The culture wars are, and have been, a charred and cratered part of our political landscape. The divisions between church and state, between private life and the public commons, are becoming ever more blurry and ever more contentious.
Would it be alarmist to say we’re nearing civil-war levels of disagreement here? Probably so…but only just. The fact is, every partisan and culture warrior is soul-deep convinced that his or her side has a monopoly on truth and propriety, and is equally convinced of the criminally wrong-headedness of the other side. That’s a recipe for a fast-simmering conflict if I’ve ever seen one.
But just in time a powerful new weapon is being deployed, one that simultaneously gets results and (hopefully) de-escalates the incipient violence. That weapon is humor.
Don’t misunderstand: comedians have always been front-line soldiers in the culture wars; just ask Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. But what happened this week is an absolute game-changer in how comedy (and a touch of public scorn) can marshal timely, needed change.
What happened was, the phrase “transvaginal ultrasound” became a punchline.
This was in response to a bill in the Virginia state legislature, that would mandate that every woman seeking an abortion first undergo an ultrasound. The purpose of the requirement is, clearly, to induce second thoughts (or at least crippling guilt) upon any woman who sees her fetus on the sonagram screen.
Several other states, including Texas and Ohio, already have similar laws on the books or in development. The Virginia bill, however, was the first that specifically called for ‘high-definition’ ultrasounds, presumably to produce clearer, more guilt-inducing images.
But there’s only one way of producing such images: internal, or transvaginal ultrasound, which requires the insertion of the transducer wand pictured above.
The reaction from the Pro-Choice side was predictable, and loud: the procedure was compared to state-mandated rape, and was said to be part of an ongoing and increasingly strident attack on women’s health.
And so it went. The protestations might have had merit, but they didn’t get much of a sympathetic ear – not in Virginia, at least. But then a funny thing happened, literally.
On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart quipped that “Transvaginal Ultrasound” was the name of a jazz-fusion band he’d once seen in concert. And Amy Poehler, appearing on Saturday Night Live, said that Transvaginal is her favorite airline. “I have so many miles on Transvaginal that they upgrade me to ladybusiness.”
Some might say they were making light of a serious situation. Perhaps, but you can’t argue with results. Virginia Governer Bob McDonnell, who had previously supported the proposal, now says he wasn’t aware of its invasive requirements. As of Wednesday, he’d convinced the GOP leadership in the legislature to withdraw the bill.
It’s all but certain Virginia will press forward with a re-worded version of the law, this time calling for external ultrasounds. Thus, neither side can claim full victory here.
But in leveraging comedy and mass media for the purposes of ridicule, to keep a misbegotten law from taking effect, a certain class of culture warriors has taken this conflict to a new level – arguably a much better one.
Which brings us full circle, perhaps in more ways than one. It’s said that in Celtic-age Ireland, a class of poetic druids called Bards were often called upon to confront corrupt monarchs with scathing satires and scornful songs. Just a verse or two was usually enough to raise blemishes, even physical illness, and often drove offending kings from power.
If the modern-day Bards are half as effective, then our continuing culture wars are going to be entertaining indeed.