Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The American Zeal for Punching Up

 

Red-blooded, real Americans are sick of America’s elites punching down on them. Authentic American politics, like authentic American comedy, roots for the underdog and punches up, not down. The problem with today’s elites is their down is up and their up is down: Our elites believe they’re signaling their superior virtue by “punching up” when they ridicule heartland America, but of course what they’re really doing is using their privileged social status to punch down on heartland America instead. Or that’s how it seems to many of us. For those unfamiliar with this punchy lingo, comedian Ben Schwartz explains,

“Punching up” and “punching down” are relatively new pop-political terms, often found not far from words like “mansplaining,” “problematic,” and “trolling.”

“Punching up” is a SJW term, in other words, but one Trump supporters should instinctively understand:

Trump is the fist Trump-supporters punch up with.

The term “punching up” may be new, but the sentiment itself is as old as the republic. It runs deep in our pop culture, to the very core of how we see ourselves as Americans. Here, in the land of unbridled speech and plucky self-reliance, even the lowliest among us is free to snark upon the high and mighty—and playing the scrappy David to our entitled Goliaths is, arguably, more important to us than actually being funny.

Does Kurt Schlichter succeed in punching up? If you believe he does, he’s a hoot. If you doubt his success in this, though, he’s less entertaining. Schlichter’s humor relies on the American zeal for punching up, and sustaining that zeal requires confidence that the puncher-uppers we champion have unmasked the power structure they’re punching up against for what it really is.

***

What kind of puncher-uppers has America traditionally championed?

“Out of the travail of the Revolution,” wrote Constance Rourke in her still vital 1931 study American Humor, “by a sudden, still agreement, the unformed American nation pictured itself as homely and comic.”

America’s homely comedy apparently baffled the otherwise-astute Alexis de Tocqueville:

In 1831, when Alexis de Tocqueville arrived from France to observe us in our natural habitat (the same year Darwin set sail for the Galapagos to poke the blue-footed booby), he deemed Americans decidedly unfunny. In Democracy in America, he wrote… “People who spend every day in the week in making money, and the Sunday in going to church, have nothing to invite the muse of Comedy.”

Our early stock of puncher-uppers included

three “homely, comic” characters… the Yankee, who outwitted upper-class, educated elites; the backwoodsman, a braggart pioneer who told fantastic, improbably violent tales of survival on the frontier; and the minstrel, a white man in blackface makeup who appropriated African American culture. They were regional variations on one national comic character, which Toll describes as “rustic, proud, independent, morally strong, brave, and nationalistic.”

We no longer think of the plucky outwitter of upper-class, educated elites as “the Yankee,” nor would we consider a minstrel show punching up. But the “one national comic character” underlying these variants might sound familiar to Trump supporters:

It might sound like themselves.

***

Oddly enough, Schwartz claims that one of our Founders, Benjamin Franklin, gained fame through humor that punched down, not up:

Franklin’s fortunes came in no small way from his career as the colonies’ most popular humorist, and one who punched down, hard. An Enlightenment thinker in the wilderness of the New World, a devoted fan of Swift, he enjoyed playing hoaxes on the yokels. In the various newspapers and publications he and his brother James put out, Franklin authored fake witch trial reporting (he especially loathed his childhood pastor, Cotton Mather) and composed phony letters to the editor as the ironically pious Silence Dogood [also a name mocking Cotton Mather] —and then there was his comic masterpiece, Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Would the “yokels” Franklin hoaxed have enjoyed his humor so much if they believed he was punching down on them? I doubt it.

Franklin may have personally disdained Cotton Mather, but Mather was a powerful, influential man, a man who, despite his backward belief in witches, was in other respects quite forward-thinking, pioneering experiments in plant hybridization and advocacy for inoculation against disease. Franklin also delighted in mocking Harvard University for the pretensions of its graduates. Perhaps you’d have to be a modern American liberal, as Ben Schwartz is, to believe Franklin was punching down.

