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

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by Paul Cantor

Previously by Paul Cantor: How Dinosaurs Were Made Extinct

     

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

Comedy makes fun of people – that is its nature. As Aristotle stated in his Poetics, comedy portrays people as worse than they are and makes them look ridiculous. To laugh at people is to feel superior to them. Comedy can thus be downright vicious. The contemporaries of a given comedy may well be offended by it, especially when they are the objects of its ridicule and feel threatened by it. Only the passage of time can soften the initially savage blows of satiric comedy and allow later generations to put up on a pedestal authors who were originally viewed by their angry contemporaries as being deep down in the gutter.

Thus the people who condemn South Park today for being offensive need to be reminded that comedy is by its very nature offensive. It derives its energy from its transgressive power, its ability to break taboos, to speak the unspeakable. Comedians are always pushing the envelope, probing to see how much they can get away with in violating the speech codes of their day. Comedy is a social safety valve. We laugh precisely because comedians momentarily liberate us from the restrictions that conventional society imposes on us. We applaud comedians because they say right out in front of an audience what, supposedly, nobody is allowed to say in public. Paradoxically, then, the more permissive American society has become, the harder it has become to write comedy. As censorship laws have been relaxed and people have been allowed to say and show almost anything in movies and television – above all, to deal with formerly taboo sexual material – comedy writers, such as the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, must have begun to wonder if there is any way left to offend audiences.

The genius of Parker and Stone was to see that in our day a new frontier of comic transgression has opened up because of the phenomenon known as political correctness. Our age may have tried to dispense with the conventional pieties of earlier generations, but it has developed new pieties of its own. They may not look like the traditional pieties, but they are enforced in the same old way, with social pressure and sometimes even legal sanctions punishing people who dare to violate the new taboos. Many of our colleges and universities today have speech codes, which seek to define what can and cannot be said on campus and in particular to prohibit anything that might be interpreted as demeaning someone because of his or her race, religion, gender, disability, and a whole series of other protected categories. Sex may no longer be taboo in our society, but sexism now is. Seinfeld (1989–1998) was perhaps the first mainstream television comedy that systematically violated the new taboos of political correctness. The show repeatedly made fun of contemporary sensitivities about such issues as sexual orientation, ethnic identity, feminism, and disabled people. Seinfeld proved that being politically incorrect can be hilariously funny in today's moral and intellectual climate, and South Park followed its lead.

The show has mercilessly satirized all forms of political correctness – anti–hate crime legislation, tolerance indoctrination in the schools, Hollywood do-gooding of all kinds, environmentalism and anti-smoking campaigns, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Special Olympics – the list goes on and on. It is hard to single out the most politically incorrect moment in the history of South Park, but I will nominate the fifth-season episode “Cripple Fight” (#503). It portrays in gory detail what happens when two “differently abled” or, rather, “handi-capable” boys named Timmy and Jimmy square off for a violent – and interminable – battle in the streets of South Park. The show obviously relishes the sheer shock value of moments such as this. But more is going on here than transgressing the boundaries of good taste just for transgression's sake.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

This is where libertarianism enters the picture in South Park. The show criticizes political correctness in the name of freedom. That is why Parker and Stone can proclaim themselves equal opportunity satirists: they make fun of the old pieties as well as the new, ridiculing both the right and the left insofar as both seek to restrict freedom. “Cripple Fight” is an excellent example of the balance and evenhandedness of South Park and the way it can offend both ends of the political spectrum. The episode deals in typical South Park fashion with a contemporary controversy, one that has even made it into the courts: whether homosexuals should be allowed to lead Boy Scout troops. The episode makes fun of the old-fashioned types in the town who insist on denying a troop leadership to Big Gay Al (a recurrent character whose name says it all). As it frequently does with the groups it satirizes, South Park, even as it stereotypes homosexuals, displays sympathy for them and their right to live their lives as they see fit. But just as the episode seems to be simply taking the side of those who condemn the Boy Scouts for homophobia, it swerves in an unexpected direction. Standing up for the principle of freedom of association, Big Gay Al himself defends the right of the Boy Scouts to exclude homosexuals. An organization should be able to set up its own rules, and the law should not impose society's notions of political correctness on a private group. This episode represents South Park at its best – looking at a complicated issue from both sides and coming up with a judicious resolution of the issue. And the principle on which the issue is resolved is freedom. As the episode shows, Big Gay Al should be free to be homosexual, but the Boy Scouts should also be free as an organization to make their own rules and exclude him from a leadership post if they so desire.

