As a teenager in the small-town Alabama of the 1970s, I had something close to an idyllic existence. Like those of my peers (i.e., pretty much everyone I knew, regardless of race, class, or any other point of demographic slicing and dicing), my days and nights revolved around home, school, church, organized sports or music or clubs, and any number of non-curricular activities — some adult-sanctioned, others decidedly not — with which we amused ourselves and, presumably, learned something about life and how to live it.
At the same time, certain of my friends and I — with ample encouragement, guidance and support from numerous adults (in addition to our parents) who took active interest in our growth and development — understood that there was a great, wide world outside our perspective and experience. Not only that, we were further led to understand that it was incumbent upon us to make ourselves useful to society by learning as much about that big world as we possibly could (in those olden times, that was known, without recourse to political prejudices, as a liberal approach to education and life; today, it’s likely to be seen as the intellectual bog from which rises the toxic miasma of elitism).
Therefore, my friends and I knew that, idyllic as things in our little town might seem (and, again, in many ways, were), we were not living in idyllic times. For the nation as a whole, the ‘70s were a time of economic uncertainty, political upheaval, rivening social tensions and, dare I say it, spiritual drift. As teenagers wise enough to recognize this, but lacking the knowledge and experience to have any notion of what it meant or what could be done about it, we did the only thing that we were really qualified to do.
We made fun of everything. Including some things that, I have no doubt, we’d get in trouble for making fun of today. But humor — sometimes broad, sometimes topical, often raunchy, always smart — was our way of acknowledging even the grimmest of subjects and circumstances. We laughed at everything.
Which is another way of saying that we questioned everything. Somewhere over the course of the years since, I came to appreciate the real value of cynicism and irreverence, not as philosophies of living, but as essential ingredients in our attitude toward politics and government — as citizens, as taxpayers, as voters.
Looking back at that time, though, at a bunch of teenaged boys who were, individually and collectively, too smart for their own good, I can see that cynicism appealed to us mostly — indeed, almost exclusively — for the range of comedic possibilities it opened up. In the 1970s, cynicism and irreverence were hip and funny, and without ever talking about it in those terms, or even conceptualizing it individually — again, we wouldn’t have known how — my friends and I were drawn to, and broadly adopted the postures and mannerisms of, humor that was hip and funny.
In discovering and assimilating this, we had some help. I was the eldest in my family, and while I freely acknowledge the built-in advantages that come with that place in the familial pecking order, I’ve always counted myself fortunate that a few of my closest friends had older brothers. Whether from filial devotion (hardly likely), pedantic instinct (possible), sheer boredom (highly likely) or abject pity for our ignorance, incompetence and ineptitude with life in general (in spades), those older brothers took it on themselves at least to point us the right direction, if not quite providing us with a roadmap.
As that relates to the things we found humorous — things that satisfied our need for and budding appreciation of satire, of skewed and sometimes shocking sensibilities, of the smartness that filtered through the funny — there were things like the comedy albums of George Carlin and Richard Pryor, movies made by the likes of Mel Brooks and Monty Python, and the arrival on television (a couple of years before the possession of driver’s licenses expanded our options for spending a leisurely weekend night) of a show called Saturday Night Live.
Another of these semi-forbidden pleasures was a magazine called National Lampoon. It grew out of the student publication Harvard Lampoon, and of course begat a franchise that included the sophomoric (and quite funny) series of films that included the likes of Animal House and Christmas Vacation. But for us boys, it was a magazine with humor that suited the growing range of our tastes, from highbrow to lowbrow and everything in between, including some things we weren’t old enough to understand quite yet. It was smart in a completely different kind of way, with a kind of smartness that was completely unprejudiced in that it had no respect for…well, anything.
By the time we got wise to it, the Lampoon was a couple of years removed from what remains today its most infamous — some would say “tasteless” — cover (by the way, Google “National Lampoon (magazine)”, and the first thing you’ll see when you click onto the page is that cover). On it was pictured a cute, black-and-white spotted sporting dog of some breed, with its eyes cut sharply left — at a person whose hand intrudes into the frame, holding a revolver to the dog’s head. Under the hand with the gun is the issue’s headline:
If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.