***

Disagreement on which way is up, punch-wise, is quite common and pervades much partisan hostility.

Both left and right agree that being white, straight, male, and Christian in America no longer confers the status it once did, but they disagree mightily on whether this decline in status has actually flipped America’s power structure against the red tribe. As the blue tribe sees it, America’s red tribe — a tribe unduly favoring the white, straight, male, and Christian — is hardly the underdog. Rather, it’s still unduly powerful. In particular, red-tribe America is overrepresented politically, for all sorts of reasons, including the geography of our electoral system. Since, according to the Hidden Tribes survey, members of the Traditional Conservative tribe are “Almost twice as likely [as the average American] to feel that people like them have a say in politics — 46% vs. 24%,” perhaps the blue tribe’s fear that the red tribe is better-represented politically isn’t entirely unfounded.

Even if we red-tribers do feel somewhat better-represented politically, though, we find it cold comfort. We still don’t feel that well-represented politically, and more importantly, we feel under siege in the wider culture. Under siege on so many fronts, most of them nonracial. That said, a majority of white Americans now feel discriminated against, and white evangelicals, who voted for Trump in droves, feel particularly discriminated against. According to the Hidden Tribes survey, “80 percent of white Devoted Conservatives” — Trump’s strongest demographic of supporters — “believe that the ‘rights of black and brown people are more protected than the rights of white people,'” as do “62 percent of non-white Devoted Conservatives.” We are the underdogs now. The elites, by officially requiring typical red-tribers to be the losers in the Oppression Olympics, have perversely turned us into its winners — if we believed in playing Oppression Olympics, which of course we don’t — although in our zeal for punching up, sometimes we kinda do…

***

Disagreement over which way is up is nothing new in America:

To reinforce their regular-guy standing, popular American comic figures of the nineteenth century, such as Major Jack Downing, Sut Lovingood, Simon Suggs, and Jim Crow, spoke in malaprop English. They had no airs of knowing anything but what they picked up in the academy of common sense—and they all punched up. Jim Crow, a persona adopted by minstrel actor Thomas D. Rice, made anti-slavery politics part of his show. Sut Lovingood, a literary creation of George Washington Harris, was a pro-slavery Tennessee farmer who mocked the Lincoln administration. (Harris himself owned three slaves.) They channeled two different sides of the slavery issue—yet both purported to speak for the common man, punching up at, respectively, slave owners and big-government abolitionists. What they reveal is that to punch up, you only have to convince your audience that you are the little guy, while your satirical targets represent the powerful, the elite. In other words, to own the moral high ground, you have to play to the cultural low ground.

Nor is the suspicion that punching up might be an affectation:

“In the days when Mark Twain was writing, it was considered good form to spoof not only the classics but surplus learning of any kind,” wrote Robert Benchley in 1920. “Can it be said that the American people are not so low-brow as they like to pretend? There is a great deal of affectation in this homespun frame of mind.”

***

To us, the affectation behind Progressives’ claims to punch up is blatant — and repulsive. We don’t buy the blue tribe’s conceit that punching down on ordinary members of the red tribe is really punching up on behalf of oppressed minorities. As one Ricochetian, @fullsizetabby, recently put it,

This seems fairly typical of “left” vs. “right.” Most of the time, people of the “right” attack the power brokers, the politicians, the media stars, the elite. To a far greater extent people of the “left” attack the regular folks (“bitter clingers” “deplorables” “rednecks”).

The left, though, has also spent a disproportionate amount of time directly or indirectly attacking Trump — a power broker, media star, politician, and member of the elite, even if he has successfully branded himself a champion of the common man.

Is Trump’s claim to punch up on behalf of his base just an affectation Trump uses to punch down on the rest of America? To those on the left, it’s obviously so — just as obvious as the affectation behind Progressives’ claim to punch up is to us.

