Dissing the Dead

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‘Distasteful’ and ‘despicable’ is how Prime Minister John Howard saw it. ‘Absolutely disgusting’, Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd agreed. No, the leaders of our major political Parties weren’t talking about Australia’s record on Indigenous health. It was ‘The Eulogy Song’, performed on the ABC’s The Chaser’s War On Everything last week, that provoked such moral outrage. If you missed it here it is on YouTube, and here are the lyrics:

Andrew Hansen from The Chaser

‘The Eulogy Song’

My great-grandfather died this week.
I couldn’t stand him. Actually nobody could.
But as soon as he passed away
Everyone went around saying what a top bloke he was.
So I’d like to dedicate this song to you, Gramps.

He was very hard of hearing,
He was dull and domineering,
Misogynist, cantankerous and vain.
He hit the bottle every night,
He hit my grandma out of spite,
And those stories about his bunions were a pain.
But all that’s now forgotten once he took his final breath.
Yes, even pricks turn into top blokes after death.

You don’t believe me?
Allow me to furnish you with a few examples!

Steve Irwin lived in khaki,
A cartoon kamikaze
Who taunted crocs and tots so frequently.
And Brockie was some revhead
Who pumped the air with pure lead;
So anti-Green he drove into a tree.
But all that was forgotten once they took their final breath.
Yes, even tools turn into top blokes after death.

John Lennon chose the hippie life.
He chose some nutbag for a wife,
His songs were never quite as good as Paul’s.
Jeff Buckley fooled all of us
Just one album, mostly covers,
With more wailing than Japan does off our shores.
But all that was forgotten, once he took his final breath.
Yes, even wankers turn into top blokes after death.

Princess Di was just a slut for sex.
When they looked in the car wreck,
Her dress was wet with Arab semen stain.
Stan Zemanek was a racist jock,
A fatso, xenophobic cock,
Whose views were more malignant than his brain.
But all that was forgotten, once he took his final breath.
Yes, even arseholes turn into top blokes after death.

It’s not how they lived that counts,
But how we rewrite the book.
When it comes to truth it’s best to use restraint,
It pays to throw away the facts
And have a rose-coloured look:
When he dies, Martin Bryant will look a saint.

Don Bradman was a total farce,
A grumpy, greedy, tired-arse,
Who couldn’t even score one run last time he played.
Kerry Packer was a brothel chief,
A tax cheat and a kidney thief.
And procreating Jamie was the worst mistake he made.
But all that was forgotten, once he took his final breath.
Yes even (claxon sound) turn into top blokes after death.

Belinda Emmett was a (stopped by cast)

Remember all will be forgotten,once we take our final breath.
Yes, even pervert motherf**kers,
Even rampant child-abusers,
Even local Baghdad looters,
Even baby bunny rooters,
Even reckless drunken drivers,
Even rodent sperm imbibers,
Even violent poofter bashers,
Even public penis flashers,
Even rotting corpse molesters,
Even human piss ingesters,
Even tiny kitten kickers,
Even anal finger lickers,
Even Anna bloody Coren,
Yes, even she will be a top bloke after death.

At first blush, the source of Howard and Rudd’s humourlessness seems obvious. They are both opportunistic politicians scuffling for the moral high ground in the lead up to an election and, of course, the ordinary, decent folk they are fighting to represent don’t find jokes about dead people funny. But their views on this issue point to something much more widespread and entrenched in this country: literal-mindedness.

Literal-mindedness spreads like a virus in certain socio-political climates and the climate of fear created by the ascendancy of neo-conservative ideology over the past decade has provided some of the best weather of all.

While the patients may present differently, literal-mindedness is something both sides of the fictional Left-Right ideological divide suffer from. And the symptoms are always the same at base, they constitute a refusal to acknowledge some simple cultural truths: that language and other forms of representation are contextual; that values are historical (and therefore ‘taste’ and ‘manners’ are not universal); and that conventional claims to authority are not immutable.