This libertarianism makes South Park offensive to the politically correct, for, if applied consistently, it would dismantle the whole apparatus of speech control and thought manipulation that do-gooders have tried to construct to protect their favored minorities. With its support for freedom in all areas of life, libertarianism defies categorization in terms of the standard one-dimensional political spectrum of right and left. In opposition to the collectivist and anticapitalist vision of the left, libertarians reject central planning and want people to be free to pursue their self-interest as they see fit. But in contrast to conservatives, libertarians also oppose social legislation; they generally favor the legalization of drugs and the abolition of all censorship and antipornography laws. Because of the tendency in American political discourse to lump libertarians with conservatives, many commentators on South Park fail to see that it does not criticize all political positions indiscriminately, but actually stakes out a consistent alternative to both liberalism and conservatism with its libertarian philosophy.

Parker and Stone have publicly identified themselves as libertarians and openly reject both liberals and conservatives. Parker has said, “We avoid extremes but we hate liberals more than conservatives, and we hate them.” This does seem to be an accurate assessment of the leanings of the show. Even though it is no friend of the right, South Park is more likely to go after left-wing causes. In an interview in Reason, Matt Stone explained that he and Parker were on the left of the political spectrum when they were in high school in the 1980s, but in order to maintain their stance as rebels, they found that when they went to the University of Colorado in Boulder, and even more when they arrived in Hollywood, they had to change their positions and attack the prevailing left-wing orthodoxy. As Stone says: “I had Birkenstocks in high school. I was that guy. And I was sure that those people on the other side of the political spectrum [the right] were trying to control my life. And then I went to Boulder and got rid of my Birkenstocks immediately, because everyone else had them and I realized that those people over here [on the left] want to control my life too. I guess that defines my political philosophy. If anybody's telling me what I should do, then you've got to really convince me that it's worth doing.”

Defending the Undefendable

The libertarianism of Parker and Stone places them at odds with the intellectual establishment of contemporary America. In the academic world, much of the media, and a large part of the entertainment business – especially the Hollywood elite – anticapitalist views generally prevail. As we saw in chapter 5 on Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, studies have shown that those who are engaged in business are usually portrayed in an unfavorable light in films and television. South Park takes particular delight in skewering the Hollywood stars who exploit their celebrity to conduct liberal or left-wing campaigns against the workings of the free market (Barbra Streisand, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers, and George Clooney are among the celebrities the show has pilloried). Most of the celebrities who are shown in South Park are impersonated (“poorly,” as the opening credits keep reminding us), but even some of those who have voluntarily chosen to participate have been treated shabbily. Clooney, for example, who helped the show originally get on the air, was reduced to barking as Stan's gay dog, Sparky, in the first-season episode “Big Gay Al's Big Gay Boat Ride” (#104). Like Tim Burton, Parker and Stone seem to enjoy taking Hollywood icons down a peg or two. They share Burton's contempt for all the elites who set themselves up as superior to ordinary Americans. In an interview in 2004, Parker said of Hollywood, “People in the entertainment industry are by and large whore-chasing drug-addict f—ups. But they still believe they're better than the guy in Wyoming who really loves his wife and takes care of his kids and is a good, outstanding, wholesome person. Hollywood views regular people as children, and they think they're the smart ones who need to tell the idiots out there how to be.” In Parker's description of the typical Hollywood mentality, we can recognize the attitude toward the American heartland that we saw Gene Roddenberry adopt in Have Gun–Will Travel. Stone joins Parker in criticizing this patronizing elitism: “In Hollywood, there's a whole feeling that they have to protect Middle America from itself. . . . And that's why South Park was a big hit up front, because it doesn't treat the viewer like a f—ing retard.”

