Cartman Shrugged: The Invisible Gnomes and the Invisible Hand in South Park
Tho ye subject bee but a fart, yet will this tedious sink of learning ponderously philosophize.
Mark Twain, 1601
The first few times I watched South Park (1998) I thought it was the silliest show I had ever seen on television. But my students were finding my
references to The Simpsons getting old (this was in the late 1990s), and they insisted that South Park was on the cutting edge of
television comedy. So I kept watching the show until I began to realize that there is more to it than its relentless obscenity and potty humor. It can be
brilliantly satirical, and, perhaps most important, it consistently defends freedom against its many enemies today, on both the left and the right. But
despite the fact that the show won me over, I can still sympathize with its many vocal critics. I feel their pain. Watching a bunch of fourth graders see
how many times they can use a given four-letter word in a single episode is not the most edifying of spectacles and requires some justification from anyone
who claims to have a serious interest in pop culture.
High Philosophy and Low Comedy
To mount a high-minded defense of the shows low-minded humor, one might go all the way back to Plato to find a link between philosophy and vulgarity.
Toward the end of his dialogue the Symposium, a young Athenian nobleman named Alcibiades offers a striking image of the power of Socrates. He
compares the philosophers speeches to a statue of the satyr Silenus, which is ugly on the outside but which, when opened up, reveals a beautiful interior:
“if you choose to listen to Socrates discourses you would feel them at first to be quite ridiculous; on the outside they are clothed with such absurd
words and phrases. . . . His talk is of pack-asses, smiths, cobblers, and tanners. . . . so that anyone inexpert and thoughtless might laugh his speeches
to scorn. But when these are opened, . . . you will discover that they are the only speeches which have any sense in them.” 
These words characterize equally well the contrast between the vulgar surface and the philosophical depth of the dialogue in which they are spoken. The Symposium contains some of the most soaring and profound philosophical speculations ever written. And yet in the middle of the dialogue the comic
poet Aristophanes comes down with a bad case of hiccups that prevents him from speaking when his turn comes. By the end of the dialogue, all the characters
except Socrates have consumed so much wine that they pass out in a collective drunken stupor. In a dialogue about the spiritual dimension of love, Plato
thus suggests that, however philosophical we may wax in our speeches, we remain creatures of the body and can never entirely escape its crude bodily
functions. In the way that the Symposium moves back and forth between the ridiculous and the sublime, Plato seems to be making a statement about
philosophythat it has something in common with low comedy. Both philosophy and vulgar humor fly in the
face of conventional opinion.
I am not sure what Plato would have made of South Park, but his Silenus image fits the show quite well. South Park is one of the most
vulgar shows ever to appear on television, and yet at the same time it can be one of the most thought-provoking. Its vulgarity is the first thing one
notices about it, given its obsession with farting, s***ting, pissing, vomiting, and every other excretory possibility. As Platos dialogue suggests, it is
all too easy to become fixated on the vulgar and obscene surface of South Park, rejecting out of hand a show that chose to make a Christmas icon
out of a talking turd named Mr. Hankey. But if one is patient with South Park and gives the show the benefit of the doubt, one finds that it takes
up one serious issue after another, from environmentalism to animal rights, from assisted suicide to sexual harassment, from presidential elections to U.S.
foreign policy. And the show approaches all these issues from a distinctly libertarian perspective. If anything, South Park can become too
didactic, with episodes often culminating in a character delivering a speech that offers a surprisingly balanced and nuanced account of the issue at hand.
Before dismissing South Park, we should recall that some of the greatest comic writersAristophanes, Chaucer, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Jonson,
Swiftplumbed the depths of obscenity even as they rose to the heights of philosophical thought. The same intellectual courage that emboldened them to defy
conventional proprieties empowered them to reject conventional ideas and break through the intellectual frontiers of their day. Without claiming that South Park deserves to rank with such distinguished predecessors, I will say that the show descends from a long tradition of comedy that, ever
since ancient Athens, has combined obscenity and profanity with philosophy. There are almost as many fart jokes in Aristophanes play The Clouds
as there are in a typical episode of The Terrance and Phillip Show, the cartoon within a cartoon often presented in South Park. In fact,
in the earliest dramatic representation of Socrates that has come down to us, he is making fart jokes as he tries to explain to a dumb Athenian named
Strepsiades that thunder is a purely natural phenomenon, not the work of the great god Zeus:
First think of the tiny fart that your intestines make.
