John Y. Brown, III: Fancy Farm in the Cultural Crosshairs: The War on Fancy Farm

JYB3This year, ironically, it was Fancy Farm itself that was the recipient of some of the most potent barbs from the speaking dais.

The annual Fancy Farm picnic is famous for hosting an annual platform for face-to-face political zingers, barbs and put-downs. It is unique to the nation and perhaps the last living remnant of the historic stump speaking tradition of political campaigns that preceded modern media and the current TV/Internet/Social Media dominance of political campaign messaging.

The old-fashioned way of political campaigning on display at Fancy Farm is, some are now arguing, a useless and corrosive relic that needs to be politely euthanized.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin began his speech by questioning the value of what he characterized as the mean-spirited vacuity of Fancy Farm rhetoric. “We are celebrating our divisions, and we’re doing it in the childish way that frankly does not resolve any of the issues we face.” Bevin then zigged and zagged with several variations of what strove to be a statesman-like speech, including the Pledge of Allegiance, but instead came off as more of a politically tone deaf misfire for what is expected at Fancy Farm.

The insurgent Republican nominee for governor, Matt Bevin, has already defined himself as a successful critic of Kentucky political traditions. Bevin’s first major political pronouncement after winning the Republican primary was that the statue of Jefferson Davis in the state Capitol Rotunda, where it had been on display for over 50 years, needed to go because it was offensive and out of step with modern values. And Bevin’s leadership stock soared as most other Kentucky politicians –from both political parties –quickly agreed and also called for the removal of the Davis statue from the Capitol rotunda. Will Bevin’s declarations against Fancy Farm, the 135 year old political stump speaking picnic, meet with similar success or be viewed as an overreach? That is the question playing out now as the Fancy Farm relevancy discussion intensifies.

After Bevin’s speech some commentators seemed sympathetic to Bevin’s questioning of the modern value of Fancy Farm. They asked, What value is there, really, from candidates running for high political office congregating in deep Western Kentucky for one weekend in August each year to simply throw hard political punches and cutting verbal jabs at their opponents?

Fancy Farm seems to invite and even celebrate the most frivolous of political maneuverings and machinations. Observers cheer and jeer their candidates and political party –often jeering more than cheering. The criticisms being leveled at Fancy Farm are largely high-minded appeals that liken Fancy Farm to a political form of Internet bullying or vicious Twitter insults, which likewise have no role in our public discourse and shouldn’t be tolerated or encouraged.

Certainly, there would be value in better ensuring that the speaking and politicking at Fancy Farm more closely honor the historic practices Fancy Farm seeks to celebrate. It’s hard to disagree that, at times, Fancy Farm rhetoric and activities get derailed into something more akin to a vaudeville act than old-timey political stump speaking. I’m not suggesting a sanitized version of Fancy Farm. That would miss the point. One of the great values of Fancy Farm is that it provides a political forum that is unsanitized, as political commentator Scott Jennings aptly put it.

Citizens and voters today are bone weary of the modern consultant-controlled and remote TV/Internet/Social Media political campaigns. More than bone-weary, they are starving for authenticity and spontaneity. Something extinguished by the modern political campaign machines. Fancy Farm offers a glimpse, even if only a crude and momentary one, to voters seeking genuine human contact and real unscripted interaction with political candidates. The opportunity for that kind of “old fashioned” political interaction is rare and seemingly on the cusp of extinction. Fancy Farm, in it’s own rambunctious, rakish and rube-like ways is trying to fan that flame before it gets extinguished entirely.

At bottom, Fancy Farm may be a brutish attempt at trying to preserve something noble in politics: the genuine human element. An attempt, by the way, that all well-mannered and high-brow efforts to retain have failed to preserve. And, oddly, the raw carnival nature of the way Fancy Farm captures this voter-to-candidate connectedness may be what helps it succeed.

The chief complaint from Fancy Farm critics seems to be that the weekend picnic late each summer brings out the worst in our political instincts by encouraging candidates to say harsh, personally cruel and caricature-ish things about one another that demeans and diminishes our political process and needs to be eliminated rather than celebrated.

Ironically, the harshest barbs hurled against gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin weren’t originated at Fancy Farm but were quoted directly from television, internet and radio ads (our more modern campaign tools) by Senator Mitch McConnell when Bevin challenged Senator McConnell in the Senate primary last year. And the same can be said for much of the harshest Fancy Farm rhetoric—it is merely a repetition of what has been (or will be) run for months as paid political advertisements on television, radio and the Internet.

