine intentions in the world or the way they think about the destiny of man.’ As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years. They’re going to go on treating the world as if it were a piece of human property and they’re going to go on conquering it as if it were an adversary. You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they’ve lost — something that makes better sense than the old horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn’t serve his needs directly or indirectly.”

I shook my head. “What you’re saying is that someone has to stand up and become to the world of today what Saint Paul was to the Roman Empire.”

“Yes, basically. Is that so daunting?”

I laughed. “Daunting isn’t nearly strong enough. To call it daunting is like calling the Atlantic damp.”

“Is it really so impossible in an age when a stand-up comic on television reaches more people in ten minutes than Paul did in his entire lifetime?”

“I’m not a stand-up comic.”

[Leaving aside the fact that Paul was able to reach untold millions via the perpetuation of Christianity, I’m injecting a quick anecdote. The most recent episode of the podcast How Did This Get Made? discusses the movie Ladybugs. What they describe is a toxic brew of sexism, transphobia, racism, and terrible pedophilia-related jokes. The white male protagonist, Rodney Dangerfield, bumbles his way to success despite not showing any amount of aptitude that would lead one to believe it is in any way deserved. The sheer amount of awful cultural traits on display is staggering in what I vaguely recall from my childhood as a fairly innocuous movie. But it’s generally par for the course for entertainment in the late 80’s/early 90’s – I’m reminded of the unlearning that I think should be, but only sometimes is a hallmark of skeptical thinking as it pertains to what we have internalized from the entertainment/education of our formative years. Quinn certainly helped play a role in that process for me.

Anyways, many more people saw Ladybugs than have ever read Ishmael. Voices like Quinn’s are mere molecules in the avalanche of bullshit that is contemporary culture. I think that’s bad.]

“But you’re a writer, aren’t you?”

“Not that kind of writer.”

Ishmael shrugged. “Lucky you. You are absolved of any obligation. Self-absolved.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“What were you expecting to learn from me? An incantation? A magic word that would sweep all the nastiness away?”

“No.”

“Ultimately, it would seem you’re no different from those you profess to despise: You just wanted something for yourself. Something to make you feel better as you watch the end approach.”

“No, it isn’t that. You just don’t know me very well. It’s always this way with me — first I say, ‘No, no, it’s impossible, completely and utterly impossible,’ then I go ahead and do it.”

Ishmael humphed, barely mollified.

“One thing I know people will say to me is ‘Are you suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers?’ ”

“That of course is an inane idea,” Ishmael said. “The Leaver life-style isn’t about hunting and gathering, it’s about letting the rest of the community live — and agriculturalists can do that as well as hunter-gatherers.” He paused and shook his head. “What I’ve been at pains to give you is a new paradigm of human history. The Leaver life is not an antiquated thing that is ‘back there’ somewhere. Your task is not to reach back but to reach forward.”

“But to what? We can’t just walk away from our civilization the way the Hohokam did.”

“That’s certainly true. The Hohokam had another way of life waiting for them, but you must be inventive — if it’s worthwhile to you. If you care to survive.” He gave me a dull stare. “You’re an inventive people, aren’t you? You pride yourselves on that, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then invent.”

***

I think this is a fitting end to the post. RIP.

Fuck zoos

When I was young, I loved the zoo and don’t recall ever being sad about the animals. I can even remember the name of the white tiger at my city’s zoo. Those warm memories don’t change how I view zoos today. I’d like to think if someone would’ve gotten me to think about it as a child, I would’ve had more ambivalence. A simple “hey isn’t this place kind of like a prison for animals?” or “how would you like to be locked up for the rest of your life?” might have sufficed. But maybe not.

Humans want to see nonhumans animals whenever they want to. Zoos and aquaria (collectively referred to as zoos from this point forward) provide this. This is the primary reason people visit them. All other rationales are subordinate. No one says, “I’m going to take my kids to this specific zoo because of the good conservation work they do,” or because “the animals are happy and wish to see us” (though I wouldn’t be surprised if some people think this). Some may believe in the educational benefits for themselves and their kids. But overall, if they’re being honest, they just want to see the animals.

This is not a reason that zoos wish for people to have, as it leaves them open to the criticism that their industry is more appropriately categorized as entertainment. They crave moral legitimacy in a way that is reminiscent of corporate greenwashing and are every bit as grotesque as any stereotypically evil corporation in their virtue signaling (although I admit this is very debatable). This is necessary, because since the 1980’s, entities that utilize aspects of nature for material benefit need to show their consumers that they are other than what they truly are. They’ve realized a certain segment of consumers need to feel good about their purchases. These warm and fuzzy feelings are economically valuable enough to offset the money spent. However, this can lead to difficult decisions:

Adding to the tension over what the mission of the zoo of the future should be is that zoo directors are often torn between their desire to promote animal welfare and their desire to increase profits.

Often, these difficult decisions are a manner of life and death. On occasions when stories bubble to the surface, zoos need to be ever mindful of public perception. Ethical dents in the armor need smoothing out, lest they become weak points vulnerable to attack by animal rights extremists. There are broad differences between locales in their approaches to public relations. Americans, for example, are more squeamish about killing animals than their European counterparts. In response to the euthanization of a giraffe in a Danish zoo, American zoo proponents were distraught, but not over the actual being that lost its life. From the New Yorker:

As Terry Maple [former director of Zoo Atlanta] put it, “If it hadn’t affected the rest of us, I’m sure we would have thought, That’s a pretty eccentric decision. But when you begin to see how it moves the people who support you—when they’re in tears, and they just can’t believe this—it starts to undermine the credibility of zoos, which have to be justified, have to be supported by the public.”

[…]

Asked several times if culling occurs in American zoos, Rob Vernon, a spokesman for AZA [Association of Zoos & Aquariums], told me, variously, “No,” “Yes,” and “That’s a good question.” He made the candid observation that his own discomfort reflected the industry’s discomfort.

