Cartman Shrugged: The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand in South Park

[Excerpted from The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture: Liberty vs. Authority in American Film and TV]


Tho ye subject bee but a fart, yet will this tedious sink of learning ponderously philosophize.

Mark Twain, 1601

The first few times I watched South Park (1998) I thought it was the silliest show I had ever seen on television. But my students were finding my
references to The Simpsons getting old (this was in the late 1990s), and they insisted that South Park was on the cutting edge of
television comedy. So I kept watching the show until I began to realize that there is more to it than its relentless obscenity and potty humor. It can be
brilliantly satirical, and, perhaps most important, it consistently defends freedom against its many enemies today, on both the left and the right. But
despite the fact that the show won me over, I can still sympathize with its many vocal critics. I feel their pain. Watching a bunch of fourth graders see
how many times they can use a given four-letter word in a single episode is not the most edifying of spectacles and requires some justification from anyone
who claims to have a serious interest in pop culture.

High Philosophy and Low Comedy

To mount a high-minded defense of the shows low-minded humor, one might go all the way back to Plato to find a link between philosophy and vulgarity.
Toward the end of his dialogue the Symposium, a young Athenian nobleman named Alcibiades offers a striking image of the power of Socrates. He
compares the philosophers speeches to a statue of the satyr Silenus, which is ugly on the outside but which, when opened up, reveals a beautiful interior:
“if you choose to listen to Socrates discourses you would feel them

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