South Park is rare among television shows for its willingness to celebrate the free market and even to come to the defense of what is evidently the most hated institution in Hollywood, the corporation. For example, in the ninth-season episode “Die Hippie Die” (#902), Cartman fights the countercultural forces who invade South Park and mindlessly blame all the troubles of America on “the corporations.” Of all South Park episodes, the second-season “Gnomes” (#217) offers the most fully developed defense of capitalism, and I will attempt a comprehensive interpretation of it in order to demonstrate how genuinely intelligent and thoughtful the show can be. “Gnomes” deals with a common charge against the free market: that it allows large corporations to drive small businesses into the ground, much to the detriment of consumers. In “Gnomes” a national coffee chain called Harbucks – an obvious reference to Starbucks – comes to South Park and tries to buy out the local Tweek Bros. coffee shop. Mr. Tweek casts himself as the hero of the story, a small-business David battling a corporate Goliath. The episode satirizes the cheap anticapitalist rhetoric in which such conflicts are usually formulated in contemporary America, with the small business shown to be purely good and the giant corporation shown to be purely evil. “Gnomes” systematically deconstructs this simplistic opposition.

In the standard narrative, the small business operator is presented as a public servant, almost unconcerned with profits, simply a friend to his customers, whereas the corporation is presented as greedy and uncaring, doing nothing for the consumer. “Gnomes” shows instead that Mr. Tweek is just as self-interested as any corporation, and he is in fact cannier in promoting himself than Harbucks is. The Harbucks representative, John Postem, is blunt and gruff, an utterly charmless man who thinks that he can just state the bare economic truth and get away with it: “Hey, this is a capitalist country, pal – get used to it.” The irony of the episode is that the supposedly sophisticated corporation completely mishandles public relations, navely believing that the superiority of its product will be enough to ensure its triumph in the marketplace.

The common charge against large corporations is that, with their financial resources, they are able to exploit the power of advertising to put small rivals out of business. But in “Gnomes,” Harbucks is no match for the advertising savvy of Mr. Tweek. He cleverly turns his disadvantage into an advantage, coming up with the perfect slogan: “Tweek offers a simpler coffee for a simpler America.” He thereby exploits his underdog position while preying upon his customers' nostalgia for an older and presumably simpler America. The episode constantly dwells on the fact that Mr. Tweek is just as slick at advertising as any corporation. He keeps launching into commercials for his coffee, accompanied by soft guitar mood music and purple advertising prose; his coffee is “special like an Arizona sunrise or a juniper wet with dew.” His son may be appalled by “the metaphors” (actually they are similes), but Mr. Tweek knows just what will appeal to his nature-loving, yuppie Colorado customers.

“Gnomes” thus undermines any notion that Mr. Tweek is morally superior to the corporation he is fighting; in fact, the episode suggests that he may be a good deal worse. Going over the top as it always does, South Park reveals that the coffee shop owner has for years been overcaffeinating his son, Tweek (one of the regulars in the show), and is thus responsible for the boy's hypernervousness. Moreover, when faced with the threat from Harbucks, Mr. Tweek seeks sympathy by declaring, “I may have to shut down and sell my son Tweek into slavery.” It sounds as if his greed exceeds Harbucks'. But the worst thing about Mr. Tweek is that he is not content with using his slick advertising to compete with Harbucks in a free market. He also goes after Harbucks politically, trying to enlist the government on his side to prevent the national chain from coming to South Park. “Gnomes” thus portrays the campaign against large corporations as just one more sorry episode in the long history of businesses seeking economic protectionism – the kind of business-government alliance that Adam Smith criticized in The Wealth of Nations. Far from the standard Marxist portrayal of monopoly power as the inevitable result of free competition, South Park shows that it results only when one business gets the government to intervene on its behalf and restrict free entry into the marketplace. It is the same story we just saw played out between Pan Am and TWA in The Aviator. Like Scorsese's film, South Park does not simply take the side of corporations. Rather, it distinguishes between those businesses that exploit government connections to stifle competition and those that succeed by competing honestly in the marketplace.

