Carol Burnett and the Ferguson Effect
One of Carol Burnett’s most hilarious skits involves a distraught woman pleading for her husband’s kidnappers to release him, whatever the cost. The scene begins with a police investigator accompanied by a gaggle of cameramen led by Harvey Korman, a reporter who interviews the grieving Burnett. The first “take” didn’t go well, and Burnett asks for another chance, this time applying lipstick as a TV crewman dapples her forehead. Then comes the performance: agonized wails burst from her throat like shrieking banshees, punctuated afterwards by her sober inquiry, “Was that sincere enough?” Assured it that was, she learns her plea will be broadcast between the earthquake and sports — a most favorable spot. Carol then calls a friend to say that she’ll be on the evening news.
Burnett’s name in this skit is Helen Ferguson, and her spoof brilliantly demonstrates how to camouflage egotism with a shroud of gratifying, emotional outbursts for public consumption, in this case, grieving. For the fun of it, let’s label this the Carol Burnett Ferguson Effect, giving due credit to her portrayal of a common political practice.
Which brings us to a roundup of recent media moments starring assorted luminaries with Cory Booker as the lead actor, sputtering “tears of rage” for our collective edification and amusement. By now the story is familiar. An administration Trumpeteer failed to notice profanity-laced pejoratives applied to some of the senator’s favorite countries and worse, didn’t feel his pain, along with that of “tens of millions of Americans [who] are hurting right now.” All very dramatic. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine Booker and his ilk being shocked — shocked! — to learn that bad language is going on here, only to be interrupted by an aide who says, “Here’s your hate-speech about Republicans, sir,” which earns a brusque thank you in return (Kudos to one of the best scenes in “Casablanca”).
We all witnessed encore performances erupting from networks the following week, highlighted by repeated howls that President Trump is a white supremacist who threatens all non-white people and constitutes a danger to the globe. Further, this “inhumane beast” leads a cabal of dunderheads who live in a “fantasy world” where tax cuts and deregulation incentivize greater growth and wealth production, which of course can never happen. Again, quite dramatic but also ridiculously (and hilariously) overwrought, as though infested with the demons of bad acting that propelled Carol Burnett’s sobbing pleas. One might wonder if these critics review their performances or if they actually believe what they say. Probably they do in some weird ways — who knows? — but one point can be addressed with greater certainty: Few have a clue who he or she resembles.
Which is none other than the great hater himself, Karl Marx, a despicable person who influenced his followers in three significant ways. First, he treated those who disagreed with him like enemies who should be destroyed. In fact, as Paul Johnson notes, Marx’s explosions of rage — shouting, screaming, threatening violence — characterized his whole life, leading one of his fellow revolutionaries to comment, “He had a habit of saying: ‘I will annihilate you.’” When he learned about a failed attempt to murder the Kaiser, one of his cohorts reported Marx “‘heaping curses on this terrorist who had failed to carry out his act of terror.” Rabid Trump-haters whose thoughts extend beyond impeachment likely would not be shocked by this sentiment.
Second, Marx assumed that products of his fevered imagination possessed greater reality than the “fantasy” world lived by all of humanity. In an astonishing essay entitled “For A Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing,” Marx proclaimed his duty “in clarifying [the world’s] consciousness, in waking it from its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.” On one occasion when confronted by a man who asserted that he lived in the real world of struggling workers and didn’t need to be instructed by theoreticians, Marx exploded in anger, and the meeting ended with him “still striding up and down the room in violent rage.” America’s critics retain these intellectual habits, convinced their faculty lounge musings possess greater reality than the world we all live in. Hard to be more arrogant than that.
This leads to the third point, which is that Marx disdained checking his conclusions with investigations into real-life conditions of those to whom his theories applied. That is, he never visited a factory, consorted with workmen, or took seriously advice from any source. Marx lived a cloistered life, encased in caricatures of the world, using dated, library-adduced “facts” to confirm his predetermined conclusions. To put this in modern parlance, reality for Marx was “flyover country” — best ignored and never taken seriously.
This is the case with many critics today. Of course, one might say, “So, they resemble Marx, so what? Many would be proud of the connection.” Fair enough. But lurking beneath the rage is an angry egotism masquerading as righteous indignation; in short, a version of Carol Burnett’s Ferguson Effect writ large. The egotism in Burnett’s spoof was the yearning for publicity; with America’s “progressives,” it’s striving for power and a desire to smear people they find “unacceptable,” to use Booker’s term. Naturally, the Bookers, Pelosis, and Schumers can’t admit that; better to shed tears for DACA-ites and sputter preposterous denunciations of their opponents while accusing them of living in a “fantasy world.”
Which is all nonsense, of course. We should be thankful to Carol Burnett for demonstrating how the process works.