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Earlier this year, a short clip mocking trans people from the show “South Park” went viral. Influential conservative leaders like Donald Trump Jr. and Seth Dillon tweeted the meme, which was from an episode that aired originally in 2005. For the Opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo, the right’s enthusiasm for the clip was no surprise. In this audio piece and accompanying essay, Manjoo argues that “South Park” pioneered a political ethos of nihilism and mockery of the left that continues to echo today.
Click here to read about the artifacts other Opinion columnists think best represent America.
Listen to the story in the audio player below. A full transcript follows.
To Understand America, Watch ‘South Park’
FARHAD MANJOO: I am Farhad Manjoo. I’m an opinion columnist at The New York Times, and I write mostly about technology, but also about California and anything else I find interesting.
So my editors came to me and other writers at The Times and asked us to pick a cultural artifact that best explains America. And my immediate thought was “South Park.”
You know, I think it’s easy to sort of dismiss “South Park.” It’s this animated show, about crude characters and it’s not even well animated. It seems silly. But I think it’s one of the more, kind of, important shapers of American culture, especially the way we talk about politics.
“South Park” is an animated show about these kids in a Colorado town.
KYLE BROFLOVSKI: “Don’t get scared up in the mountains, Cartman.”
ERIC CARTMAN: “Shut up! I’m not scared of nothing.”
FARHAD MANJOO: There’s Eric Carman, Kenny McCormick, Kyle Broflovski and Stan Marsh, and lots of other friends and strange characters and weird interlopers, but it’s really about them and how they often get into situations that you wouldn’t normally see children getting into.
So in the early days it was really this absurdist show about these children and weird antics. But after a couple years, especially after 9/11, it became more satirical. It became kind of this comment on America and American culture and politics. And I really noticed the way that people started to talk about politics in the real world kind of reflecting the way that “South Park” talked about politics.
I think one of the main kind of philosophies of the creators of “South Park” is kind of a political nihilism that nothing really matters. So this was exemplified I think the best in their episode about the 2004 presidential election, which was John Kerry versus George Bush. But in “South Park” …
MR. GARRISON: “Attention students, we have tallied your mascot nomination sheets, and there will now be a schoolwide vote between the top …”
FARHAD MANJOO: The candidates were a giant douche …
KYLE BROFLOVSKI: “Go Giant Douche!”
FARHAD MANJOO: … versus a turd sandwich. Basically there’s no good choice. Nothing matters. Everyone is sort of equally bad.
ERIC CARTMAN: “Vote for Turd Sandwich. This is the most important election of your lives.”
FARHAD MANJOO: One of the things that marked the tone of “South Park” is that it was relentlessly anti-political correct. What we would call anti-woke now. But this was the start of something in the culture that regularly made fun of liberals who were, you know, smug and elite.
MAN: “That isn’t smog, it’s smug!”
FARHAD MANJOO: There was an episode about Priuses. Everyone in San Francisco got a Prius, and they were so smug about their Priuses that the air over San Francisco became covered in smug.
MAN: “You get enough smug in the atmosphere and you know what that leads to? Global laming.”
FARHAD MANJOO: And it really sort of was the start of what I think of as the troll-y right. And that sentiment I think came from “South Park.” If you think about especially younger people on the right who kind of found fame online, people like Ben Shapiro or Steven Crowder, this YouTuber who takes the tone of “South Park,” I think, to a very extreme degree.
STEVEN CROWDER: “Then you also have the Biden Supreme Court nominee. Do you think this person was just selected on the name? Like, Jackson. That’s a Black-sounding name. What’s the middle name? Brown. Done!”
FARHAD MANJOO: It exemplifies a certain mind-set on the right, and was really prescient in shaping this mind-set on the right, which is that the left is not serious and deserves mockery. And it made making fun of the left cool.
One thing I see often from right-wing celebrities or influencers like Donald Trump Jr. for example, is constantly tweeting “South Park” memes. Recently there was this clip from a show, I think it was from 2005, but it started resurfacing now, that was extremely transphobic. This character, Mr. Garrison, one of their teachers, decides to be a woman, and then goes to an abortion clinic and tries to get an abortion. That was the joke that “South Park” was making in 2005, and now it’s the view of the right.
You know, I think I’ve watched nearly every episode of “South Park,” and so I can’t say I’m not a fan of the show. I think that it can often be very funny. There are at least a couple episodes every season that make me laugh out loud and I want to pass around to everyone, and I think make good and interesting political points that aren’t being made elsewhere. But I also feel really conflicted about the show. I can’t say that its influence has been positive, but I still watch it.
You may think that “South Park” is crude and immature and silly. And it is, but I think that if you want to understand American politics and American culture, you really can’t dismiss “South Park.”
I think that “South Park" is the cultural artifact that best represents America. My fellow columnists at The New York Times have all picked their cultural artifacts that they think best represent America. And you can find all of our arguments at New York Times Opinion.
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This Times Opinion audio piece was produced by Derek Arthur. It was edited by Stephanie Joyce and Annie-Rose Strasser. Mixing and original music by Sonia Herrero and Carole Sabouraud. Fact-checking by Mary Marge Locker. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Kristina Samulewski.
Farhad Manjoo became an Opinion columnist for The Times in 2018. Before that, they wrote the State of the Art column. They are the author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.” @fmanjoo • Facebook
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