American zoos do cull, and AZA rules allow it. Maple told me, “I would have never done it, most of my colleagues in the United States would have never done it.” He immediately added, “But when you get below the example of a charismatic mega-vertebrate”—a storybook species—“and go to animals that are a little less special, there are cases of killing.” He recalled Zoo Atlanta euthanizing dozens of newborn pythons with his blessing. Maple has written, critically, of “taxonomic élitism” in zoos, but, in an apparent attempt to diminish the act of snake-killing, he described the pythons to me as slithery and mean. [emphasis added]

The Danish Zoo’s primary sin was letting their embarrassing story gain widespread notoriety, something that appeared to mystify them: per the Wikipedia article linked to above, “the amount of international interest had come as a surprise to the zoo.” American zoos prefer culling to happen out of sight and unaccounted for by the public – I wasn’t able to find anything related to killing those slithery and mean pythons in the Atlanta zoo. Further on in the New Yorker article is discussion of research by David Powell, a mammologist at the St. Louis Zoo, that sheds a bit of light:

He asked thirty-three zoos about their culling practices (promising not to name them). In a co-written paper, he reported that forty-five per cent of the zoos had said they were euthanizing healthy animals; in this cohort, seventy-nine per cent were culling mammals.

[P]owell said he was confident that these percentages would hold up in a larger sample. He added that AZA’s statement about Marius [the giraffe] was “unfortunate.” Powell’s paper didn’t include specific examples of species that had been culled by the surveyed zoos. But he had the data on his computer. He opened the file and read from the screen: “Python . . . deer . . . invertebrates . . . ‘Ungulates as needed’ . . . ‘Fish or amphibians only’ . . . Guinea pigs . . . ‘Hoofed animals’ . . . rodents . . . wallabies . . . ‘domestic mammals’ . . . and a tiger.” [emphasis added]

***

Humans have been taking wild animals and confining them (outside of the context of animal husbandry) since the dawn of civilization. The practice arose in the walled cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. Since, they have recurred in many locations, where trade networks allowed for the importation of exotic animals from faraway lands. The purpose for this varies across location and time – from mere gazing, to fighting each other or humans, to performing tricks. For the most part, though, kings, heads of state, and the affluent have been the primary offenders, enthusiastically flaunting their wealth and power with menageries.

These collections of animals have been subject to continual evolution, an unfinished process that has given form to the zoos we recognize today, where everyone has access to the animals. They range from the large, AZA accredited zoos in major cities, to roadside zoos and wildlife parks/safaris. It’s only in the last century that zoo owners and employees began to make attempts to enhance the lives of their charges.1 This shouldn’t be seen as completely altruistic – an animal performing “normal” activities provides a better experience for viewers than pacing, staring into space, or displaying unusual or disturbing behaviors.

There is a plethora on research into stressed animals in zoos, but most of it occurs within the paradigm of animal welfare, where welfare takes confinement as an unquestioned given – the goal is to enhance/enrich the lives of those unlucky enough to be in captivity. The research is necessary, because it turns out confined animals exhibit many abnormal behaviors which have been defined under a number of terms, including zoochosis, stereotypy, and abnormal repetitive behavior.

In short, confinement is absolutely a major stress in many of the animals. It should be obvious that the surefire way to reduce these problems would be to eliminate their common denominator. But, you might say, many, if not most of these animals are no longer able to live in the wild. And certainly, there are valid concerns about reintroducing them to threatened, altered, or destroyed habitats.

However, there are solutions. The capture of wild animals could cease. Existing animals could go to animal sanctuaries. Or, better, zoos would convert into animal sanctuaries, which are nonprofit organizations and solely focused on the well-being of the animals:

An animal sanctuary is a facility where animals are brought to live and be protected for the rest of their lives. Unlike animal shelters, sanctuaries do not seek to place animals with individuals or groups, instead maintaining each animal until his or her natural death. […] The mission of sanctuaries is generally to be safe havens, where the animals receive the best care that the sanctuaries can provide. Animals are not bought, sold, or traded, nor are they used for animal testing. The resident animals are given the opportunity to behave as natural as possible in a protective environment.

What distinguishes a sanctuary from other institutions is the philosophy that the residents come first. In a sanctuary, every action is scrutinized for any trace of human benefit at the expense of non-human residents.

[…]

A sanctuary is not open to the public in the sense of a zoo; that is, the public is not allowed unescorted access to any part of the facility. A sanctuary tries not to allow any activity that would place the animals in an unduly stressful situation.2

(Any “sanctuary” that does not conform to these basic ideals should not be regarded as one, even if it’s in their title or promotional materials)

It might not take all that long for the end of zoos as we know them, were they to fundamentally alter their operations. In Derrick Jensen’s book Thought to Exist in the Wild,3 he quotes the historians Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier:

Theoretically…zoos could be closed just by calling a halt to their supply of animals for four to six years; at the end of that time, only a few veterans would remain…In actual fact, the extreme mortality of wild animals in zoos has always been the driving force behind the massive scale of importations.

It’s hard to tell what’s more depressing: capture from the wild or never knowing a wild existence. Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier’s book was published in 1998 and is the only source I could find that includes research on the prevalence of wild animal capture.4 One would think that zoos would loudly tout their non-reliance on captured animals if that were truly the case. But, not surprisingly, this is information that is shrouded in secrecy and not made available for general public consumption.

Zoos will not go quietly into the night. They have every incentive to ensure their continued existence and will use any means and justifications to safeguard their social standing. Stifling unfavorable stories from filtering into public consciousness is essential, as is providing appropriate spin when they are unable to stop a leak from occurring. This is combined with their primary marketing weapons: education and conservation.

***

Research into zoos educating the public and instilling warm and fuzzy feelings towards animals, nature, and the importance of conservation is disparate and there is no consensus for its validity. Broadly, some research say the effects are real with learning and conservation-consciousness being gained. Some say no, not really. Zoos are adamant this is the case. This is summed up by Lori Gruen, Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University and author of The Ethics of Captivity:

[T]here has been no proof that keeping animals in zoos has actually increased the conservation interests of the people who visit zoos. There was a 2007 report, conducted by the AZA, that alleged there was an impact, but the methodology of the report was widely criticized.