Then consider the heavens: their infinite farting is thunder.
For thunder and farting are, in principle, one and the same.
Thus, in characterizing South Park, it would not be wholly inappropriate to evoke a variety of elite culture precedents and call the show
Aristophantic, Chaucerian, Rabelaisian, or Swiftian. Like Aristophanes or Swift, Trey Parker and Matt
Stone (the shows creators) relentlessly satirize political leaders, portraying them as bumbling idiots and exposing their hypocrisy, pretentions, and
hidden agendas. Like Chaucer or Rabelais, Parker and Stone ridicule religious authorities, again focusing
on their hypocrisy, but also having fun with the absurdities of church dogma and doctrine. In short, for all its vulgarity, South Park descends
from a long and distinguished tradition of calling into question the prestige of political and religious elites. As several commentators have noted,
perhaps the best adjective for describing South Park is carnivalesque. The eminent Russian critic M. M. Bakhtin used this word in his
groundbreaking analyses of the work of Rabelais.
Bakhtin discusses the ways in which Rabelais drew upon the popular culture of his day to develop his trenchant satire of political, ecclesiastical, and
other authorities in his Gargantua and Pantagruel. Bakhtin is particularly interested in the kinds of carnival festivities that broke up the daily
monotony of medieval life throughout Europecustoms, ceremonies, rituals, pageants, and comic shows that allowed the common people to mock the authorities
who ruled them and thus temporarily to escape their yoke, if only on an imaginary plane. In the midst of a repressive culture, carnival opens up a space of
imaginative freedom. Central among such carnivalesque elements in European culture was the Feast of Fools, in which a King of the Fools was chosen, a
commoner jokingly elected to a position of eminence. This inversion of conventional hierarchy, in which the low is made high, goes to the heart of the
carnival spirit. By parodying the standard symbols of powerfor example, placing a crown on the head of a foolcarnival customs call into question the
rigid stratification of the social order. Carnival cuts elites down to size by making fun of them and challenging the all-pervasiveness of their rule.
Such customs have a liberating effect, if only by momentarily giving ordinary people a glimpse of different ways of ordering the world. The festive spirit
of carnival seeks a temporary release of the energies of the body ordinarily suppressed by political and ecclesiastical elites. A momentary indulgence in
food, drink, and sex is the polar opposite of the repression that was normally imposed on common people in the medieval Christian world. In its own
cartoonish way, South Park similarly fulfills a carnivalesque function, inverting the hierarchies that dominate the contemporary world, pointing
to a liberation of repressed impulses, and challenging the political, moral, and religious establishment. With his rotund body, his playacting, his love of
birthday parties, and his insatiable appetites, Eric Cartman is a perfect emblem of the carnival spirit.
He is the pint-sized Falstaff of the cartoon world.
Bakhtin especially notes the way in which linguistic excess performs a liberating function in Rabelaiss prose. Rabelais broke out of the narrow limits of
polite literary discourse and drew upon the vast resources of the language of the peopleregional dialects; professional jargon; slang of all kinds; and,
above all, curse words and obscenities. To read most serious literature, one would never know the enormous range of vocabulary a living language has to
offer. Rabelais revealed how many words a language has to describe bodily functions, words one never hears in polite conversation. Consider the linguistic
cornucopia that results when Rabelais has Gargantuas governesses pay tribute to his male member, glorious even when he is still a child: “And they amused
themselves by rubbing it between their hands like a roll of pastry, and then burst out laughing when it raised its ears, as if the game pleased them. One
of them called it my pillicock, another my ninepin, another my coral-branch, another my stopper, my cork, my quiverer, my driving-pin, my auger, my
dingle-dangle, my rough-go stiff-and-low, my crimping iron, my little red sausage, my sweet little cocky.” 
In a whole chapter devoted to what might be decorously described as anal hygiene, Rabelais really lets the subterranean powers of language loose, as he
May you burn with St. Anthonys fire
Are not well wiped ere you retire.
