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South Park: Libertarian TV By: Eli Lehrer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, April 16, 2003


It’s a television show almost too gross for words: The adventures of four potty-mouthed elementary school students in South Park Colorado. South Park, which broadcast its 100th episode last week is the first (and currently the only) regularly scheduled network television show that’s always rated TV-MA. The first episode, "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe" involved the show’s lead character, the selfish fat boy Eric Cartman, getting the titular procedure from a group of stick-figure space aliens.

Like much of what’s on T.V. much of South Park is often devoid of serious meaning. It’s heavy on racist, sexist, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic humor but so egalitarian in its offensiveness that only a handful of complainers—mostly right-leaning cultural scolds—bother to complain about it any more. Most comedy intended for mass consumption, however, follows this "offend everyone" formula but South Park pushes it very far. It skewers just about all of the Left’s sacred cows. While few shows dare to make fun of homosexuals in any way, South Park features the cheerfully stereotypical and flamboyant Big Gay Al. While most television shows feature a token African-American characters South Park takes this a bit further by naming its only black regular Token. (Token, of course, never gets any good lines.) Sacred cows of the Right come under attack at least as frequently: Jesus appears frequently on South Park as a ne’er do well public access television show host. And traditional religious believers get really upset by the show’s sympathetic portrayal of Satan. And some parts of South Park just offend everyone: one character, mealy-mouthed welfare recipient Kenny, dies (often in gruesome ways) in nearly every episode only to reappear unharmed in the next one. But pushing the envelope on offensiveness doesn’t really make South Park unique; plenty of other cultural products have done so before.

Instead, the show’s persistently libertarian politics make it stand out in a television world that’s mostly liberal (everything from Law & Order to West Wing), occasionally neo-conish (24), and once-in-a-while religious conservative (Touched by an Angel). But true libertarianism is pretty rare. Creator Trey Parker and Matt Stone have both described themselves as libertarians in interviews and Parker is a registered member of the Libertarian Party. A Libertarian candidate for California Governor even ripped off the show for a rather funny pro-drug legalization campaign commercial.

Most of the shows episodes revolve around the exploits—usually rather ill-tempered—of Eric Cartman. He’s hugely fat, unbelievably rude, and lives by the motto "Whatever! I do what I want." Perhaps the most emblematic of his behavior is the fifth season episode "Cartmanland." Cartman inherits a million dollars and uses it to buy an amusement park. In concert with his selfish nature, he decides to close the amusement park so that only he can ride the rides. Kyle Broflovski, the show’s smart kid (and the most moral of the bunch) breaks out in a life threatening hemorrhoid because he can not stand Cartman being so lucky. But Cartman needs to raise money to run the park and, as a result, he allows others in. The park becomes a huge financial success and Cartman gets his comeuppance when he gives it back to the original owner only after it has been an enormous success. Here the show argues that capitalism—and life in general—may produce unfair benefits but the end results in a capitalist system are most often fair. What’s significant about the show is that Cartman’s schemes almost always fail. Because he’s immoral, indeed, he often falls prey to con artists himself, once paying $16.92 for a rock stars’ pubic hair. Other episodes hew close to Libertarian positions. When Big Gay Al tries to become a scout leader, he learns a lesson about free association. When Harbucks coffee opens up in South Park, citizens skeptical of big business learn about how competition benefits the masses.

In fact, the show’s political positions almost always tend to favor Libertarian outcomes: it attacks hate crime laws as hypocritical, shows trial lawyers as parasitic scum, and derides over-active sexual harassment laws and sensitivity counseling. The show’s single most wicked satire is that of school counselor Mr. Mackey.

South Park is so gross and so disgusting at times that hardly anyone is going to avoid an occasional moment of revulsion. But between the fart jokes and offensive stereotypes, some pretty insightful political commentary can leak out.


Eli Lehrer is a writer in Arlington, VA.


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