Sunday, May 26, 2024

Opinion | Dave Barry has opinions, really

Opinion | Dave Barry has opinions, really


What do humorist Dave Barry and civil discourse have in common? Everything, it seems.

Barry, whose columns made millions of newspaper readers laugh for two decades, was my guest on Thursday at the College of Charleston for a public conversation about the role of humor in public discourse.

Who better to ask than a Pulitzer Prize-winning jokester who believes that poking fun at people — left, right, center or otherwise — is a constitutional right, not to mention the American Way. From our country’s first stirrings, humor has been standard fare. Case in point: Benjamin Franklin’s satirical book “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.” Today, if a columnist wants to indulge in such mockery, some editor is apt to plaster the word “satire” at the top to ensure that readers “get it.”

Barry has never needed a reader warning, in part because he approaches topics as any 13-year-old boy would and in a way with which all humans can identify — such as the sheer terror of one’s first colonoscopy. Several years ago, something called the Colossal Colon arrived in Miami. It was large enough to walk through and was intended to educate people about their interiors and the frightful events that can occur there.

“If you are a professional humor writer, and there is a giant colon within a 200-mile radius, you are legally obligated to go see it,” he said at the time. (His column not only escaped reader ire but received an award from an august organization of gastroenterologists.)

One looming question for our talk onstage was: How and why have our politics become so coarse and hateful? Barry recalled growing up in a friendlier time, when his parents and their friends would gather for cocktails, argue about current events and then hug before going home. Among political figures, there’s no question that Donald Trump has contributed more than anyone to the coarsening of public discourse, as even the former president’s fans would acknowledge. But Barry laid a heavy hand on the media’s shoulder. He said its exaggerated reaction to everything Trump says has served only to redirect attention from “doing our job of objectively reporting on issues and policies.”

“We picked sides,” he said. And he’s right.

The lion’s share of blame belongs to visual media, principally the producers who select content. You can’t blame camera operators, who, when they see a woman in the designated protest zone carrying a white rat start filming.

Barry, who has attended every U.S. political convention since 1984, told of being at the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta where the aforementioned woman was surrounded by cameras. Back in his hotel room that night, flipping through the news channels, Barry said he saw two stories featuring the rat “as a significant part of the convention coverage.”

The next day, Barry drafted two other columnists to help him stage a protest. They each put a box with eye cutouts over their heads and entered the protest zone. Within seconds, they were surrounded by cameras and reporters asking, Who are you? What are you protesting? What point are you trying to make? The boxheads were the lead stories on several news reports the next day.

Apparently, the producers didn’t get it — the joke or the point.

Though Barry isn’t an opinion writer, he manages to convey what he thinks while also making us laugh. Does the awfulness of news put a damper on humor? On the contrary, terrible times mean humor is necessary.

“People love to laugh,” Barry said, “but it’s gotten harder and harder to find places where it’s allowed.” I asked his thoughts about the current college generation and the effects of their being coddled with safe spaces on campuses, trigger warnings and wokeness.

“I think we’re doing them a great disservice,” said a suddenly serious Dave Barry. “The way we’ve made kids feel helpless, we make kids feel weak. When we tell kids, you just can’t handle a disagreement . . . what we’re telling them is they never have to grow up. You never have to have your beliefs challenged. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to be exposed to anything terrible. It’s condescending and a stunting thing to do to them. It’s shameful, I think.”

Similarly shameful, he said, is “this illusion that this is a terribly dangerous time to be alive, which is just nonsense.” He noted the challenges of our parents’ generation, the Great Depression and World War II, and our own generation’s with the Vietnam War and protests. “That was pretty bad, too.”

I added that I don’t remember anyone coddling us when as children we were told we might become victims of a nuclear attack from Cuba.

“Yeah,” he agreed, “but we had desks to crouch under.”



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