This is just the kind of language that critics complain about when they hear it in South Park. The shows exuberance of language has a similar
function: to shock us out of our linguistic habits, and hence our habits of thought, by confronting us with the way people really speak. In particular, Parker and Stone have an excellent ear for the way children talk among themselves, and South Park continually reminds us that the words they pick up on the street go well beyond the vocabulary the little tykes are supposed to have at
As Bakhtin demonstrates, another way the carnival spirit performs its subversive function is to create new perspectives on the world by shaking us out of
conventional frameworks. For example, in Gargantua and Pantagruel, we are often asked to look at the world through the eyes of giants, allowing
Rabelais to play with the size of things, reducing some by making them look smaller and celebrating others by making them look larger.  For example, medieval Christianity had denigrated the human body, diminishing its value by picturing
it as small, ugly, deformed, and wretched. Rabelaiss giants, by their very size, celebrate the energies of the human body and its enormous capacity for
enjoyment. In one of the most emblematic moments in Rabelais, the infant but gigantic Pantagruel epitomizes the liberating spirit of the Renaissance by
breaking out of the cradle that tries to confine him: “Then he broke that cradle of his into more than five hundred thousand pieces with a blow of his
fist, which he struck at the middle of it in his rage, and swore that he would never go back into it.”  When Rabelais wants to diminish the Catholic Church in his readers eyes, he literally reduces its
size compared to Gargantua. In book 1, chapter 17, the giant is so large that, when he takes a fancy to the bells of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, he
can simply carry them home to hang on the neck of his horse. So much for the grandeur of the Catholic Church.
In the comic tradition of Rabelais and Swift, South Park uses extremes of size for comic and satiric effect. For example, in the first-season
episode “Mecha-Streisand” (#112), a gigantic Godzilla-like Barbra Streisand symbolizes the inflated egos and overblown reputations of celebrities in our
culture, as well as the undue influence that they exert on public opinion. The eleventh-season episode
“Lice Capades” (#1103) takes the opposite approach. It cuts environmental catastrophism down to size by imaging it in terms of a Lilliputian community of
lice, who act out an overblown end-of-the-world scenario while perched on the head of one of the schoolchildren. The episode is reminiscent of the famous
chapter 32 of book 2 of Gargantua and Pantagruel, when the author enters Pantagruels mouth and finds an alternate world of people living there
who are unaware of anything beyond its borders.
Out of the Potty Mouths of Babes
At the heart of South Park is another way of reversing perspectives and inverting conventional hierarchies: viewing the world through the eyes of
children. The series fundamentally works by showing that children are wiser than adults. In South Park the adults often act like children while
the children act like adultsa perfect example of carnivalesque turning the world on its head. Precisely because the children are not yet fully socialized
into adult life, they see the world differently and are free of many social prejudices and pretentions. While the adults think that they already have all
the answers, the children of South Park continually ask questions and raise doubts about the conventional wisdom of the community. As children,
they are eager to explore their world and are open to new experiences, which lead them well beyond the limited intellectual borders of their small town.
In taking seriously the childs perspective on the world, South Park is heir to an old American tradition, which stretches back at least as far as
Mark Twain and his classic American heroes, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It is surprising how few critics have noted the affinities that link Parker
and Stone with Twain, but perhaps people are reluctant to acknowledge that a venerable American brand of humor stands behind anything as vulgar as South Park. Like Parker and Stone, Twain viewed the childs perspective as
distinctively American in its openness and lack of conventional social prejudice. When Twain wanted to call into question the idea that slavery is natural,
he paired the young Huck Finn with the escaped slave Jim. Huck has been taught all his life that slavery is morally right, but, removed from the everyday
context of his community, he gradually learns to see with fresh eyes and eventually concludes that slavery is morally wrong.  As in South Park, in the world of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn the children are wiser than the
adults precisely because they do not unthinkingly accept the common opinions of their day (a refusal symbolized in both worlds by various forms of truancy
from school). Twain deliberately chose to make children the representative figures in his portrayal of America. Viewing the United States as a
land of freedom and a place where people could make a fresh start in life, Twain saw children as best capturing the true spirit of America. A similar
process of thought stands behind Parker and Stones decision to tell their stories from the perspective of fourth graders. What seems at first to be a
childish obsession with potty humor in South Park is simply the reverse side of the childlike openness of its characters to fresh perspectives,
and that is what gives the show its affinities to Twain and the long tradition of philosophical comedy.