Ironically, then, what really makes Fancy Farm appear so crude and cruel isn’t what is actually said or done from the dais. Rather, it is simply because it is being said face-to-face rather than said more palatably by an actor in a soft voice-over for a paid political television advertisement.

Perhaps, what is truly shocking about Fancy Farm is that it reminds us of just how uncivilized, coarse, bizarre and ridiculous our “modern” political campaigning methods have become. And how it is actually these modern political campaign tactics that may be the real relics that are corroding our political process and need to be politely euthanized.

I believe Fancy Farm is a jarring reminder of that fact. But understanding the bigger problem requires looking beyond Fancy Farm and connecting dots that are much bigger and much more worrisome than a little picnic in the recesses of western Kentucky. Eliminating Fancy Farm won’t eliminate coarse political insults from the political process. It will only relieve candidates from ever having to say it to their opponent’s face.

This doesn’t justify the excesses of Fancy Farm but does help put them into a more honest perspective.

We should all work to find ways to provide authentic political events that better provide a vehicle for citizens to interact face-to-face with their political candidates. Any move away from the “modern” political campaigning practices of spending billions of dollars annually (that’s right, billions) for paid political advertisements featuring sanitized viciousness and nonsensical blather should be encouraged.

Crude and unsavory political insults should never be the bread and butter of our modern political discourse, but until we as a society are ready to have a serious discussion about really changing that very serious and chronic malignancy in our body politic, it’s hard to take seriously those focusing in on a once-a-year annual picnic that, at worst, merely caricatures in a fun and festive way –and allows us to laugh at it— the kind of political debate that we as citizens and voters have to endure remotely and pretend to take seriously as “real political campaigning” the rest of the year.

David Host: The Right Result – But a Troubling Ruling

David HostI have long been hesitant to write about the marriage equality issue because of my own nuanced feelings on the issue. I have always strongly believed that our society must confer the same protections and benefits upon couples regardless of sexual orientation – and as the current debate has progressed, I have become increasingly persuaded that such benefits must include the civil contract which the law defines as “marriage.” Thus, on a basic policy level, I agree with today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Yet, I remain fundamentally uncomfortable with this ruling for other reasons. First, I do not think that the Court’s evisceration of the democratic process was necessary or wise in this instance. The rapid growth of states which have adopted marriage equality shows a fundamental change in societal attitudes on this issue; a transformation which seems only likely to accelerate as the so-called “millennials” achieve a greater share of political power. I think that the Court could have steered a more moderate course by requiring states to recognize all marriages performed in other states, without directly overruling a particular state’s definition of marriage by judicial fiat. Instead of promoting an emerging national consensus, this ruling seems destined to exacerbate divisions on this issue.

Second, I think the Court short-circuited a vital discussion that needs to occur in our society regarding the entanglement of church and state when it comes to marriage. Given the “wall” that exists between church and state in almost every other instance, I have always thought that marriage offered an interesting display of cognitive dissonance. Many of us have gotten married in a church and divorced by a judge – and ministers who officiate a marriage ceremony frequently proclaim that they act “under the authority of God and the State of ______.”

I certainly hope that this entanglement does not become the “nose under the tent” which leads to a broader intrusion upon the free exercise of religion and the freedom of conscience in America – yet, I cannot not see how ministers who invoke the state’s authority can avoid performing same-sex marriages under the implications of today’s ruling. Perhaps the onus is now upon the churches which do not recognize same-sex marriage; they can always distinguish between “spiritual marriage” and “legal marriage,” and limit the marriage ceremonies they perform to the former. Of course, many couples would have to participate in  two wedding ceremonies – but I think that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has always mandated that result.

My main concern is that today’s decision has steamrolled the dissent on this issue, foreclosing the natural consensus that could have otherwise emerged; a consensus that would have confirmed and strengthened the boundaries between church and state in America. Instead, I am concerned that the Supreme Court’s ruling will further blur the line between private conscience and public responsibility; an outcome which does not seem likely to enhance the long-term health of our nation.

