James Taranto’s discussion of Green Supremacists in the WSJ highlights an interesting phenomenon in public discourse today; the mixing of comedy and political commentary. Of course in one sense there is nothing new since comedians going back to Johnny Carson, Jack Paar and Groucho Marx have poked fun at politicians. What’s different today is that many comedy shows are designed to look like newsrooms and present skits based on the content of the daily news. Some shows also do interviews with authors and politicians, mixing in discussion of current events with humorous asides.

What’s also new is that the extreme rhetoric used routinely by comedians has made its way into traditional policy discussion venues including radio talkshows and the Sunday morning opinion shows.

Taranto’s story highlights the problem with a group running a political ad in support of policies to arrest climate change. Dissenters are blown up at the end in a graphical and gruesome way. The scene certainly grabs one’s attention because it is so shocking. How someone perceives this ad depends greatly on the context.

If the ad were not an ad but a skit instead, if it appeared in the middle of a Saturday Night Live show, then everyone would know it is supposed to be humorous. Some people may take offense due the graphic nature, but most would chuckle and be ready to move onto the next skit.

However, if the ad is presented on TV, let’s say, as a political ad to garner support for climate change policies, then the ad seems violent, mean and in very poor taste. Taranto analyzes the content of the ad through this lens and notes, “The “crime” for which the children in the video are “executed” is one of omission, not commission. They are murdered not even for dissenting against 10:10’s political crusade, but merely for being indifferent to it. This is the essence of totalitarianism.”

If we assume it’s a comedy routine again though, Taranto’s concerns now demonstrate why you never try to explain a joke to someone. Of course jokes have absurdities, that’s what makes them funny! So a response to any criticism of the ad could be, “hey, can’t you recognize a joke when you see it?”

All of this is making people very confused. It is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the overblown, humorous, remarks about public policies and our leaders from the angry and bigoted remarks of others. This is a real problem.

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