One might object that the mere presence of children in some of Twains best-known fiction is not enough to link him with South Park and its strong
brew of profanity, obscenity, blasphemy, and other violations of linguistic and social decorum. To be sure, the climate of opinion in Twains day did not
allow him the freedom of expression that the creators of South Park have enjoyed. Obviously, Twain could not use four-letter words in books that
he intended to be read in polite society, as well as by children. It is, however, interesting to note how many times Twain refers to profanity in books
such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, almost as if he were indicating that he would have used such language if he had been permitted to. Phrases
such as “[he] used considerable many cuss words” or “He cussed away, with all his might” or “give them a solid good cussing” appear regularly in Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn might sound a lot more like Eric Cartman if
Twain had not been inhibited by nineteenth-century literary proprieties.
If one sets aside the issue of diction and surveys Twains career in terms of subject matter, one finds that he shared many interestseven obsessionswith
Parker and Stone. Like them, he took controversial positions on many of the hot political issues of his day. South Park has questioned Americas
military involvement in a number of foreign countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Twain similarly was disturbed by the aggressive and expansive
foreign policy that the America of his day pursued in such areas as the Philippines. He did not wish to see the United States become an imperialistic
power, and Parker and Stone appear to share that concern. On religious issues, Twain also adopted controversial positions, and he got away with a good deal
of satire of the church in works such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court. But again, given the climate of American opinion in his day,
he had to be careful about expressing heretical opinions and free thinking in public. As a result, some of Twains most daring and provocative religious
satire did not see the light of print during his lifetime. The book project generally known as The Mysterious Stranger was not published until
after his death, and then only in a heavily edited and distorted edition. From what we now know of the various versions of this text Twain left behind, we
can see that it has many affinities with the religious satire in South Park, and in particular it shares Parker and Stones fascination with the
figure of Satan and their animus against Catholicism.
To see a nineteenth-century precedent for South Park in a classic American writer, the best place to turn is a peculiar work of Twains entitled 1601. Written in a faux Elizabethan English dialect, this brief piece purports to be a conversation among a number of legendary figures from the
era, including Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, and Queen Elizabeth herself. Twain peppers their dialogue liberally with most of the
famous four-letter words. For example, he describes an awkward pause in the conversation this way: “There was silent uncomfortableness now; twas not a
good turne for talk to take, sith if the queene must find offense in a little harmless debauching, when pricks were stiff cunts not loath to take the
stiffnesse out of them, who of the companie was sinless?” The story features a fart joke that Parker
and Stone would envy, as Raleigh inelegantly but forcefully trumpets his presence in courtly society: “Then delivered hee himself of such a godless
rocke-shivering blast that all were fain to stop their ears, following it did come so dense foul a stink that that which went before did seeme
a poor trifling thing beside it. Then saith he, feigning that he blushed and was confused,I perceive that I am weak to-daie cannot justice doe unto my powers; sat him down as who sholde say,There, it is not moche; yet he that hath an arse to spare lette hym fellow that, an he think he can.”  Beyond the sheer vulgarity of its language, 1601 anticipates South Park in the way
it treats elites. Twain, much like Parker and Stone, enjoys cutting famous people down to size, demonstrating that great cultural icons were ordinary human
beings, subject to the same bodily functions as common people. In a brash and characteristically American gesture, Twain does not allow himself to be
intimidated by the most august figures of European elite culture, its very royalty, so to speak, but instead treats them with a healthy dose of democratic
irreverence. 1601 gives a rare glimpse into the really nasty and reductive side of Twains humor. It reads just like an episode of South Park.