More recently, Marc Bekoff, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, highlighted a study from 2014 that was neither peer-reviewed nor published in any journal, but was lauded in various media outlets as proof of the positive effects of going to the zoo:

The “proof” provided by this study is a mixed bag. Many people have jumped on the bandwagon claiming something like, “See, we were right and zoo critics were wrong, zoos do educate people.” However, the increase “in respondents demonstrating some positive evidence of biodiversity understanding” as noted in the report (my emphasis on the word “some”) was only slightly more than 5 percent of a large sample [from 69.1% pre-visit to 75.1% post-visit], and in no way does it show that what people learn about biodiversity really means anything at all about how they then contribute to future conservation efforts.5

That there might be educational benefits to zoos is extremely underwhelming as a compelling rationale for their existence. Moreover, it’s abstract to the point of absurdity, as if “awareness of conservation” in children can in any way be meaningfully correlated to real world effects, as Bekoff noted. What exactly would the road map look like that connects zoos, the children and adults they educate, and actual effective conservation that is the result of that education?

Granting zoos the undeserved reputation of being the sole catalyst for the desire to learn, the acquisition of information, and for cultivating warm and fuzzy feelings toward nonhuman life is completely baseless, and the above referenced studies that espouse these views don’t seem to take other influences into account. Children are bombarded with adorably cute animals in the form of entertainment since birth. As they grow older, they learn about animals in school. Information can be found in all manner of books, television and the internet.

While one can learn about and be in awe of animals in zoos, some (I would argue most) will consciously or unconsciously learn the idea that humans have the unquestioned right to dominate the biosphere as we best see fit. They may even gain a false sense of security about the state of things based on their awareness of the supposedly great conservation work done by zoos. I think these are huge problems and should be taken into account and contrasted with the supposed education provided by these entities.

To my knowledge, these crucial aspects of zoos are not discussed with children in any kind of research (also unasked is how the children feel about the fact that the animals they see are forced to be where they are for their enjoyment). None of this is surprising. Questioning human domination isn’t something I’d expect to see addressed in a meaningful way within the context of zoos, an institution that is as stark an example as one can find – think of the absurdity of animals from the African savannah forced to live in frigid Canadian zoos.

If one accepts the notion that, at minimum, zoos foster respect for nature, they have utterly failed in transforming that respect into meaningful, positive real-world affects. This is an inescapable conclusion, of which there is little need to belabor. Most of the developed world has citizens who’ve been to zoos, going back at least a century – citizens that have played a disproportionate role in the continuing destruction of the biosphere, both actively and passively. Why would a new generation of children exposed to zoos be any different than previous generations? And if they do change things for the better (however that can be defined), the influence that zoos have will be difficult to quantify. Though, no doubt, they will wish to be given credit.

***

Here I will pause in my excoriation of zoos and highlight their conservation efforts. This seems like it should be an unmitigated good, but it is not without its own issues. The fact that humans have rendered so much of the globe uninhabitable for so many animals absolutely warrants attempts to help solve the problems we’ve created. That some zoos appear to do good work in the conservation sphere is commendable, and I don’t want to completely minimize their efforts.

For example, captive breeding of the endangered California condor at the San Diego Zoo has helped stave off extinction, at least so far anyways.6 However, there are other entities that do similar work, and don’t need a prison brimming with other animals to do so. As another example, numerous non-profits work toward saving whooping cranes (though I should note zoos do provide money and medical services towards these efforts). These are good things.

On the whole, though, I don’t think it’s fair to say that non-zoo conservation efforts would cease without zoo involvement and support. Unfortunately, it’s pretty difficult to disentangle the percentage of work zoos do in the conservation sphere versus non-zoo affiliated organizations, making it impossible to know how much they contribute. However, I can’t dispute that they definitely add to the totality.

Whether or not their additions are effective is a question without an answer. It should not be taken as a given that any entity claiming to do conservation is doing a good job, whether its connected to a zoo or not. An overarching theme to consider is what constitutes effective conservation work, and how to quantify this:

For far too long, conservation scientists and practitioners have depended on intuition and anecdote to guide the design of conservation investments. If we want to ensure that our limited resources make a difference, we must accept that testing hypotheses about what policies protect biological diversity requires the same scientific rigor and state-of-the-art methods that we invest in testing ecological hypotheses. Our understanding of the ecological aspects of ecosystem conservation rests, in part, on well-designed empirical studies. In contrast, our understanding of the way in which policies can prevent species loss and ecosystem degradation rests primarily on case-study narratives from field initiatives that are not designed to answer the question “Does the intervention work better than no intervention at all?”

When it comes to evaluating the success of its interventions, the field of ecosystem protection and biodiversity conservation lags behind most other policy fields (e.g., poverty reduction, criminal rehabilitation, disease control)

[…]

In the field of program evaluation, one lesson is paramount: you cannot overcome poor quality with greater quantity. We cannot learn from thousands of projects if none of these projects is designed in a way that permits an evaluation of its effectiveness. The results from a handful of well-designed individual tests can provide much more useful guidance than thousands of well-intentioned but poorly designed projects. In a field that takes the design and implementation of its initiatives seriously, we should expect to see greater value placed on evaluating the effectiveness of these initiatives.

Leaving the tenuous state of measuring conservation effectiveness aside, is zoo-funded conservation possible without the considerable weight of a zoo’s ability to marshal personnel, money and resources towards conservation projects within the context of their lucrative economic infrastructure? Probably not. Is it necessary to confine animals to generate revenue that can be used for conservation? Probably. Without widespread public patronage the money would simply not be there. Without animals to see, income would significantly decline, and there would be less funds for conservation.

In 2015, the total revenue for US zoos was $2.6 billion. It is unknown what percentage of this actually goes toward conservation. A National Geographic article from 2003 quotes a former zoo director saying that “less than 3 percent of the budgets of these 212 accredited zoos go toward conservation efforts.” The AZA estimates $216 million spent per year on conservation by accredited zoos. If that figure and the $2.6 billion in revenue from 2015 is accurate, that comes to around 8%. Of course, this is an extremely crude attempt to arrive at an answer, but there aren’t any specific data for this that I’m aware of. Regardless, it’s telling that the AZA lists neither revenue nor percentage spent on conservation. If they felt either were compelling evidence for the altruistic nature of zoos they would surely mention it.