The Town of South Park versus Harbucks

Mr. Tweek gets his chance to enlist public opinion on his side when he finds out that his son and the other boys have been assigned to write a report on a current event. Offering to write the paper for the children, he inveigles them into a topic very much in his self-interest: “how large corporations take over little family-owned businesses,” or, more pointedly, “how the corporate machine is ruining America.” Kyle can barely get out the polysyllabic words when he delivers the ghostwritten report in class: “As the voluminous corporate automaton bulldozes its way. . . .” This language obviously parodies the exaggerated and overinflated anticapitalist rhetoric of the contemporary left. But the report is a big hit with local officials, and soon, much to Mr. Tweek's delight, the mayor is sponsoring Proposition 10, an ordinance that will ban Harbucks from South Park.

In the ensuing controversy over Prop 10, “Gnomes” portrays the way the media are biased against capitalism and the way the public is manipulated into antibusiness attitudes. In a television debate, the boys are enlisted to argue for Prop 10 and the man from Harbucks to argue against it. The presentation is slanted from the beginning, when the moderator announces: “On my left, five innocent, starry-eyed boys from Middle America” and “On my right, a big, fat, smelly corporate guy from New York.” Postem tries to make a rational argument, grounded in principle: “This country is founded on free enterprise.” But the boys triumph in the debate with a somewhat less cogent argument, as Cartman sagely proclaims, “This guy sucks a–.” The television commercial in favor of Prop 10 is no less fraudulent than the debate. Again, “Gnomes” points out that anticorporate advertising can be just as slick as pro-corporate advertising. In particular, the episode shows that people are willing to go to any length in their anticorporate crusade, exploiting children to tug at the heartstrings of their target audience. In a wonderful parody of a political commercial, the boys are paraded out in a patriotic scene featuring the American flag, while the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays softly in the background. Meanwhile the announcer solemnly intones, “Prop 10 is about children. Vote yes on Prop 10 or else you hate children.” The ad is “paid for by Citizens for a Fair and Equal Way to Get Harbucks Out of Town Forever.” South Park loves to expose the illogic of liberal and left-wing crusaders, and the anti-Harbucks campaign is filled with one non sequitur after another. Pushing the last of the liberal buttons, one woman challenges the Harbucks representative with the question “How many Native Americans did you slaughter to make that coffee?”

Prop 10 seems to be headed for an easy victory at the polls until the boys encounter some friendly gnomes, who give them a crash course on corporations. At the last minute, in one of the most didactic of the South Park concluding-message scenes, the boys announce to the puzzled townspeople that they have reversed their position on Prop 10. In the spirit of libertarianism, Kyle proclaims something rarely heard on television outside of a John Stossel report: “Big corporations are good. Because without big corporations we wouldn't have things like cars and computers and canned soup.” And Stan comes to the defense of the dreaded Harbucks: “Even Harbucks started off as a small, little business. But because it made such great coffee, and because they ran their business so well, they managed to grow until they became the corporate powerhouse it is today. And that is why we should all let Harbucks stay.”

At this point the townspeople do something remarkable: they stop listening to all the political rhetoric and actually taste the rival coffees for themselves. And they discover that Mrs. Tweek (who has been disgusted by her husband's devious tactics) is telling the truth when she says, “Harbucks Coffee got to where it is by being the best.” As one of the townspeople observes, “It doesn't have that bland, raw sewage taste that Tweek's coffee has.” “Gnomes” ends by suggesting that it is only fair that businesses battle it out not in the political arena, but in the marketplace, and let the best product win. Postem offers Mr. Tweek the job of running the local Harbucks franchise, and everybody is happy. Politics is a zero-sum, winner-take-all game in which one business triumphs only by using government power to eliminate a rival; but in the voluntary exchanges that a free market makes possible, all parties benefit from a transaction. Harbucks makes a profit, and Mr. Tweek can continue earning a living without selling his son into slavery. Above all, the people of South Park get to enjoy a better brand of coffee. Contrary to the anticorporate propaganda normally coming out of Hollywood, South Park argues that, in the absence of government intervention, corporations prosper by serving the public, not by exploiting it. As Ludwig von Mises makes the point: “The profit system makes those men prosper who have succeeded in filling the wants of the people in the best possible and cheapest way. Wealth can be acquired only by serving the consumers. The capitalists lose their funds as soon as they fail to invest them in those lines in which they satisfy best the demands of the public. In a daily repeated plebiscite in which every penny gives a right to vote the consumers determine who should own and run the plants, shops and farms.”