Speaking the Unspeakable
The example of Twain helps to place South Park in a broader cultural context. He was extraordinarily successful as an author in commercial terms
and quickly became a fixture of American popular culture. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are true American archetypes. But, perhaps precisely because of his
popularity, Twain was generally looked down on by the cultural elite of his day. His works were
condemned for all sorts of reasons during his lifetime, and yet several of them have come to be regarded as masterpieces of American literature. This is a
common pattern: works condemned as mere popular culture when they are published, works that were censored or even banned originally, go on to become
classics. This pattern is especially characteristic of comic works. –>
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
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.”
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, naïvely 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:
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 clichés 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, ‘So how is it working for a big multinational conglomeration?’ I’m like, ‘It’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.
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.
Comment on this article.
Paul A. Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the co-editor, with Stephen Cox, of Literature and the Economics of Liberty.
See his interview in the Austrian Economics Newsletter.
Send him mail. See Paul A. Cantor’s article archives.
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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).
My epigraph is from Mark Twain,
1601 and Is Shakespeare Dead?
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), iv.
For more on the relation between South Park and Plato, see William W. Young III, Flatulence and Philosophy: A Lot of Hot Air, or the
Corruption of Youth? and William J. Devlin, The Philosophical Passion of the Jew: Kyle the Philosopher, in South Park and Philosophy: You Know, I Learned Something Today, ed. Robert Arp (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2007), 57, 8889.
The Clouds, lines 392394, in The Clouds, trans. William Arrowsmith (New York: New American Library, 1962), 45.
For some of the same reference points, see Toni Johnson-Woods, Blame Canada! South Park and Contemporary Culture (New York: Continuum, 2007),
In a book in which I repeatedly stress the viability of multiple authorship as a mode of production in popular culture, I will simply note that
everybody seems to accept Parker and Stone as the co-auteurs of South Park without worrying how they work together and how their contributions to
the show might be distinguished. I wonder if many viewers of the show could even tell them apart. In the terms of English Renaissance drama, they are the
Beaumont and Fletcher of contemporary cartoons.
See M. M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hlne Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); and The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981). On the relevance of
Bakhtin, Rabelais, and the carnivalesque to South Park, see Johnson-Woods, Blame Canada!, xiixvi, 7576; and Alison Halsall,
Bigger Longer Uncut: South Park and the Carnivalesque, in Taking South Park Seriously, ed. Jeffrey Andrew
Weinstock (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 2337.
For anyone unfamiliar with the characters of South Park, I will state briefly that the four main characters are children named Eric Cartman,
Kyle Broflovski, Stan Marsh, and Kenny McCormick (Parker and Stone voice all four, as well as other characters in the show). For a detailed discussion of
the four boys, as well as the other main characters in South Park, see Johnson-Woods, Blame Canada!, 163186. For the variant
spellings of Broflovski, see ibid., 185n5.
Like Shakespeares Falstaff, Cartman is ultimately derived from a stock character of Roman comedy: the braggart captain (miles gloriosus
). Besides his love of boasting and lying, Cartman shares with Falstaff a tendency to cowardice; both characters like to act tough in front of their
friends, but quickly back down when challenged.
Franois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Viking Penguin, 1955), 63.
Ibid., 6768. Rabelais reveals his debt to Platos Symposium in the authors prologue to book 1 of Gargantua and Pantagruel, where he refers to the same Silenus passage I quote at the beginning of this chapter.
The profanity in Deadwood serves a similar purpose.
Jonathan Swift makes use of the same satiric technique in Gullivers Travels, especially with his diminutive Lilliputians and gigantic
Brobdingnagians. For the way the theme of gigantic dimensions serves Rabelais for perspectivistic effects of contrast, which upset the
readers balance, see Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 272276.
Rabelais, Gargantua, 181.
I cite South Park episodes by the standard numbers given in the Warner Home Video DVD sets.
Nick Gillespie divines the connection when he says that South Park will prove every bit as long-lived in the American subconscious as Mark
Twains Hannibal, Missouri. Gillespie, South Park Libertarians, Reason 38, no. 7 (December 2006): 60. A Google
search for Twain and South Park did not yield meaningful results, except for an attempt by Brown University students to organize a
course on South Park, Mark Twain, and Finding an American Culture posted on March 16, 2011.