A good consequentialist might say that if zoo support for conservation leads to more land for wild animals, and an increased chance of survival for endangered species, it is a good thing. I would counter that they are not considering the negative aspects of zoos I’ve highlighted. Moreover, we are unable to say for sure how good zoos actually are at conservation.

I also can’t help but note that conservation and education are secondary justifications for the continued confinement of wild animals that are grafted onto the primary reason: people want to see animals whenever they want. In the unlikely event that conservation efforts succeed beyond our wildest dreams, zoos probably won’t close – they are not looking towards a future that does not contain them. If that’s true, and I see no reason why it’s not, these institutions are anything but benevolent and are ultimately using conservation to serve their own interests, to the detriment of the countless animals they imprison. I’d also add that there is something truly revolting about certain unlucky animals being forced to pay the ultimate price, all in the service of solving problems they played literally zero part in creating.

***

I don’t think any animal should be forced to be in a position where it can’t avoid you, just so you can gawk at it, learn things about it that can be found in any number of different places, or bask in the unwarranted belief that its imprisonment is necessary to help wild animals. I operate under the assumption that a specific organism wishes to do things that are the result of the accumulation of millennia of evolutionary adaptations specific to their species – and being able to do so in the general environment where that species is found. Hindering this via captivity for human desires (not needs) is selfish, fucked up, and perpetuates the relatively unquestioned and indefensible cultural narrative of humanity as benevolent rulers of the earth (we can thank Western religions for this, but Western science and philosophy are also culpable). This narrative is increasingly in need of moral justifications for obvious reasons. Not too long ago, such attempts were unnecessary, and the righteousness of our domination was implicitly understood by the general populace: abiotic phenomena and nonhuman animals are ours to do with what we please.

You want to see a lion? Tough shit, I’d say if it were up to me. Of course, wild lions can be seen if you live near their natural habitats. If you don’t, you can travel there, though this is, of course, something only available to the wealthy. I acknowledge this isn’t very fair. But seeing a bored lion in a tiny, grotesque facsimile of their homeland shouldn’t get to be the consolation prize.

Lion at the Rosamund Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY (their address is 1 Conservation Place, which is depressingly hilarious), via The Dodo

That anyone could see penguins in a makeshift “habitat” aimlessly wandering around, read or have a small amount of information presented, and take more from that than the video embedded below (from Planet Earth II, via Time), which captures both the beauty and brutality of nature, is cultural insanity.

Penguins at the Detroit Zoo, via Travel + Leisure

***

I have little doubt that if the world were a better place for nonhuman animals, zoos would still exist. I can see the justification now: there are so many giraffes, wolves, seals, etc. that it doesn’t matter if we confine a few (that it would matter to those specific animals is and always has been irrelevant). Human greed can always find way.

Many fervently believe that children need to see certain animals in person in order to develop a sense of empathy for their plight in the Anthropocene. And there may be some validity to that. But there are actual wild animals in our midst, even in cities, which largely go unnoticed, that is, if they’re not regarded as pests. Sure, they’re not as exotic and awe-inspiring as charismatic megafauna from other continents, but they are our neighbors, and intrinsically as worthy of respect and curiosity. I would argue it’s much more interesting to watch sparrows doing sparrow things, than a bored animal in a pathetic representation of its habitat staring off into space or playing infantile games designed by humans to mitigate boredom. Unfortunately, I do realize this is a hard sell to most.

I wonder if it would be sufficient to explain to children, in simple language, the reasons why one might be against zoos and why animal confinement is problematic. For example, my wife, an animal-lover though not as virulently anti-zoo as I, told me about a discussion in the 5th grade class she teaches centered on the book The One and Only Ivan (which I had never heard of, and is about the true story of caged animals living at a mall). Basically, the kids were not okay with this. However, they weren’t able to, nor were asked to think about, how their feelings on the book contrasted with their general affinity for zoos and why caging Ivan in a mall is wrong, while caging animals in zoos is not. It’s likely that parents wouldn’t have been too keen on this and, overall, I’m not sure the general public will be receptive to this line of thinking anytime soon.

I hope one day zoos go the way of SeaWorld and the circus. More so than the latter, they are an ingrained part of society, for better or worse. The preceding has made clear that I see it as more for the worse, but I realize this point of view is in the minority. Zoos are cheap, convenient, profitable, and popular. Anti-zoo zealots such as myself are likely seen as PETA-adjacent lunatics, caring more about nonhuman animals than actual humans. Then again, this is probably what people thought about with regards to SeaWorld before Blackfish. If a paradigm shift ever were to occur, people will likely wonder how and why it took so long.


1. I’m sure many zookeepers, handlers and technicians care about the animals. Some probably think they have special relationships with them. And I really don’t give a shit. They are part of the problem. I am reluctant to compare human prisoners to nonhuman prisoners, but at least prison guards have reason to think the inmates are guilty of something that necessitated their imprisonment. There are zero reasons for zoo workers to think this.

2. It should be noted that the AZA has been openly hostile to sanctuaries in the past, making this suggestion something of a pipe dream:

To dissuade accredited zoos from endorsing sanctuaries — as the Detroit and Milwaukee zoos had done — the [AZA] adopted harsh punishments designed to hurt zoos’ bottom lines.

This summer, the AZA used that power when Toronto City Council members voted to shut down the zoo’s elephant exhibit and retire three African elephants to the California sanctuary. Council members decided that captivity was harmful.

The zoo association revoked Toronto’s accreditation, preventing the exchange of animals with other accredited zoos.

But the association does allow zoos to give their unwanted elephants to circuses, where breeding can occur.

That the AZA had a more favorable view towards circuses than sanctuaries is very revealing. However, this article was from 2012. Last year, one sanctuary was accredited as a “Related Facility” Another sanctuary was accredited in 2011. Though this is publicized on their website, they aren’t currently on the AZA’s list. With animal-centered circuses dying, perhaps zoos are more amenable to coordinating with their ideological enemies – it’s probably becoming a more attractive option than running the risk of animal cull stories reaching the public.