***

All Americans — even blue-tribe elites — want to be on the side that punches up. The American zeal for punching up is powerful in our politics. That zeal, though, relies on the presumption that you’ve unmasked the real power structure behind politics for what it is, that you know just who the underdogs are, and that you’re on the underdogs’ side, while those you’re punching are not. In other words, it relies on your neither questioning your own shrewdness and virtue, nor caring whether there might be underdogs not wholly aligned with you on whom your punches “up” might land. Since punching up requires a power structure to punch up against, ideally a structure where power is highly concentrated in the hands of an unsympathetic few, zeal for punching up also makes conspiracy theories more attractive — these theories are a rich source of morally simplified power structures, after all, even if the logistics of implementing those power structures must be made implausibly Byzantine to compensate.

Still, as Schwartz says,

to punch up, you only have to convince your audience that you are the little guy, while your satirical targets represent the powerful, the elite.

And just knowing that’s how the gambit works makes it easier to wonder whether you’re really rooting for the little guy, or just for someone somebody wants you to think of as the little guy. Anything that makes it easier to wonder, though, makes stoking the zeal for punching up harder. And wouldn’t passing up a chance to stoke a zeal so embedded in America’s heritage be almost unpatriotic?

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jeff Foxworthy would like to remind y’all that if the instructions to your place include the phrase “then you turn off of the paved road,” you might be a redneck.

    (Who primarily attends Foxworthy’s concerts? Who retells his jokes?)

    Ben Schwartz needs to find himself a new trope. He rode the legs off of that one.

    • #1
    • November 1, 2018, at 8:12 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. The Reticulator Member

    So when Baron Karl von Münchhausen created an extra day in the month (at least in the Mark Zakharov production) was that punching up or punching down? The establishment did not like it at all. 

    • #2
    • November 1, 2018, at 8:13 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. blank generation member Inactive

    My understanding of US history is that every president was born in a log cabin.

    • #3
    • November 1, 2018, at 8:20 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    blank generation member (View Comment):

    My understanding of US history is that every president was born in a log cabin.

    That he built with his own hands!

    • #4
    • November 1, 2018, at 8:30 AM PDT
    • 11 likes
  5. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The idea that Franklin only punched in one way shows a misunderstanding of the man. Franklin punched in any direction he found funny. He punched at the pretentious, the zealous, and the self righteous. Plenty of them to go around. 

    I’d put Twain in that same type.

    • #5
    • November 1, 2018, at 9:45 AM PDT
    • 12 likes
  6. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Percival (View Comment):

    (Who primarily attends Foxworthy’s concerts? Who retells his jokes?)

    Primarily, I’m not sure. But in my experience, a fair number of folks in those blue major metropolitan regions retell his jokes.

    Ben Schwartz needs to find himself a new trope. He rode the legs off of that one.

    Yeah, rather. But I thought it was still pretty good for a Baffler article — at least the parts I understood (the stuff about contemporary comedians was less intelligible to me). Certainly, that he’d done his history homework helped. How many of us would have guessed, for example, that a blackface character named “Jim Crow, a persona adopted by minstrel actor Thomas D. Rice,” would have “made anti-slavery politics part of his show”? Even if you assumed minstrel shows were considerably less pernicious than they’re often painted today, you might not guess that.

    • #6
    • November 1, 2018, at 10:58 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    The idea that Franklin only punched in one way shows a misunderstanding of the man. Franklin punched in any direction he found funny. He punched at the pretentious, the zealous, and the self righteous. Plenty of them to go around.

    I’d put Twain in that same type.

    That’s true, I think. Comedians punch in any direction they find funny. I think for their audience to find it funny as well, though, the audience must be able to believe the comedians aren’t punching down on them, or at least not too hard.

    Poking fun at your audience is one thing. Many audiences won’t mind it, and even enjoy it. When folks in your audience just feel used as punching bags, though, they… just feel used.

    “Poking fun at” likely sounds gentler than “punching down on” for a reason.

    • #7
    • November 1, 2018, at 11:05 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. Arahant Member

    I’m pretty punchy after reading all of that.

    There is another phenomenon around the world called the Tall Poppy Syndrome.