For many seasons of South Park, the boys closest confidante was the African American cook at their school, known as Chef (voiced by
Isaac Hayes). This might be regarded as a recreation of the Huck-Jim pairing. The boys learn many lessons about life from Chef that nobody else at their
school is willing to teach them, and he repeatedly proves to be a liberating influence on them.
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 127 (chapter 21), 130 (chapter 21), and 189 (chapter
31). These and like passages elsewhere in Huckleberry Finn and other works by Twain shed light on David Milchs use of profanity in Deadwood. Twain is unable to use the kind of language Milch wrote into his show, but he indicates that such language was readily spoken in
nineteenth-century America, especially on the frontier.
Twain, 1601, ix. As if to suggest the pedigree of his work, Twain has Queen Elizabeth mention that she met Rabelais when she was fifteen years
Twain, 1601, v (italics in the original). It is possible that 1601 gives us a glimpse of what Twains prose might have looked
like if he had published in a more liberal climate of opinion. On this point, see Erica Jongs introduction to this edition of 1601
[Twain] could not fill Huckleberry Finn with farts, pricks, and cunts, but he could play in 1601 and prepare his imagination for
the antisocial adventures he would give his antihero in the other book (xxxviii). And more generally, in words relevant to South Park, Jong
writes: in Mark Twains case, pornography was an essential part of his oeuvre because it primed the pump for other sorts of freedom
of expression (xxxiii).
See Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 212.
Huckleberry Finn is a particularly interesting case because it is often still banned in libraries and school districts because of its racist
See Aristotle, Poetics, 1448a and 1449a in the standard numbering (sections 2 and 5 of Book I).
On this point, see Johnson-Woods, Blame Canada!, 8284. The people who wish to see South Park taken off television would
probably have tried to get Mark Twains books banned if they had lived in the nineteenth century. Some of them might still want to see Twains
books banned today.
On South Park finding the most potent taboos in American society and thus the most sacred of cows to satirize, see Matt Becker,
I Hate Hippies: South Park and the Politics of Generation X, in Weinstock, Taking South Park Seriously, 150.
As several commentators have pointed out, this fight sequence closely mimics one in John Carpenters movie They Live (1988). See
Johnson-Woods, Blame Canada!, 223; and Brian L. Ott, The Pleasures of South Park (An Experiment in Media Erotics), in
Weinstock, Taking South Park Seriously, 44.
For a good analysis of this episode, see Becker, I Hate Hippies, 155156.
For a politically correct critique of South Park, see Robert Samuels, Freud Goes to South Park: Teaching against Postmodern Prejudices
and Equal Opportunity Hatred, in Weinstock, Taking South Park Seriously, 99111. Reading this essay gives a good sense of the
ideological positions Parker and Stone are combating. As his title indicates, Samuels takes as his pedagogical goal inoculating his students against the
harmful influence of South Park.
For a critique of the equal opportunity offensiveness of South Park, see Stephen Groening, Cynicism and Other
Postideological Half Measures in South Park, in Weinstock, Taking South Park Seriously, 113129. Like Samuels and several of
the other authors in the Weinstock volume, Groening tries to deflect or dilute the critique of liberal and left-wing causes in South Park by
falling back on the claim that the show criticizes everything. He then accuses the show of breeding political apathy: Viewers may see themselves as
participants in a society rife with injustice but with no immediately viable solutions and prefer the uncommitted cynical irony of South Park
s parodic satire (124). The same point is made in another essay in the volume: Lindsay Coleman, Shopping at J-Mart with the Williams:
Race, Ethnicity, and Belonging in South Park, 131141. Coleman concludes, Although Parker and Stone satirize the powerful, the
hypocritical, and the stridently bigoted, they do not provide solutions to societys problems or provide the keys to social harmony (141).
With criticism such as this, I can only wonder whether it is asking too much of a TV cartoon to expect it to provide solutions to societys
problems or provide the keys to social harmony. I applaud the title of the volume these essays appear in, but this may be a case of taking South Park too seriously. Ultimately, the authors in the Weinstock collection complain not that South Park does not offer solutions to
social problems, but that it does not offer their own liberal or left-wing solutions. As Cripple Fight demonstrates, South Park does
not simply jump back and forth randomly between conservative and liberal positions. Rather, it offers its own solutions to problems by appealing
consistently to libertarian principles.
