As much as they hate each other, the one thing that Osama
bin Laden and George W. Bush have in common is a theological
understanding of a world being divided between the forces
of good and evil with each believing he is clearly on the
side of good.
President Bush sees himself as most strongly influenced by
Jesus Christ, a compassionate conservative who responds to
what he sees as a completely unprovoked attack with a mixture
of care packages and bombs. Bin Laden, who considers himself
one of the true followers of Mohammed, believes that he is
clearly on a mission to cleanse the infidels who have disrespected
sacred monuments, supported oppressive governments, and kept
his people in extreme poverty.
Neither they nor their followers can see any shades of gray.
You're either for us or against us; for freedom or tyranny;
with the infidels or the pious. And both lay a strong claim
of having God's blessings.
This, of course, is not a new rhetorical strategy; throughout
time, many countries have tried to legitimize their interests
by calling forth God as a sponsor. Voltaire calls this practice
into question throughout Candide as does Mark Twain
in his short story, "The War Prayer."
The absurdity of believing too fully in a system that draws
clear lines between good and evil was also evident to Eugene
Ionesco when, during the second World War, he witnessed the
consequences of a blind faith in fascism, a system that fully
aligned itself with God's blessing and thus did not allow
for uncertainty, shades of gray, or a sense of humor. His
play, Rhinoceros, in which people turn into the title
beast because of their adherence to fascist attitudes, was
originally intended to be a satire of the period, yet after
World War II, Ionesco argued that the play demonstrates the
dangers of any political system that becomes infested with
I believe that this is the tradition that Matt Stone and
Trey Parker are following in their animated television series,
South Park. Throughout the series, Stone and Parker
not only challenge America's claim to moral superiority, but
also question whether good and evil can exist in a pure form
in any political or even metaphysical system. In light of
the recent, aforementioned events, this point of view seems
more timely now than ever.
The series is set in a small town in Colorado, focusing primarily
on the lives of four children: Stan Marsh, Kyle Brotlovsky,
Kenny McCormick, and, most prominently, Eric Cartman. These
characters resonate with the ones found in perhaps the most
famous piece from theater of the absurd, Samuel Beckett's
Waiting for Godot.
Stan and Kyle, like Estragon and Vladimir, are the most normal
and interchangeable. The only major differences between them
are the color of their hats and their religions; Kyle is Jewish
and thus has to be kept out of Christmas celebrations, but
other than this time of year, this difference does not matter
much to them. Cartman is clearly the series Pozzo, both are
loud, rude, and have an ever present need to have their authority
respected. Kenny is very much like Lucky, perceptive but somewhat
incomprehensible and certainly the most abused. In every episode,
Kenny dies a horrible death, only to be resurrected in the
next one to die in a different, yet equally horrible manner.
Like the characters in Waiting for Godot, the South
Park kids seem to be waiting for someone to come and make
sense out of their world.
The kids' confusion stems from their refusal to accept the
contradictions in American society itself. For instance, the
kids become very frustrated when their favorite television
show is canceled due to its vulgar content of two men farting
in each others' faces. They don't understand why their parents
find the content of this show offensive and don't seem to
mind the violence that permeates so many of the other shows.
They also can't understand why their parents worry so much
about potty humor on television when they make similar jokes
among themselves when a flu epidemic runs through the city.
The reason they can't understand their parents' reactions
is simple; there's nothing to understand, except that their
parents have a very warped sense of morality. However, the
parents are not entirely to blame for their lack of insight
either because the central religious figures that inspire
their morality are just as confused as they are as to what
is right and wrong.
Jesus is alive and well in South Park. He looks just as most
Americans expect him to, like a Northern European hippie;
he owns a nice suburban home and dispenses advice on his
cable access show where viewers call in with their problems.
Here is an example of a typical exchange:
Caller: Hello, this is Martin
Jesus: Martin from Aspen Park; yes, I know.
Caller: How the Hell did you know that?
Jesus: Well, maybe because I'm the Son of God, Braniac;
now do you have a question?
Caller: I have a cousin who cheated on the SAT's and
Jesus: Tell little Gregory that cheating is lying and lying
is wrong no matter what the circumstance.
Caller: Ok thanks for the advice, Jesus.
This is clearly not the Jesus of the Bible, but the Jesus
of American convenience. Like many preachers, he utilizes
modern technologies to give out stock answers to stock questions.
Jesus' stock answers can be seen as a satire on Americans'
simplistic religious views, smoothing out the demands ("sell
all you have and give it to the poor") and the complications,
making the issues all fit into a rather unambiguous, easy
morality. But there's still another dimension to this exchange.
Jesus isn't shown as the ultimate expression of good, but
as an ordinary guy who gets annoyed at his caller's stupidity.
This image of Jesus as less than perfect comes up in several
episodes: he's afraid to wrestle Satan on Pay Per View, he
has trouble booking his father (God) to appear with him in
Las Vegas, he admits that he slept with Eric Cartman's mother,
and he even uses his own name in vain.