These truths may be self-evident to the average undergraduate Humanities student but then, they don’t have much to lose by questioning the literal-minded worldview. Both the conventional mainstream Left as well as the Right have an equivalent investment in maintaining the traditional order of things and appealing to literal-mindedness is an effective way of doing this. That’s because culturally specific, ideological values like who, today, has the right to speak, about what, and on behalf of whom can appear universal and ahistorical from an uncritical perspective.

Howard appeals to this very idea when criticising The Chaser’s send-up of the way celebrities are hypocritically eulogised in death: ‘Why don’t they stick to decent, dirt-free humour that we can all enjoy?’ And in case you’re thinking of disagreeing, there’s an unspoken threat here for those of you whose values don’t happen to coincide with the supposedly universal ones Howard invokes in that value-neutral word ‘all,’ we now have a handy, readymade insult: you’re ‘un-Australian.’

By appealing to people’s fears about the moral degradation of cultural values then, both ends of the political spectrum can go a long way to guaranteeing the authority of their representatives and those they represent: the self-important, paternalistic mainstream who hold the balance of power in all aspects of public life. Precisely the targets of shows like The Chaser’s War On Everything.

In this way, attacks on contemporary media, particularly media which appeals to young people, can be viewed as an assault on the democratising impulse at work in the electronic public sphere. This impulse is quite simply a threat to traditional modes of authority an increasingly urgent problem now that ‘amateurs’ are getting to have their say via blogs, You Tube, even Wikipedia. From hip-hop lyrics to the idea that Pulp Fiction is a valid object of analysis for English students, both the mainstream political Left and the Right have made an art-form of condemning those aspects of culture that call into question the conventional values of authority and tradition.

Conventional wisdom tells us its only small-minded suburban conservatives that subscribe to a literal view of culture and certainly Howard has been the poster child of this truism. But don’t be fooled by Rudd’s homeboy act on YouTube. Or by the fact that he prefaced his condemnation of The Chaser with the feeble qualifier, ‘I have said before that I have enjoyed The Chaser‘s work.’ The nature of political satire is to prick pomposity and conservatives in power make the softest targets of all of course Rudd’s going to find humour in that. That’s merely a function of what the comedian Mel Brooks meant when he said: ‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger, and comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.’

Perhaps Rudd is a nice, ‘up-the-workers!’ kind of bloke who enjoys a good piss-take. But his stance on The Chaser‘s send-up reminds us that the Right doesn’t have a monopoly on fuddy-duddy thinking. That’s why The Chaser have declared a War on Everything not just a War on Anything That Doesn’t Subscribe To Trendy, Leftie, ABC values.

There’s no doubt that Howard wants to drag us back to a pre-Google fantasy utopia when family entertainment consisted of a trip to the local community hall to watch Uncle Ernie play the spoons. (Public hangings were also a favourite family outing back then.) But Rudd’s dummy-spit over The Chaser song demonstrates that it’s an impulse ‘liberals’ can buy into too, when it suits their political purposes.

The bland moral equivalence shown by Rudd and Howard’s bipartisan condemnation of ‘The Eulogy Song’ makes it look like we’ve been given a choice between Beta and VHS in the next election both redundant, irrelevant forms of technology, but one less embarrassing to admit investing in.

With this on offer, who can blame audiences for getting their political critique from media that doesn’t speak down to them. Shows like South Park, The Glass House, The Chaser’s War On Everything, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart are often more reliable sources of information about what’s really going on in Western liberal democracies than traditional news sources. That’s because they’re on the side of real democracy a skepticism about authority is built into the very foundations of what they do.

In a world of short attention spans and information overload, comedy is an efficient and effective way to cut through the white noise of a media-saturated culture and convey a message. Humour, as Edward de Bono once noted, has always been ‘the shortest route between two points.’ More significantly, satire is perhaps the only format that successfully manages to undermine not just the content of speech, but it’s form. In particular, political satire consciously grasps the idea that it’s the ideological continuity between author and authority itself that needs exposing indeed, this is it’s real target.

And something anyone with a genuine belief in the ideal of democracy would believe anyway.

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