Philosophers and South Park

From time to time we hear about zany professors of popular culture using their academic credentials to elevate the most aggressively offensive and potty-mouthed TV shows into the Great Works of Western Civilization. What causes these bookworms in academe to slither around trying to intellectualize our cultural rubbish? It's like getting a Master's degree in restroom graffiti. Can you really compare South Park to Socrates? 

That's exactly what happens in a new book titled South Park and Philosophy. I have no idea who would read all the way through this laughable exercise in excuse-making. The first essay is a riot all by itself. William W. Young III, listed as an Associate Professor of Humanities at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, has titled his essay "Flatulence and Philosophy." The title fits.


Maybe this fellow also delivers lectures on the subject. That's some bang for the buck for parents forking over $31,628 annually to send their child to this sorry excuse for a college.


Professor Young mocks those who find "danger" in South Park. The only danger, he asserts, is its “depiction of dialogue and free thinking.” He believes the perpetually profane Comedy Central cartoon, like Socrates, “harms no one,” but provides an education, to “instruct people and provide them with the intellectual tools they need to become wise, free, and good.”


Citing Socrates, Young says those uptight people who find harm in this television show are inherently opposed to questioning, and questioning things is the source of all wisdom. Many powerful people in Athens found Socrates dangerous because his questioning would “undermine their bases for power.”


Young praises the “non-conformist, reflective virtue” of the questioning children of South Park, and then conflates the chronically clueless parent characters with parents in real life:  “The parents of South Park corrupt the children far more than a television show ever could. Like the Athenians, the adults don't know as much as they think they know.” In the show, when adults address the children, “the adult usually sounds like a bumbling idiot.”


The good professor seems to have no concept that it's the writers of South Park who make a living from putting bumbling idiocy on television.


How do professors like this stoop to the bizarre idea that children can be enlightened by a show that labors to fit 160 uses of the S-bomb into a half-hour? A show that delights in having Jesus Christ defecate on President Bush with his “yummy, yummy crap”? How can you elevate that into the idea that watching South Park should really be seen as a correspondence course, like Newt Gingrich's “Renewing American Civilization” series? 


Young insists we're supposed to be wiser than what's obvious, what's staring at us and screaming at us from the TV set. We're supposed to be swept along by the siren song of Sigmund Freud, who argued that the use of vulgarity is merely verbalizing the drives and desires that we often repress, and that laughter at crude jokes allows us to release our harmful inhibitions. “This is what makes the show's crudeness so essential,” Young argues. It creates a “space” for discussion which keeps us from transforming our repression into violence or social exclusion. South Park is, in his estimation, as one of his headings declares, the “Talking Cure for Our Culture.” It's much more like a communicable disease.   


Young then attempts to argue that Terrance and Philip, an infantile cartoon within the infantile cartoon, is really one of the better offerings in television: “Is Terrance and Philip really more vapid, crude, and pointless than Jerry Springer or Wife Swap? Is it more mindless than Fox News, The 700 Club, or Law and Order? The answer is no.” He then claims what offends South Park critics is “not that the show is vulgar and pointless, but that it highlights the mindlessness that is television in general.”


This is where Young really makes a joke out of himself. Everything on television is mindless in general, and he can make no fine distinctions? To be charitable, comparing Law and Order to South Park is roughly equivalent to comparing Einstein to your garden-variety grade-school class clown. Or your favorite professor to this walking insult to academe.


There is an ocean of difference between the entertaining and enlightening excellence that the discriminating viewer can find occasionally on television and the mindless drivel that often airs on Comedy Central. But some philosophy professors are too lost in an academic hall of mirrors to notice.