3. Jensen’s book contains gut-wrenching stories of wild animal capture/imprisonment through the past century in the hunters’ own words, as well as tragic accounts of bought, sold, loaned and discarded animals. Very common themes include destroyed familial relationships, exposure to trauma, and sickening cruelty. Here’s one particularly gruesome example:

William Hampton, the owner of another AAZPA-accredited [now known as the AZA] zoo, came up with an even more ingenious money-making scheme. For several years he bought and traded U.S. zoo animals, until a member of a local humane society discovered a fenced compound with crates bearing the names of major zoos from across the country. Peter Batten describes what happened next: “Further investigation revealed a trailer filled with the putrefying remains of dismembered animals and led to the discovery that Hampton and his associates had systematically slaughtered surplus zoo animals, skinned them, and sold heads and pelts as wall trophies. Living evidence was provided by American alligators, found with jaws taped and starving to assure unblemished hides for eventual sale.”

This example, and other grotesque anecdotes described by Jensen largely occurred before 1990 (but not all). This may give enough wiggle room for zoo proponents to claim that things are surely better. But then again, there doesn’t seem to be evidence to the contrary aside from zoo propaganda. Make no mistake, there are horror stories behind the sanitized spaces open to the public. It takes investigative work to uncover them, and it doesn’t always lead to media attention. Unfortunately, bringing these stories to light is getting even more difficult in the US:

Two weeks into the Trump Administration, thousands of documents detailing animal welfare violations nationwide have been removed from the website of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has been posting them publicly for decades. These are the inspection records and annual reports for every commercial animal facility in the U.S.—including zoos, breeders, factory farms, and laboratories.

These records have revealed many cases of abuse and mistreatment of animals, incidents that, if the reports had not been publicly posted, would likely have remained hidden. This action plunges journalists, animal welfare organizations, and the public at large into the dark about animal welfare at facilities across the country.

4. Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier also demolish the idea that animals in zoos live longer than their wild counterparts. This is worth a brief mention, but no more – even if the reverse were true, a long life obviously doesn’t correlate to living a good life.

5. If you click on the link to the study, note the visitor survey they utilize. It includes a section in which respondents are to write what “comes to mind when you think of biodiversity” before and after visits, and if they can “think of an action that you could take to help save animal species.” None of the raw data appears to be available and it would be interesting to see some of the answers. For example, there is a pie chart labeled “Categorisation of self‑reported post‑visit actions or behaviours to help protect biodiversity,” that contains 11 slices. The second largest portion is “other related comment;” the largest slice is “Recycling and Waste Management” (which surely could’ve been learned elsewhere). I wonder what these “other related comments” were, especially since they evidently weren’t able to easily categorize them.

I have other critiques, but this post is already long enough as it is. Nonetheless, it seems that, given the statistics referenced above, there is already a not insignificant amount of “positive evidence of biodiversity understanding” present before the visit to the zoo. That being said, the presentation is a very slick and impressive looking piece of propaganda.

6. Far less than half of the animals in zoos are from endangered species. However, the AZA has a Species Survival Plan (SSP) program which many zoos participate in. The program “aims to manage the breeding of specific endangered species in order to help maintain healthy and self-sustaining populations that are both genetically diverse and demographically stable” (the article, from Scientific American, is weirdly undated and no author is listed leading me to think it’s hidden sponsored content). The goal of many, but not all, SSP’s is “is the reintroduction of captive-raised endangered species into their native wild habitats.” There doesn’t appear to be any objective research into the efficacy of these programs, but I’m a bit less cynical about them – attempting to save endangered species is good. But countless variables need to be taken into account for every particular situation in determining what does and doesn’t work. There are criticisms, and it shouldn’t be taken as an article of faith that these programs are effective.

Note that animal sanctuaries theoretically would be able to perform these activities, but with an added component of breeding, and all that that entails. However, money would certainly be an issue if the public weren’t guaranteed to actually see the animals were they to visit.

New music by Life of Agony (Transgender Day of Visibility)

“River Runs Red” by Life of Agony is an iconic masterpiece in the grey areas between hardcore and metal. I love it and still listen to it frequently to this day. Lyrically, it’s a concept album about a teenager dealing with substance abuse and shitty parents which ends in his suicide. In this regard, it was pretty unique in its era. Subsequent releases (“Ugly” and “Soul Searching Sun”) were, in my opinion, pretty terrible. Re-listening to them one is reminded of Nickelback, Creed, and other similarly terrible bands, though LoA pre-dates the musical diarrhea of the former.

There are uncountable different genre’s at the intersections of punk, hardcore, and metal, each containing their own scenes, artists, and fans with considerable overlap. LoA was part of a nauseatingly testosterone-laden east coast hardcore and metal scene in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Though I wasn’t a part of that scene, being both too young and not living in that area, I can’t imagine it was an environment that was accepting of LGBT people. That’s why I was surprised when I learned LoA’s singer, Mina Caputo, came out as trans. In regards to her relationship with that scene:

Caputo says after the revelation, there were some uncomfortable moments trying to continue in the world of metal. She adds, “The majority of our fans have always been male, and I’ve experienced a lot of closed-minded people in the metal world. You know, a lot of people that just don’t know what’s going on. What I want those people to know is that I’m a beautiful human being. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had a lot of support [in the metal scene], but there has also been a lot of rejection and criticism about my life.”

She’s immensely talented and has made some fantastic music over the past 25+ years. Below is a new song, an incredibly moving music video about her transition (stunningly, the comments are heartwarming and NOT a cesspool of bigotry), and a live version of a song off “River Runs Red” performed last year:

The frustrating genius of South Park

As an impressionable 16 year old, I was instantly hooked when South Park debuted in 1997 and have generally loved it ever since. Though my interest waned significantly from roughly 2009-2014, I’ve literally seen every episode. I had long since given up on the other long-running adult-oriented cartoons – Family Guy and The Simpsons (2007 for the former, 1999 for the latter), and was considering letting go of South Park. But Trey Parker and Matt Stone managed to inject new life into the show by introducing serialized episodes in 2015.