My abiding affection for it aside, I think I’m safe in saying that I had not thought about National Lampoon (magazine) for some years, until recently. Lately, though, it’s on my mind constantly — or at least every time I think about a couple of the proposed amendments to the Alabama Constitution that are on the November 8 ballot. Specifically, I’m referring to the measures that appear on the ballot as Amendment 2 and Amendment 14.
In brief, Amendment 2 ostensibly will “prohibit…any monies currently designated under law for use by the state parks system from being transferred” to any use other than the “support, upkeep, and maintenance” of the system. However, the proposal’s language also allows for unspecified “exceptions to the requirement that all state park system land and facilities be exclusively and solely operated and maintained” by the state.
It’s that second provision that is causing some unrest, even among people (like me) who otherwise would seem disposed to be in favor of every possible means of keeping funds for our already cash-strapped state parks from the greedy eyes and sticky fingers of our Legislature. I don’t feel good about Amendment 2 despite the fact that many people I know and respect are supporting it, and urging me to do so, because it is, in essence “the best we can do.” Either vote “Yes” now, or see the once-proud Alabama State Parks system die a slow and lingering death. Forget who — i.e., our Legislature — is responsible for raiding the park system’s funding and allowing it to begin dying on the vine in the first place. The only way we can redress their negligence is by not holding them accountable for it.
In other words, vote “Yes,” or the Legislature kills the dog.
And guess what? I have a spoiler for you that, if you’ve ever paid five minutes’ attention to the Way Things Work in Alabama, really shouldn’t be a spoiler at all: Amendment or no amendment, eventual encroachment of private development on public lands or not, they’ll end up shooting the dog anyway. Just for kicks, if nothing else, but more likely because they’ve discovered, after ridding the state of huge tracts of public land, that our state government is still generating revenues far too insufficient to redress the injustices perpetuated by a woefully inequitable tax system, or lighten the burdens of operating under the oldest and worst state constitution currently extant in our fractured and fractious nation.
It’s for similar reasons that I can’t bring myself to support Amendment 14 either, again despite the inveighing of some folks with whom I’m normally inclined to agree. As with Amendment 2, supporters are using scare tactics to convince voters of the necessity of letting the Legislature off the hook for being 1) stupid, 2) corrupt, or 3) both. Supporters say that, due to the “technicality” of the Legislature’s ignoring its own rules in passing a host of laws over the past several years, each and every one of those laws might be invalidated — unless we all rush out and vote “Yes” on Amendment 14, and allow them off the hook for their stupid corruption, or their corrupt stupidity, or whatever.
More than 600 laws might be in danger, according to some sources (i.e., legislators trying to wipe egg off their faces, and possibly open the door to new ways and means of raiding revenue streams). Those reversals, they say, would visit the latter-day equivalent of the Biblical Plagues on Alabama. In Birmingham alone, everything from the establishment of an elected school board, to the pensions of city employees, the existence of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, and (gulp!) the annexation of the Summit shopping center into the city, could be invalidated.
This is, to be absolutely and yet charitably frank, a lie of some magnitude. Due to statutes of limitations, only a very few laws are subject to challenge. At best, then, arguments in favor of Amendment 14 comprise a convenient half-truth, contrived to foster an air of imminent catastrophe that can only be averted if we vote the way our Legislators need us to.
In other words, that dog is dead, too. Or it will be, just as soon our leaders are done using it for purposes of political extortion.
Really, this is the stuff of satire of the type that I used to love. Except that it’s no longer funny, because it’s no longer satire. It’s the actual way we live and govern ourselves in Alabama — to the point at which, rather than voting out the people who are most responsible for the failures and shortcomings of our state government, we’re expected to fall in line and bail them out of trouble and allow them to continue kicking the can of our inadequacies down the road.
Talk about cynical and irreverent. We’d do better if our state government was run by teenaged boys.