And Jesus is not the only religious super star to be shown
as flawed. In just one episode, Parker and Stone manage to
potentially offend all the world's religious followers.
The premise is that David Blaine, a popular magician, starts
to take himself too seriously and begins his own cult. In
order to save the South Park boys from his influence, Jesus
attempts to show that his magic is still superior by challenging
Blaine to a battle of miracles in front of a large audience.
Jesus tries to win the crowd back with a not so impressive
display of magic, changing water into wine by asking the audience
to turn around and then switching pitchers. David Blaine counters
by eating his own head, turning himself into a deck of cards,
and flying off the stage, clearly winning this "magician's
battle." Jesus decides he cannot face him alone and calls
together the "Super Best Friends," consisting of
the spiritual leaders Buddah, Mohammed, Lao Tsu, Krishna,
Moses, and even Joseph Smith of the Mormons. Together, they
are able to defeat David Blaine, but it is clear that individually
none of them have all the answers, none of them are without
flaws, and not one of them could have won the battle on their
Since none of the religious founders are absolutely perfect,
it follows that there is no, single true religion with an
exclusive claim to representing good. When Stan meets the
group for the first time, he is shocked:
Stan: So you mean to tell me that even though people fight
and argue over different religions, you guys are all actually
Mohammad: More than friends, young boy, we are super best
friends with the desire to fight for justice.
Although this exchange could be dismissed as simply a goofy
attempt to insert religious figures into an incongruous format
(most notably the seventies cartoon, The Justice League
of America), it does raise a serious point. Instead of
bickering over which leader had the most impressive miracles
or has the greatest following today, we might try to learn
from each of them in order to come to a greater understanding
of what they all stand for: compassion, greater equality and
To further challenge the notion of their being only one true
religion, South Park provides a vision of how absurd
heaven would be if only one group got in. When one of the
parents dies and is sent to hell, he immediately protests
that he was a good, practicing Protestant all of his life.
At which point, a demon interrupts him to let him know that
he failed to back the true religion, the Mormons. The glimpse
we get of a heaven filled only with Mormons is not a pretty
picture. No diversity, no discussions, nothing to do except
to participate in plays about why drinking coffee is bad for
you. Heaven is shown as such a boring, white bread place that
hell is clearly preferable, an inevitable result of a singular
vision of good and evil dominating the cosmos.
Despite this weird vision of heaven, God, at least, is not
Mormon. In fact, it is rather difficult to describe what God
is. The first time God appears is to help Jesus celebrate
New Year's Eve, 2000. When he makes his surprise appearance,
the response of everyone in the audience is "that's God?"
About the only way he meets the common expectations is through
his deep, resonant voice, but physically God is shown as a
strange, diminutive creature with a kind of lizard head, a
pointed tail and a tongue that occasionally catches flies.
Not terrifying, certainly not awe inspiring, but somewhat
cute, this is a hands off God who leaves us alone to make
our own mistakes and solve our own problems. Again, this rather
goofy picture raises a serious message, for if God is not
something humans can fully understand, then no single group
should lay claim to having God's complete confidence or blessing
for their actions.
If good is not as pure as we expect it to be, evil is certainly
not as bad. Satan is also a recurring character and although
he's drawn as a classic devil-red, muscular, with horns--he's
only scary in appearance. In fact, the emotion he inspires
is more one of pity than of fear, for he's shown as a tragic
gay man, who can't seem to find an ideal relationship. With
his first lover, Saddam Hussein, he plays the role of an emotionally
abused woman, tired of being used for just sex:
Satan: What's it like up on Earth, Saddam? Tell me about
Saddam: (rubbing Satan's arm seductively) Let's not talk;
let's get busy.
Satan: Do you remember when you first got here? We used
to talk all night long. We would just lie in bed and talk.
Saddam: Well yeah, cause I was still waiting to get you
in bed dummy.
Although Satan manages to recover enough personal pride to
dump Saddam, he finds himself bored when he gets involved
with Chris, a nineties man who is too open minded and understanding.
Satan becomes so confused about his love life that he turns
to God for advice. After listening to his problems, God expresses
amazement and disgust that his once powerful adversary has
become such a wimp, not because of his sexual preference but
because he's unable to be happy on his own.
In short, with God being a kind of aloof lizard type thing,
Jesus doing talk shows, and Satan completely occupied by his
own relationships, there is no absolute good or evil pushing
and pulling the folks of South Park. No wonder American society
is full of contradictions; that's the nature of everything.
As the show continually demonstrates, acknowledging that we
are not yet perfect is the first step in becoming something
better. Such a message not only seems refreshing in light
of the rhetoric that has followed the events of September
11th, but also in comparison to so much that is popular at
this time; Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone, The Lord of the Rings all present visions
of clearly defined good and evil. Though it is fun to momentarily
escape into these dualistic universes, it is important not
to equate them with our own. When we do, South Park
can bring us back to Earth with that dose of reality the absurd
has always provided.
From Randy Fallows