Attempting an analysis on 20 years worth of episodes is hard, especially for a show that has something to say about everything. To distill its ethos to it’s essence: both the left and right are full of shit [1], and PC-culture is abominable. The latter runs parallel to the stereotypical comedian’s belief that nothing should be off-limits, and any criticisms are the products of unwarranted hysteria. Moreover, it’s pretentious to care about things that don’t concern you, especially if you’re a celebrity.

This has served them well and ensures there’s something for everybody. Not so much from the perspective that one agrees with any specific character in any specific episode, but more to the extent that they will inevitably skewer ideologies and beliefs that one detests [2]. Individual episodes have received favorable coverage all over the internet, from Salon, The Atlantic, and Slate, to dumpster fire websites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller (not linking to them). Whether their widespread appeal was intended with a diverse audience in mind or not misses the point – this is a pretty ingenious way to ensure a large amount of people across the political spectrum can laugh at the caricatured absurdities of those they disagree with.

imgres imfghgres

Parker and Stone’s political beliefs can be best described as pre-Tea Party libertarianism, with an emphasis on free-market economics combined with a socially liberal live-and-let-live attitude. Parker described himself as one in 2001, while Stone has never, to my knowledge, claimed adherence to any political party. As an example of how this is manifested, consider Big Gay Al. Very early on (in 1998) they had the keen insight to allege that being gay is okay. However, a few years later Al makes an impassioned plea to respect the rights of private organizations to discriminate with impunity. The liberal elite, represented by Gloria Allred, predictably turn on him, calling him a homophobe, because of course those silly, stupid, hypocritical liberals would do that. Non-homophobes could cheer gay acceptance, while assholes could delight in the idea of keeping government out of where it doesn’t belong or, less charitably, legitimizing their bigotry.

Many times, what’s being made fun of and what, if anything, the creators are trying to say can be open to interpretation. For example in “The Jeffersons,” one of the main plot points used for comedic affect is South Park’s extremely racist police department trying to frame Michael Jackson. When it aired in 2004, I remember laughing at the cops because I generally think cops suck, and the show apparently agreed. But now I’m pretty sure that’s not the case – the racism and cruelty displayed by the police was too over-the-top. More likely, it should be interpreted as a critique of people who denigrate the hardworking, usually noble police and imagine wildly implausible race-based conspiracies. This theme can also be seen in a 2015 episode, “Naughty Ninjas“. Officer Barbrady, a relic from the earliest seasons, ineptly shoots a kid, leading to vehement anti-police actions. Later in the episode, the townspeople are forced to grovel to the now hated cops for help which is vindictively refused. Broadly, systematic racism and police violence is trivialized and the hypocrisy and stupidity of police-hating morons is emphasized.

The above examples are just two of countless issues tackled by Parker and Stone. Many characters say many different things and it’s damn near impossible to pin down what they actually think after 20 years of providing social commentary disguised as jokes. Therein lies the difficulty of gleaning insight into what the creators are trying to say. It certainly doesn’t help that they think all proponents of any issue, religion, and political belief is full of shit, pretentious, or both. That the characters are tethered to the plot means anyone at anytime can say or do something if the story calls for it.

***

For all the cruelty, nihilism (which I think the creators would object to), and gross-out humor, there is a heart to the show. Nothing, of course, is off limits, but themes of friendship and caring are abundant. Take Kenny’s interaction with his sister while in the guise of his superhero alter-ego Mysterion, after they had been placed in foster care:

Karen: Oh, it’s you. I was wondering when you’d appear. You always come when I’m sad.
Mysterion: You are going to be okay, Karen! You have to keep believing that!
Karen: Why did my mommy and daddy go to jail?
Mysterion: [thinks a moment] Sometimes, people do stupid things. Sometimes they don’t realize what should have come first. Until it’s too late.
Karen: But I’m all alone now.
Mysterion: You are not alone. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, I will always be here! Do you understand?
Karen: I’ll try, guardian angel.
Mysterion: Don’t try, Karen. Do.

It almost brings me to tears every time I see that part. As an aside, the perplexing depiction of the foster family as militant agnostics was a complete failure. One gets the idea that they were grasping at straws to find a group of people they had yet to satirize.

There are also characters that are almost always treated with respect by the creators. Wendy Testaberger is the foremost example. Earlier depictions aside, before the shows characters crystallized into their current recognizable forms, she is shown to be intelligent, principled and caring – the feminist foil to Cartman. If she says something, it isn’t something to be mocked except by assholes, such as Cartman, with the joke always being on Cartman rather than Wendy. This season, Wendy led a group of cheerleaders sitting for the national anthem due to online bullying, obviously paralleling Colin Kaepernick. This ended up going nowhere (see below), but the girls at no point were portrayed as being in the wrong.

Another example is Butters who is exceptionally kind-hearted. While he is perpetually shit on, it is primarily due to his limitless gullibility coupled with the brutality of other characters, rather than for being a decent kid. That doesn’t mean he’s immune to acting out, as evidenced by becoming a Men’s Rights Activist after being dumped, and somewhat vindictively telling off his cruel and abusive grandmother:

Grandma? I did it, Grandma. I finally stood up for myself. I got real mean and I beat the snot outta Dr. Oz. I can’t lie, it felt kind of good. At first. But since then all I have is just… a kind of dark, empty feeling. Then I realized… that’s how you must feel. All the time. Poor old Grandma. You know, I’ve been gettin’ lots of advice how to deal with you. Stand up to you, tell on you… But I kind of realize there’s just people like you out there. All over the place. When you’re a kid, things seem like they’re gonna last forever. But they’re not. Life changes. Why you won’t always be around. Someday you’re gonna die. Someday pretty soon. And when you’re layin’ in that hospital bed, with tubes up your nose, and that little pan under your butt to pee in, well I’ll come visit ya. I’ll come just to show you that, that I’m still alive and I’m still happy. And you’ll die. Bein’ nothin’ but you. ‘Night Grandma.

Overall, Butters is a sympathetic character and serves as another moral anchor to the show. But the above quote is another typical South Park theme: there are horrible people in the world, and the onus is on you to stoically deal with it.