The Great Gnome Mystery Solved

But what about the gnomes, who, after all, give the episode its title? Where do they fit in? I never could understand how the subplot in “Gnomes” relates to the main plot until I was lecturing on the episode at a summer institute, and my colleague Michael Valdez Moses made a breakthrough that allowed us to put together the episode as a whole. In the subplot, Tweek complains to anybody who will listen that every night at 3:30 a.m. gnomes sneak into his bedroom and steal his underpants. Nobody else can see this remarkable phenomenon happening, not even when the other boys stay up late with Tweek to observe it, not even when the emboldened gnomes start robbing underpants in broad daylight in the mayor's office. We know two things about these strange beings: (1) they are gnomes; (2) they are normally invisible. Both facts point in the direction of capitalism. As in the phrase “gnomes of Zurich,” which refers to bankers, gnomes are often associated with the world of finance. In the first opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, the gnome Alberich serves as a symbol of the capitalist exploiter – and he forges the Tarnhelm, a cap of invisibility. The idea of invisibility calls to mind Adam Smith's famous notion of the “invisible hand” that guides the free market.

In short, the underpants gnomes are an image of capitalism and the way it is normally – and mistakenly – pictured by its opponents. The gnomes represent the ordinary business activity that is always going on in plain sight of everyone, but which people fail to notice and fail to understand. South Park's citizens are unaware that the ceaseless activity of large corporations like Harbucks is necessary to provide them with all the goods they enjoy in their daily lives. They take it for granted that the shelves of their supermarkets will always be amply stocked with a wide variety of goods and never appreciate all the capitalist entrepreneurs who make that abundance possible.

What is worse, the ordinary citizens misinterpret capitalist activity as theft. They focus only on what people in business take from them – their money – and forget about what they get in return, all the goods and services. Above all, people have no understanding of the basic facts of economics and have no idea of why those in business deserve the profits they earn. Business is a complete mystery to them. It seems to be a matter of gnomes sneaking around in the shadows and mischievously heaping up piles of goods for no apparent purpose. Friedrich Hayek noted this long-standing tendency to misinterpret normal business activities as sinister:

Such distrust and fear have . . . led ordinary people . . . to regard trade . . . as suspicious, inferior, dishonest, and contemptible. . . . Activities that appear to add to available wealth, “out of nothing,” without physical creation and by merely rearranging what already exists, stink of sorcery. . . . That a mere change of hands should lead to a gain in value to all participants, that it need not mean gain to one at the expense of the others (or what has come to be called exploitation), was and is nonetheless intuitively difficult to grasp. . . . Many people continue to find the mental feats associated with trade easy to discount even when they do not attribute them to sorcery, or see them as depending on trick or fraud or cunning deceit.

Even the gnomes do not understand what they themselves are doing. Perhaps South Park is suggesting that the real problem is that people in business themselves lack the economic knowledge that they would need to explain their activity to the public and justify their profits. When the boys ask the gnomes to tell them about corporations, all they can offer is this enigmatic diagram of the stages of their business:

Phase 1

Phase 2

Phase 3

Collect Underpants

?

Profit

This chart encapsulates the economic illiteracy of the American public. They can see no connection between the activities entrepreneurs undertake and the profits they make. What those in business actually contribute to the economy is a big question mark to them. The fact that entrepreneurs are rewarded for taking risks, correctly anticipating consumer demand, and efficiently financing, organizing, and managing production is lost on most people. They would rather complain about the obscene profits of corporations and condemn their power in the marketplace.

The “invisible hand” passage of Smith's Wealth of Nations reads like a gloss on the “Gnomes” episode of South Park:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestick industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He genuinely, indeed, neither intends to promote the publick interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestick to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security, and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good.