Lauren Mayer: Useful New Words

Many people (including yours truly) have mocked Sarah Palin for mangling the English language and perhaps inadvertently coming up with new words.  But a few of her creations have caught on, such as ‘refudiate,’ and it turns out creating words is also bipartisan – although perhaps more intentionally, and certainly more ironically, on the left.  Gay rights activist Dan Savage sent out a tweet last week suggesting ‘Duggary’ and asking for definitions. So in the spirit of the generation that grew up on Schoolhouse Rock, here’s a musical explanation:

Lauren Mayer: Viral For Old People

When I started posting weekly political comedy songs on youTube, my teenage son tried to caution me against unrealistic expectations.  “You know, Mom, anything over 100 views is viral for old people.”  But it turns out there are more fans of political comedy out there than he thought, and even some of us ‘old people’ know how to use computers to check out videos.  Not that I’ve rivaled Gangnam Style, or even most funny cat videos, but most of mine get into the mid 3-digits, and some go quite a bit higher.

So far I haven’t been able to draw too many conclusions about what makes one of my videos hit higher numbers – I’ve gotten into 4 figures with ones I really worked on, ones I threw together, some are parodies of recognizeable songs but other recogizeable parodies don’t seem to hit.  But there are certain hot button issues I can count on, and none more reliably than gun control.

Of course, most of the increased number of views come from people who really, really, REALLY disagree with me, and let me know in the comments.  The first time I did a gun control song, the comments were quite disturbing – tons of horrible language, vile insults and even threats.  But then I realized that if the spelling and grammar were any indication, these folks were not going to be able to figure out where I lived.  (More importantly, I also realized that they were showing off for each other more than anything else.)

The Waco shooting last week only made Texas loosen gun restrictions even more, but it did inspire me to tackle the subject once again, so let’s see what it does to my views (and my comments!):

Lauren Mayer: First Name Celebrity

One indication of super-sized celebrity is being so famous that your first name alone is enough to identify you.  Think of such iconic performers as Madonna, Cher, or . . . actually, those are the only clear examples I can think of (okay, maybe ‘Giselle,’ as in the super model, but that’s stretching it).  But now they can welcome a new member to this very small club.  Hillary Rodham Clinton is starting her campaign much more humbly than in ’08, doing small events, featuring mostly other people in her announcement video, and encouraging everyone to call her Hillary instead of Senator or Secretary Clinton.  And because she is such an iconic and polarizing figure, just her first name is more than enough to identify her and to elicit a huge range of responses, from outrage & conspiracy theories on the right, to ‘I’m for Hillary’ cheers on the center/left, to ‘Well, she’s our best hope since Elizabeth Warren won’t run’ on the farther left.

So I thought it would be appropriate to commemorate her announcement by parodying an iconic showtune all about a character’s first name.  (Hint, this is from a musical taking place in Iowa, appropriately enough!)

Lauren Mayer: Rand Paul Isn’t Sexist (He’s A Jerk To Everyone)

Senator Paul’s presidential campaign got off to a rocky start last week, with his constant issues with the media (and reminding everyone of the episode several weeks ago where he patronizingly ‘shushhed’ a female journalist).  He may not have been quite so patronizing to male reporters, but at least he managed to prove that his obnoxious behavior wasn’t limited to women.

I’m far more offended by his actual policies than his behavior – for a supposedly libertarian renegade, he hews quite closely to the far-right agenda of trampling on reproductive choice, gay rights, etc. – but as a satirist, I have to acknowledge him for said behavior, since it is what we in the business call ‘comedy gold’.

Lauren Mayer: Comedians’ Dreams Sometimes Do Come True

Frequently, in political satire truth is so much stranger than fiction that it makes my job a simple matter of setting reality to music.  If I were to write a fictional character who was so clueless, he didn’t bother to secure basic variations of his domain name, and so egotistical that he compared his science denial to the principled stance of Galileo (and then completely mis-represent Galileo’s breakthroughs), no one would take me seriously.  Which is why satire is almost always the best response to political shenanigans.

Ted Cruz’s first week as a declared candidate was like something out of a Monty Python routine.  So here’s a fitting musical tribute:

Greg Harris: The Kase for Kasich

Greg HarrisSpeculation about a Kasich presidential run is still very much alive and well, and deservedly so. By any objective measure, Ohio’s economic situation has improved greatly under his leadership, which was affirmed in his landslide re-election. Kasich has emerged as somewhat a maverick at a time when other presidential contenders are sounding very much alike in making appeals to a small base of the Republican party (with some exception for Jeb Bush and Sen. Rand Paul).