That South Park does have a heart should not be seen as an excuse for the many, many examples of cruel, offensive comedy. In no way am I insinuating that those offended by South Park are wrong. For example, body shaming, particularly towards females and transgender peoples, is rampant. Women are frequently mocked for personal appearance, from Jennifer Lopez’s ass, to Sarah Jessica Parker’s supposed equine features. Caitlyn Jenner is portrayed as a walking plastic surgery disaster. Why they felt the need to do this is beyond my comprehension, except perhaps to show they can still be offensive and “edgy.” Even more perplexing was that Jenner’s appearance occurred after their very well received episode that tackled the bathroom uproar in a fair and enlightened manner. Moreover it showed pretty substantial growth from their hit or miss (mostly miss) portrayals of Mr. Garrison’s continually evolving gender questioning and sexuality [3].

The point is, Jenner’s portrayal was completely unimaginative and gratuitously cruel. Perhaps more galling is that they refused to do the same with more odious figures like Chris Christie and Steve Bannon. All of that being said, I laughed pretty hard each time Jenner smashed her car into people. Such humor poked fun at something Jenner did, rather than fundamental aspects of her being. But I digress – if you are offended by anything on South Park, nothing I write should be construed as telling you to “get over it.”

***

This past season, the second of their serialization project, they fucked up. Broad, season-long plots failed to coalesce into anything resembling a coherent conclusion. By mixing real-world events of the previous week into the already existing plots they undertook a huge risk that relied on Clinton winning the election. That the election happened the day before episode 7 out of 10 certainly didn’t help [4], and the final episodes reflect a team of writers scrambling to adjust. Some plots were disregarded, and the final episode, appropriately titled “The End of Serialization as We Know It,” fell flat.

There was a very meta aspect to one of the plots, which is something I think South Park does extremely well [5]. Briefly, Kyle’s dad Gerald is a secret online troll. His trolling leads to the suicide of a Danish citizen. The Danish are pissed and begin work on a system to reveal every persons’ online history – something that causes mass destruction as everyone’s anonymous internet persona is unmasked. It’s revealed the leader of the project is a master troll who, rather than giving a shit about outing trolls on moral grounds, undertook the project to cause mass chaos. Early on in the season, I felt that Gerald represented the decades of trolling that South Park has done and this is, more or less, confirmed with a final showdown between Gerald and the Danish troll. The Danish troll is the devil’s advocate for Parker and Stone’s entire career, as represented by Gerald:

Bedrager [the Danish troll]: What I’m doing is wrong? How is getting millions of people to kill themselves different from getting one person to?
Gerald: It’s completely heartless and malicious!
Bedrager: You can honestly stand there, as a troll, and tell me that what I’m doing isn’t hilarious?
Gerald: No! Its not! Hacking the world to show that most people act differently online isn’t even technically satirical.
Bedrager: How is not satirical?

Gerald: Okay, okay, look. What you’re doing is just trying to prove that everyone is either a bad person or a snoop, right? So how is that funny?
Bedrager: That’s not what I’m doing. I’m showing everyone that all this stuff that they freak out over doesn’t even matter.
Gerald: No, but see, that’s just nihilism.
Bedrager: Oh, come on!
Gerald: That is!
Bedrager: So–so wait! If you do some big, outrageous, offensive thing with a positive attitude, you’re a satirist, but if you’re cynical about it, then you’re a nihilist? That’s fucking ridiculous

Gerald: You’re trying to get people to go to war and kill each other.
Bedrager: So maybe this is like the new post-funny era of satire. [6]

At this point, Gerald kicks Bedrager in the nuts and exclaims: “Ha! Fuck you! What I do is fucking funny, bitch!”

Humor is the highest ideal, and is differentiated from nihilism by actually being, you know, funny. Or, humor that causes actual real world destruction is the line they will not cross, at least intentionally. While I agree that the show’s trolling can and has been funny, the showdown’s conclusion came off as hollow. Gerald’s trolling was extremely vicious and not even remotely satirical. He received no tangible comeuppance. To the show’s credit, however, when Gerald is reunited with his family, Kyle and his brother Ike give him withering stares: they know he’s an asshole who’s full of shit. That he’s acknowledged as such is quintessential South Park – the creators allow that they too are not immune from the criticisms they’ve dispensed over the years.

***

Recently Parker and Stone discussed scrapping serialization completely and have deemed Trump to be beyond satire. In an interview with ABC Australia, Stone said:

People say to us all the time, ‘Oh, you guys are getting all this good material,’ like we’re happy about some of the stuff that’s happening. But I don’t know if that’s true. It doesn’t feel that way. It feels like they’re going to be more difficult. We’re having our head blown off, like everybody else.”

Watching the interview, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that he is more upset about Trump’s presidency, rather than the death of political satire [7]. But then, of course, I may be hearing something that isn’t there.

It bears noting that in 16 years of Bush and Obama, they’ve largely resisted making fun of them. Both appeared in episodes, but were almost never the butt of any jokes [8]. Now they’re faced again with the choice to pick a side. Only at this point in time one side has mutated into a cesspool of bigotry, anti-intellectual fervor, and a shameful disregard for human suffering. Despite the above quote, I don’t think they’ll be able to resist political commentary. And if I’m right, I wonder if they’ll incorporate unfavorable depictions of Trump opposition. I could see the kids joining a black bloc – I don’t believe anarchists have been mocked yet. This is not surprising since they’ve been invisible in the US since the “Battle of Seattle.” Or maybe Kyle will punch Cartman, the literal Nazi, causing an uproar (as opposed to the many times he’s done it in the past). I cringe at the thought of the mockery of, in Stone and Parker’s mind, outrageous Trump/Hitler comparisons taken to absurd levels. Or alleging Nazi-punchers are as bad as Nazis. Hopefully they’ve evolved since 2004, when Parker stated:

[p]eople on the far-left and the far-right are the same exact person to us.

That is fantastically douchey. The more I think about it the more I think they’ll stay the course, while perhaps dumping the serialized format. This may prove to be unfortunate, as some of the best episodes are apolitical and only tangentially related to any specific social or political issues, if at all. So getting rid of politics shouldn’t be seen as necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, their injection of social commentary has enabled their relevance for much longer than their contemporaries. I don’t think many people give a shit what The Simpsons or Family Guy is trying to say. If they do, they shouldn’t, because they both blow.