“Gnomes” exemplifies this idea of the “invisible hand.” The economy does not need to be guided by the very visible and heavy hand of government regulation for the public interest to be served. Without any central planning, the free market produces a prosperous economic order. The free interaction of producers and consumers and the constant interplay of supply and demand work so that people generally have access to the goods they want. Like Adam Smith, Parker and Stone are deeply suspicious of anyone who speaks about the public good and condemns the private pursuit of profit. As we see in the case of Mr. Tweek, such people are usually hypocrites, pursuing their self-interest under the cover of championing the public interest. And the much-maligned gnomes of the world, the corporations, while openly pursuing their own profit, end up serving the public interest by providing the goods and services people really want.

The Wal-Mart Monster

The dissemination of an earlier version of this chapter on the Internet brought the wrath of the anticorporate intelligentsia down upon me. I was accused of having sold my soul for a double latte. For the record, I do not even drink coffee. I had already noticed that, whenever I lectured on South Park at college campuses, nothing infuriated my audiences more than my explication of “Gnomes” with its implicit championing of Starbucks. I am somewhat mystified by the way this particular episode provokes so much indignation, but I think it has something to do with the defensiveness of intellectual elites when confronted with their own elitism. What many intellectuals hold against capitalism is precisely the fact that it has made available to the masses luxuries formerly reserved to cultural elites, including their beloved mocha cappuccinos. From the time of Marx, the left argued unconvincingly for roughly a century that capitalism impoverishes the masses. But the general economic success of capitalism forced the left to change its tune and charge that free markets produce too many goods, overwhelming consumers with a dizzying array of choices that turns them into materialists and thus impoverishes their souls rather than their bodies. Parker and Stone regularly do a marvelous job of exposing the puritanical character of the contemporary left. It does not want people to have fun in any form, whether laughing at ethnic jokes or indulging in fast food. In an interview, Stone excoriates Rob Reiner for this latter-day Puritanism: “Rob Reiner seems like a fun-killer. He just likes to kill people's fun. He supported a proposition in California that raised taxes on cigarettes. It's like, Goddamn it, quit killing everyone's fun, Rob Reiner! There's such a disconnect. It's like, Dude, not everyone lives in f—ing Malibu, and not everyone has a yacht. And some people like to have a f—ing cigarette, dude. Leave them alone. I know you think you're doing good, but relax.”

Having had the audacity to defend Starbucks, in its eighth season South Park went on to rally to the cause of Wal-Mart, using an even more thinly disguised name in an episode called “Something Wall Mart This Way Comes” (#809). The episode is brilliantly cast in the mold of a cheesy horror movie. The sinister power of a Wal-Mart-like superstore takes over the town of South Park amid lengthening shadows, darkening clouds, and ominous flashes of lightning. The Wall Mart exerts “some mystical evil force” over the townspeople. Try as they may, they cannot resist its bargain prices. Just as in “Gnomes,” a local merchant starts complaining about his inability to compete with a national retail chain. In mock sympathy, Cartman plays syrupy violin music to accompany this lament. When Kyle indignantly smashes the violin, Cartman replies simply, “I can go get another one at Wall Mart – it was only five bucks.”

Widespread public opposition to the Wall Mart develops in the town, and efforts are made to boycott the store, ban it, and even burn it down (the latter to the uplifting strain of “Kumbaya”). But like any good monster, the evil Wall Mart keeps springing back to life, and the townspeople are irresistibly drawn to its well-stocked aisles at all hours (“Where else was I going to get a napkin dispenser at 9:30 at night?”). All these horror movie clichs are a way of making fun of how Wal-Mart is demonized by intellectuals in our society. These critics present the national chain as some kind of external power, independent of human beings, which somehow manages to impose itself on them against their will – a corporate monster. At times the townspeople talk as if they simply have no choice in going to the superstore, but at other times they reveal what really attracts them: lower prices that allow them to stretch their incomes and enjoy more of the good things in life. To be evenhanded, the episode does stress at several points the absurdities of buying in bulk just to get a bargain – for example, ending up with enough Ramen noodles “to last a thousand winters.”