    This conversation is an entry in our Group Writing Series under October’s theme of Zeal.

    In November, our theme will be Elimination. Come join us?

    • #8
    • November 1, 2018, at 11:47 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  9. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    When we’re finally all victims and we are no longer allowed to laugh we can get to the serious business of sustained outward punching. 

    • #9
    • November 2, 2018, at 8:03 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This illustrates how the American people are not divided. There is immense agreement among Americans that punching up is good and punching down is bad.

    The political class (regardless of their partisan affiliation) knows this. They aren’t stupid, after all. They know that if one party ran on a platform of punching down it would be destroyed at the polls.

    Therefore, the only option left to the political class is to try and define “up” and “down” in ways that most benefit their political fortunes.

    So one party defines “up” and “down” one way, and the other party defines “up” and “down” in a different way. Voters then choose the party that defines them as “down” and other people as “up”.

    Wash, rinse, repeat.

    • #10
    • November 2, 2018, at 12:02 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  11. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    “Poking fun at” likely sounds gentler than “punching down on” for a reason.

    “Poking fun at” is a dog-whistle of the patriarchy.

    • #11
    • November 2, 2018, at 12:03 PM PDT
    • 8 likes
  12. Judge Mental Member

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    “Poking fun at” likely sounds gentler than “punching down on” for a reason.

    “Poking fun at” is a dog-whistle of the patriarchy.

    And rape culture.

    • #12
    • November 2, 2018, at 12:06 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    TBA (View Comment):

    When we’re finally all victims and we are no longer allowed to laugh we can get to the serious business of sustained outward punching.

    Yabbut I’d rather have the laughter than the punching :-(

    Some folks punch in order to laugh, others laugh in order to punch. I’m girly enough to prefer wry, gentle humor in the first place, but when I do like hard-hitting humor, I have to be convinced that the punches are for the sake of the joke, rather than the joke being an excuse for a punch.

    • #13
    • November 2, 2018, at 1:04 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    TBA (View Comment):

    When we’re finally all victims and we are no longer allowed to laugh we can get to the serious business of sustained outward punching.

    Yabbut I’d rather have the laughter than the punching :-(

    Some folks punch in order to laugh, others laugh in order to punch. I’m girly enough to prefer wry, gentle humor in the first place, but when I do like hard-hitting humor, I have to be convinced that the punches are for the sake of the joke, rather than the joke being an excuse for a punch.

    The punching breaks up the monotony of the virtue signalling. 

    • #14
    • November 2, 2018, at 1:58 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. Randy Webster Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: “a white man in blackface makeup who appropriated African American culture”

    That’s it. You’re fired.

    • #15
    • November 2, 2018, at 3:59 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. carcat74 Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    (Who primarily attends Foxworthy’s concerts? Who retells his jokes?)

    Primarily, I’m not sure. But in my experience, a fair number of folks in those blue major metropolitan regions retell his jokes.

    Ben Schwartz needs to find himself a new trope. He rode the legs off of that one.

    Yeah, rather. But I thought it was still pretty good for a Baffler article — at least the parts I understood (the stuff about contemporary comedians was less intelligible to me). Certainly, that he’d done his history homework helped. How many of us would have guessed, for example, that a blackface character named “Jim Crow, a persona adopted by minstrel actor Thomas D. Rice,” would have “made anti-slavery politics part of his show”? Even if you assumed minstrel shows were considerably less pernicious than they’re often painted today, you might not guess that.

    Have you seen any Chad Prather videos? He is terrific—timely, funny, and on-point.

    • #16
    • November 2, 2018, at 5:51 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    TBA (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    TBA (View Comment):

    When we’re finally all victims and we are no longer allowed to laugh we can get to the serious business of sustained outward punching.

    Yabbut I’d rather have the laughter than the punching :-(

    Some folks punch in order to laugh, others laugh in order to punch. I’m girly enough to prefer wry, gentle humor in the first place, but when I do like hard-hitting humor, I have to be convinced that the punches are for the sake of the joke, rather than the joke being an excuse for a punch.