Underlying all of this, I find the show consistently funny in tons of different ways. The show is watched by millions and is an indelible part of our culture, for better or worse. It’s generated ample material that warrants analysis. For some, it’s just humor. For others, it reinforces worldviews, primarily through negative portrayals of people and ideas one doesn’t agree with. And that is the big question heading into Season 21 – will they maintain the status quo by negatively depicting the rich panoply of Trump-haters, all in the interest of maintaining their “both sides are bad” ideology? If so, it will only give unneeded ammunition to the aforementioned cesspool denizens. I’d like to think Parker and Stone wouldn’t want any part of that.


[1] Parker infamously stated

I hate conservatives but I really fucking hate liberals.

[2] In an interview with The Huffington Post in 2010, Parker said

everyone sees their own thing in it. A lot of our shows where even we think we’ve taken a very deliberate stand, liberals say, ‘That’s awesome, you took on the conservatives’ [and for the] same show conservatives say ‘That’s awesome, you took on liberals.’

[3] He has been portrayed at varying lengths of time as heterosexual cisgender male, homosexual cisgender male, heterosexual transgender female and homosexual transgender female. In earlier seasons he attempts to meet a young child on the internet (Cartman, unbeknownst to him), fucks a pig, and is extremely distraught that his father didn’t rape him as a child. He is currently the show’s literal stand-in for Donald Trump who wants to “fuck them all to death.”

[4] The episode was titled “First Gentleman,” referring to Bill Clinton, and remained the title displayed on my cable information screen.

[5] One of the most poignant meta moments has Cartman, defeated by PC Principal (a funny but nonsensical character whom deserves a level of scrutiny I don’t feel like doing) saying: “We’re two privileged, straight white boys who have their laughs about things we never had to deal with.” I mean, it FEELS meta, but it very well may not be – after all, it’s coming from Cartman. It’s usually not wise to rely on Cartman as the show’s conscience. For example, MRA type shitheads crowed about Cartman supposedly lampooning Amy Schumer’s vagina jokes, when it’s pretty obvious she is not what’s being made fun of. If that interpretation is incorrect, it’d be especially galling, seeing as South Park has a rich history of genital-related humor.

[6] This is a great and chilling line. I’m very tempted to believe that this is a shot at the destructive troll-humor of 4chan (i.e. Pizzagate) and Milo Yiannopoulos-types, but I’m not sure.

[7] Overall, Garrison/Trump is almost always shown in a negative light, somewhat hilariously leading to Reddit discussions with titles like “Is it just me or has South Park gone full cuck?” In a 2015 episode, a Trump-like figure was elected in Canada which proved to be prophetic and, in retrospect, terrifying:

Nobody ever thought he’d be president! It was a joke! We just let the joke go on for too long. He kept gaining momentum, and by the time we were all ready to say, ‘Okay, let’s get serious now, who should really be president?’ he was already being sworn into office.

[8] I only recall one instance of Bush being unambiguously mocked for his poor speech habits. For Obama, any humor related to him derived from Cartman or others saying racist things – in other words, Obama is not the joke, racism is. Clinton, on the other hand, was mocked early on (and recently) for being a sexual deviant.

 

Melissa McCarthy’s terrible Kia ad

Obviously greenwashing isn’t new. I first recall hearing about it over a decade ago, and it is, depressingly, still going strong. Also not new is humor aimed at the idea of tree-huggers saving the environment. In general, I’m not opposed to this. Of course, subjectively, some do it better than others. But combining humor with selling a product directly implicated in environmental destruction [1], not to mention climate change, is pretty reprehensible.

This can be seen in the new Kia/Melissa McCarthy commercial, which I will neither link to nor embed. For those blissfully unaware, Melissa McCarthy finds herself in some pretty hilarious situations in her role as eco-warrior. And it’s a hit! I’m sure Kia’s shareholders are stoked, as is the natural world which can now breathe a sigh of relief. In general, car commercials are some of the most cloying examples of environmentally harmful companies attempting to manipulate one’s emotions with maudlin drivel (“Love. Its what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.” Puke.).

Let’s see what the CEO of Kia has to say:

People will go to great lengths to support the causes they are passionate about, and the Niro is a “smarter kind of crossover” for those looking to go green without making sacrifices…The Niro is like nothing consumers have seen before, and with an audience of over 100 million people tuning in, Melissa McCarthy is the perfect partner to tell the world about Kia’s uniquely alluring yet practical new crossover.

The last thing I’d want to do in my personal efforts to save the world is make any kind of sacrifice. Like, if doing anything beneficial for the planet involves sacrifices I say fuck that. I know when I’m driving a car I need that extra UMPH to make me feel like a STRONG MAN. And not only just a STRONG MAN, but one who CARES about things.

McCarthy, from the same article above, had this to say:

For years, I’ve been trying to find the perfect project that combined the real threat of me breaking every bone in my body, with my desire to help save the environment. Thanks Kia!!!  XOXO Love, Melissa.

For the first time in a long time, I think we’re on the right track. I’m just glad that doing my part to save the planet is as easy as running over to my Kia dealer and buying a brand new $23K car. The fact that I can laugh about a funny lady slamming into the side of a boat and being chased by a rhino is icing on the cake.

World=Saved.


 

[1]

Historian Mark Foster has estimated that “fully one-third of the total environmental damage caused by automobiles occurred before they were sold and driven.” He cited a study that estimated that fabricating one car produced 29 tons of waste and 1,207 million cubic yards of polluted air. Extracting iron ore, bauxite, petroleum, copper, lead, and a variety of other raw materials to process steel, aluminum, plastics, glass, rubber, and other products necessary to construct automobiles consumes limited resources, uses great amounts of energy, and has serious environmental repercussions. In recent years, for example, the automotive industry in several developed countries was a major purchaser of iron and steel (30 percent), lead for batteries (46 percent), aluminum (23 percent), and platinum for exhaust fume control (41 percent). Approximately 75 percent of the cost of the industry’s power comes from electricity, but the auto industry also consumes natural gas (15 percent of energy expenditures), and coal and coke (over 8 percent), as well as steam, oil, and propane.