Governor Kasich stands out for a track record that no other contender can offer: a track record of effectiveness at the state and federal level. While many presidential hopefuls spout the need to cut spending and shrink government, Kasich actually led Congressional efforts to accomplish a balanced budget while in Congress. And Ohio’s economic recovery outshines that of Wisconsin, the home state of current frontrunner, Governor Scott Walker.

As a fulltime Governor, Kasich cannot camp out in Iowa. But he can distinguish himself from other candidates by tapping his inner-wonk and letting it shine. He would quickly distinguish himself by releasing a specified plan on exactly how he would balance the budget, which would quickly make the rhetoric of other challengers—lacking specifics—sound empty. Furthermore, Kasich can espouse at the national level what he is trying to do at the state level: convert from taxing income to taxing consumption.

A Kasich candidacy could spark a more deliberate policy discussion on tax reform. As I asked previously in the RP, does the income tax complement the American entrepreneurial spirit, or serve as its harness? Perhaps a national sales tax instead of income tax is more in line with the American experiment? Exempting the first $10,000 in worker earnings from payroll tax (FICA) could offset the regressive nature of a sales tax. The message of doing away with the IRS would certainly have appeal to Republican primary voters.

Policies that encourage savings, a real individual-level valuing of goods, and genuine control over what you earn and how you spend what you earn, should be part of some new reckoning with an economy that is ever changing. It also addresses hundreds of billions in uncollected taxes, and would not exempt the very rich if applied to financial transactions and capital gains.

More exciting still, such tax reform would have a strong cleansing effect on democratic institutions hijacked by powerful interests that currently manipulate the tax code to the advantage of elites that pay for their services—you know, the very institutions that were formed to give power to the people.

Kasich is currently fighting to return some of the money to Ohioans from the natural resources on which energy interests’ profit. A carbon tax on energy interests that likewise profit off our land could be used to reduce personal and corporate income tax rates, while incenting industries to reduce their carbon footprint.

A Governor Kasich presidential platform could be built on re-empowering the individual in an otherwise consumption-driven nation while bettering our economic and environmental well-being.

While the Governor wouldn’t capture the bank of big donors initially, his platform of substance would ride a wave of earned media and capture the imagination of much of the primary electorate by offering specifics where others only produce rhetoric. He would emerge as a reformer with results and a compassionate conservative in one.

In the process, Kasich would revive the long dormant Teddy Roosevelt wing of the Republican Party that is decidedly not in the pocket of special interests, and that cares about a clean environment and clean government. In so doing, he would appeal to a silent middle that does not currently have a home in the two-party system.

Lauren Mayer: Schadenfreude, Downton Abbey-style

I don’t generally take pleasure in the woes of others, but every now and then it is delicious to see someone get a much-deserved come-uppance.  Like when that speeding shmuck who cut you off 2 miles ago gets pulled over by a cop, or when a morality-preaching evangelical gets caught with his pants down.  So you can’t blame people for gloating a bit about the spectacular (and quick) downfall of resigned Congressman Aaron Schock – he used taxpayers and donors to finance a glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle having nothing to do with his district, and flaunted his exploits – and his abs – at every opportunity, on social media and magazine covers.  Not to mention his homophobic voting record, which as Barney Frank pointed out, actually does make his sexuality at least somewhat germaine.

And how fitting that Schock was a fan of Downton Abbey, a show about the lavish, glamorous lives of a soon-to-be-obsolete upper class . . .

Lauren Mayer: Homophobia Is So Last Millenium!

Public approval for marriage equality has skyrocketed, as state after state joins the accelerating trend.  But a few states are holding on to the past, this time by trying a bit of clumsy obfuscation – framing discrimination as ‘religious freedom,’ as though bigoted florists and bakers are the real victims.  They aren’t losing the right to worship the way they want, but when you do business in public, you follow basic laws.  For example, what if my religion disapproved of being Mormon?, or left-handed, or homophobic?  I still couldn’t turn away those clients.  (On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a homophobic client wanting to hire a liberal musical satirist, but still, you never know!)

Clearly these feeble attempts are the last frantic sputters of dying-out resistence to gay marriage.  (Which always reminds me of the scene in Blazing Saddles where Sheriff Bart tries to keep the put-upon residents of Rock Ridge from leaving town and giving into Hedly Lamarr’s evil plot.  He says, “Can’t you see that’s the last act of a desperate man?,” and Howard Johnson replies, “We don’t care if it’s the first act of Henry V. We’re leaving!”)  So here’s a musical reminder to opponents of marriage equality that we see through their feeble attempts to disguise what they’re doing:

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