In the grand horror movie tradition, the boys finally set out to find the heart of the Wall Mart and destroy it. Meanwhile, Stan Marsh's father, Randy, has gone to work for the Wall Mart for the sake of the 10 percent employee discount, but he nevertheless tries to help the boys reach their objective. As they get closer, Randy notes with increasing horror, “The Wall Mart is lowering its prices to try to stop us.” He deserts the children when he sees a screwdriver set marked down beyond his wildest dreams. He cries out, “This bargain is too great for me,” as he rushes off to a cash register to make a purchase. When the boys at last reach the heart of the Wall Mart, it turns out to be a mirror in which they see themselves. In one of the show's typical didactic moments, the spirit of the superstore tells the children: “That is the heart of Wall Mart – you, the consumer. I take many forms – Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target – but I am one single entity: desire.” Once again, South Park proclaims the sovereignty of the consumer in a market economy. If people keep flocking to a superstore, it must be doing something right, and satisfying their desires. Randy tells the townspeople, “The Wall Mart is us. If we like our small-town charm more than the big corporate bullies, we all have to be willing to pay a little bit more.” This is the free market solution to the superstore problem – no government need intervene. The townspeople accordingly march off to a local store named Jim's Drugs and start patronizing it. The store is so successful that it starts growing, and eventually mutates into – you guessed it – a superstore just like Wal-Mart. South Park has no problem with big businesses when they get big by pleasing their customers.

Working for the Man

Parker and Stone acknowledge that they themselves work for a large corporation, the cable channel Comedy Central, which is owned by a media giant, Viacom. In the Reason interview, Stone says, “People ask, u2018So how is it working for a big multinational conglomeration?' I'm like, u2018It's pretty good, you know? We can say whatever we want. It's not bad. I mean, there are worse things.'” Anticorporate intellectuals would dispute that claim and point to several occasions when Comedy Central pulled South Park episodes off the air or otherwise interfered with the show in response to various pressure groups, including Viacom itself. The most notorious of these incidents involved Parker and Stone's attempt to see if they could present an image of Mohammed on television. They were deeply disturbed by what had happened in 2005 in Denmark and around the world when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoon images of Mohammed. Threats and acts of violence from Muslims turned the event into an international incident. As staunch defenders of the right to free speech and free expression, Parker and Stone set out to establish the principle that Americans could – in the spirit of satire – show whatever images they wanted to on television. Unfortunately, Comedy Central refused to air the very tame images of Mohammed that Parker and Stone had wanted to show, even though the network at other times had no problem with showing viciously satirical images that they crafted of other religious figures, such as Jesus, Buddha, and Joseph Smith. This incident probably represents the low point of Parker and Stone's relations with Comedy Central and certainly left them with extremely bitter feelings about their bosses.

But despite this kind of interference, the fact is that Comedy Central financed the production of South Park from the beginning and thus made it possible in the first place. Like Tim Burton, Parker speaks with gratitude of the financial support he and Stone have received from the corporate world, with specific reference to their film Team America: World Police (2004): “At the end of the day, they gave us $40 million for a puppet movie.” Over the years, Comedy Central has granted Parker and Stone unprecedented creative freedom in shaping a show for television – not because the corporate executives are partisans of free speech and trenchant satire but because the show has developed a market niche and been profitable. Acting out of economic self-interest, not public spiritedness, these executives nevertheless furthered the cause of innovative television. South Park does not simply defend the free market in its episodes – it is itself living proof of how markets can work to create something of artistic value and, in the process, benefit producers and consumers alike.

South Park is a wonderful example of the vitality and unpredictability of American pop culture. Who could have imagined that such a show would ever be allowed on the air, or would become so popular or last so long, or would have such an impact on American pop culture? To this day, I watch an episode like the sixth-season “The Death Camp of Tolerance” (#614) and wonder how it managed to emerge out of the world of commercial television. The imaginative freedom of the show is, of course, first and foremost a tribute to the creativity of Parker and Stone. But one also must give credit to the commercial system that gave birth to South Park. For all the tendencies toward conformism and mediocrity in American pop culture, the diversity and competitiveness of its outlets sometimes allow creativity to flourish – and in the most unexpected places.

For the full version of this essay, see The Invisible Hand in Popular Culture, which also contains all the citations and scholarly references. Earlier versions of this essay were published in South Park and Philosophy: You Know I Learned Something Today, ed. Robert Arp (Blackwell, 2007) and Liberty 21, No. 9 (2007).

Paul A. Cantor [send him mail] is Professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization. Hear and see him on Mises Media.

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