    The punching breaks up the monotony of the virtue signalling.

    Huh. I thought the punching was a form of virtue-signaling.

    • #17
    • November 2, 2018, at 7:38 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  18. Steve C. Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    blank generation member (View Comment):

    My understanding of US history is that every president was born in a log cabin.

    That he built with his own hands!

    While studying law by candlelight.

    • #18
    • November 3, 2018, at 7:05 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  19. Judge Mental Member

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    blank generation member (View Comment):

    My understanding of US history is that every president was born in a log cabin.

    That he built with his own hands!

    While studying law by candlelight.

    Encouraged by his father the mailman.

    • #19
    • November 3, 2018, at 7:28 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  20. Steve C. Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Jeff Foxworthy would like to remind y’all that if the instructions to your place include the phrase “then you turn off of the paved road,” you might be a redneck.

    (Who primarily attends Foxworthy’s concerts? Who retells his jokes?)

    Ben Schwartz needs to find himself a new trope. He rode the legs off of that one.

    In group humor. If you are one of us and you are funny, you can poke fun at us. You must be able to at least stake a weak claim to the first.* The second is fundamental. 

     

    * Having spent some years in rural Alabama, I always found Foxworthy’s implied definition of redneck to be off. Redneck was more of a set of attitudes than slovenly behaviors. 

    • #20
    • November 3, 2018, at 7:31 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  21. Dennis A. Garcia (formerly Gai… Member

    Currently there is no “up” at which to punch, making both sides’ attempts to position themselves as less powerful than they are a rather pathetic spectacle. 

    • #21
    • November 3, 2018, at 8:38 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  22. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Gaius (View Comment):

    Currently there is no “up” at which to punch, making both sides’ attempts to position themselves as less powerful than they are a rather pathetic spectacle.

    To not be pathetic, the underdog should be a scrappy underdog. And I believe both sides think they are.

    The red tribe can use traditional machismo to convey scrappiness. The blue tribe, not wanting to be boxed in by traditional machismo, attempts to flaunt its scrappiness in ways that strike the red tribe as just bizarre.

    Do crybullies think of themselves as scrappy? They probably do. After all, as the wiktionary puts it, a crybully is

    A person who engages in intimidation, harassment, or other abusive behaviour while claiming to be a victim.

    Claiming to be a victim? That’s the “underdog” part. Engaging in intimidation, harassment, or other abusive behavior? That’s the “scrappy” part.

    • #22
    • November 3, 2018, at 11:38 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  23. Dorrk Inactive

    I had to check: this does not appear to be written by the Ben Schwartz a.k.a. Jean Ralphio from Parks and Rec.

    • #23
    • November 3, 2018, at 1:16 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  24. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Trump is the fist Trump-supporters punch up with.

    I think you misspelled “Obama”

    That person for whom “punching up” was the singular expression of our allied contributions – so much so that Danish TV mocked him for it.

    • #24
    • November 3, 2018, at 3:40 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  25. The Reticulator Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Do crybullies think of themselves as scrappy? They probably do. After all, as the wiktionary puts it, a crybully is

    A person who engages in intimidation, harassment, or other abusive behaviour while claiming to be a victim.

    Claiming to be a victim? That’s the “underdog” part. Engaging in intimidation, harassment, or other abusive behavior? That’s the “scrappy” part.

    That’s an important word to add to our vocabularies. I may have heard it before, but hadn’t been aware that it had such an accurate and precise definition.

    • #25
    • November 3, 2018, at 8:45 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  26. Zafar Member

    Jar Jar Binks begs to differ.

    • #26
    • November 3, 2018, at 11:33 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  27. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Zafar (View Comment):

    Jar Jar Binks begs to differ.

    Dude, Jar Jar Binks is the ultimate Sith Lord – who never has to punch up.

    More here.

    and here.

     

    • #27
    • November 4, 2018, at 3:20 PM PST
    • 3 likes

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