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Postmodern Village
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This Night was Made for Schadenfreude
By Mary Chino-Cherry

As the slop and slew of the Republican meltdown washes up on the shore of cable TV and the blogosphere and thus threatens to infect the cut feet of those who've trod, who've trod, who've trod over the terra politicus for the last couple of decades, a new sport has hit the public radio air-verse. Riding on the wingtip vortices of the snarkily serious-minded Ira Glass vehicle This American Life floats in its protégé and arch-nemesis, the snarkily evil-minded This American Schadenfreude. The latter is a collection of satisfying and creative depictions of the self-destructions of the self-satisfied, all in a long-format spoken-word hour-block show.

Hosted by, so far, Lewis Black; Belinda Carlisle; and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, the program has featured, among other things, the decline of Bill O'Reilly, the undoing of Rod Blagojevich, a special titled “Executives Under the Congress-gun,” and ongoing coverage of the indictment and incarceration of Bernard Madoff.

At issue here is not really the scandals as such but what the existence of the show itself says about pent-up angst of a nation under the bum of an oppressive and indifferent overclass that uses the gassy expulsions of corporate-pwned media to delude and distract We, The People from what's really going on.

The Left, long satirized as Frenchi-fied surrender-monkeys, rendered ineffectual by years of political compromise to a militant Right and rendered fat and logey by the sugary confections of K-Street sweetheart lobbying deals, lampooned by its very own for a drug-addled-free-love past, was pretty much dead by 1998, the year Bill Clinton got impeached. It's easy enough to cast Clinton as the Cream-Puff-in-Chief heading up the decline. Physically rotund and politically unprincipled, Slick Willie oozed to fame by performing—famously blowing his horn on The Arsenio Hall Show—acknowledging that the road to the White House was really a slide down the popularity chute, right into Lowest-Common-Denominator-ville. This wasn't any debate among Rhodes Scholars; it was High School Musical but without the substance. Clinton knew, also, that the surest way to win the Bubba vote was to beach his political blubber on the planks of the Republican party platform: balancing the budget, “reforming” welfare, championing free trade. The upshot was that the Right was enraged. With their entire policy ramp gone, they had nowhere to blow but further right, and they aimed their harpoons at the only target available: Clinton the Man. Between postulations about Black Helicopters and declarations of the ATF as “jackbooted thugs,” the Right called into the hoots and hollers for their back-up, domestic terrorists included, even after the militiamen proved themselves so undisciplined that they blew up a building full of innocent people in OKC.

Blocked out of the beltway, the Right called their armies with the modern-day equivalent of a ram's horn: AM radio. They took to the phones with push-polls and whisper campaigns and the overall dirty politics developed by their martyred saint, Lee Atwater, and, having re-invaded the houses of power by 1994, were well positioned to use the nuclear option four years later: impeachment.

Slick Willie was unctuous enough to slide out from under conviction: the American people love an aging philanderer with the same logic we loved George W. Bush—I mean really! We could be that guy! This told the inevitable turn, however; a snotty-nosed intellectual like Al Gore wouldn't stand a chance against the Good-Ol'-Boy-in-Chief. Simultaneously, the Right claimed a simulacrum of the moral high ground when it rallied fundamentalist Christianity to its cause. In America, where Labor seems like a historical footnote vaguely associated with the mysterious disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa a long, long time ago, we pretty much have only two things left to believe in: scripture and spreadsheets. The Right has always claimed the fiscal power of the boardroom, and now it claimed the spiritual power of the bible as well. By 2000, it looked to a lot of otherwise reasonable people that, indeed, maybe the Right really was, uh, not wrong.

The intervening eight years have become a well-remembered era of shame: waterboarding, domestic spying, a bloody war built on lies, Wall Street Gone Wild. With actual evidence, the complaints of the Left became more than just the ravings of aging hippies having flashbacks. When we actually saw in our web browsers that John Ashcroft really did lay a sheet over the blind Lady Justice for being bare-breasted, it started to become clear even to some of the slower among us that this was an administration that didn't care for justice all that much, it being bad for business and antithetical to ideological advancement. And ironically, in retrospect, it turned out that Ashcroft was one of the more reasonable ones: he was just offended by boobs; Alberto Gonzales and David Addington and John Woo were offended by the countercultural threat called the Constitution and the rule of law.

Meanwhile, all us reg'lar folks were getting laid off, downsized, our jobs outsourced to places we didn't even know had names. Our industries were literally scrapped, melted down, and sold back to us as Chinese iPods, Plasma TVs, flaming laptops. Our cousins came back from Iraq one-legged and TBIed, embittered and frightfully ready to return. Our houses swelled and burst. Even David Letterman got a social conscience.

In such an atmosphere, it was almost certain that a few angry lefties would take a bit of pleasure in the Right's recent retreat. And where better for this to happen than on PRA, Public Radio of America, the scrappy upstart network threatening the establishmentarian and weak-willed hegemony of NPR and PRI.

To be sure, Carlisle's “Blago's Boys” puppet show was either pure radical genius or pure idiocy for a radio show, but it made for a great podcast in any event. Frank Oz voicing the embattled former Illinois governor was a natural. Lewis Black's interpretation of W's last year in office as a recreated cowboy King Lear gave the angry elite a reason to tune in their desktop Tivolis. And Sarah Ferguson's recent take on the flap between Laura Ingraham and Meghan McCain was understated perfection. Set to the tune of Naughty by Nature's “OPP” and titled “BBW,” it skewered the hard and stringy-hearted Ingraham while at the same time liberating chunky chix everywhere let their flesh flags fly. Especially notable is that the Duchess of York was backed up on the track by Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. Expect a collection, Fergie² by the fall.

Too often, the Left has been portrayed as dreamy-eyed and effete. Too often it has acted with a fawning sort of conciliation to the Right, recognizing their right to say what they have to say, but seldom vociferously countering its blather. Deep down, though, from the still-beating ideological hearts of Woody Guthrie and the Wobblies, liberals have always harbored a fiery streak of righteous indignation. This American Schadenfreude gives angry lefites a venue to express that indignation at what's wrong and what's unjust and what we seldom speak within the throes of our corporate serfdom and laid-off sense of loss.

Bipartisanship be damned; it's time to get mean. And on our part, at least, it's in stereo.