For example, in an interview, Matt Stone said, Were libertarians. Which is basically: Leave me aloneand Im okay with drugs
and gays. Mickey Rapkin, They Killed Kenny . . . and Revolutionized Comedy, GQ, February 2006, 146. Many commentators have
noted the libertarianism of South Park; for a well-balanced account of the shows politics, see Johnson-Woods, Blame Canada!,
As quoted in Brian C. Anderson, South Park Conservatives: The Revolt against Liberal Media Bias (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2005), 178.
Quoted in Gillespie, South Park Libertarians, 66.
For an analysis of why such groups turn against capitalism, see Ludwig von Mises, The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (Princeton, NJ: D. Van
Nostrand, 1956), especially 3033 for the turn against capitalism in Hollywood.
See especially chapter 5, note 4.
As quoted in Anderson, South Park Conservatives, 82. On the treatment of celebrities in South Park, see Johnson-Woods, Blame Canada!, 187199, 210211; and Damion Sturm, Omigod, Its Russell Crowe!: South Parks
Assault on Celebrity, in Weinstock, Taking South Park Seriously, 209215, especially 215, where he analyzes in the case of George
Clooney the way the show dismantles star power.
Mises, Anti-Capitalistic Mentality, 2.
George Bernard Shaw offers this interpretation of Alberich; see his The Perfect Wagnerite (1898) in George Bernard Shaw, Major Critical Essays (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1986), 198, 205.
For the way H. G. Wells uses invisibility as a symbol of capitalism, see my essay The Invisible Man and the Invisible Hand: H. G.
Wellss Critique of Capitalism, in Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, ed. Paul A. Cantor and
Stephen Cox (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009), 293305.
F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 90, 91, 93.
Several e-mail responses to an earlier version of this chapter argued that the gnomes diagram is making fun of the sketchy business plans that
flooded the initial public offering (IPO) market in the heyday of the dot-com boom in the 1990s. Having helped write a few such documents myself, I know
what these correspondents are referring to, but I still think that my interpretation of this scene fits the context better. If the gnomes business
plan is simply satirizing dot-com IPOs, then it has no relation to the rest of the episode. I seem, however, to be fighting a losing battle over this
interpretation. The sketchy business plan interpretation is going viral. See, for example, Art Carden, Underpants Gnomes
Political Economy, http://blogs.forbes.com/artcarden/2011/07/14/underpants-gnomes-political-economy (consulted August 9, 2011).
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 2 vols. (1776; rpt. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1981), 1:
Thus, I am not about to get drawn into disputes over the quality of Starbucks products. In fact, this chapter is about Harbucks, that is, the
fictional form in which South Park represents Starbucks, not the actual retail chain. As with Howard Hughes in chapter 5, I am analyzing a
fictional representation of a historical reality, not the reality itself. For a defense of the real Starbucks, see Jackson Kuhl, Tempest in a
Coffeepot: Starbucks Invades the World, Reason, January 2003, 5557.
This attitude is epitomized by a very peculiar passage in the works of Marxist thinker Theodor Adorno, in which he laments the fact that the modern
market economy has made cheap reproductions of all sorts of cultural artifacts readily available to large numbers of people. He complains that young
radicals fill their dwellings with works of elite culture: On the walls the deceptively faithful colour reproductions of famous Van Goghs like the
Sunflowers or the Caf at Arles. . . . Added to this the Random House edition of ProustScott Moncrieffs
translation deserved a better fate, cut-price exclusivity even in its appearance. . . . All cultural products, even non-conformist ones, have been
incorporated into the distribution-mechanisms of large-scale capital. . . . Even Kafka is becoming a fixture in the sub-let studio. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1978), 207. Perhaps Adorno could afford original Van Goghs
and first editions of Proust (and high-rent apartments), but one wonders why he begrudges poor students their access to elite culture, even in cheap
reproductions. I discuss Adornos snobbery further in chapter 8.
This line of argument is characteristic of the Frankfurt School of Marxism; I analyze it further in chapter 8.
Rapkin, They Killed Kenny, 146.
As with Harbucks/Starbucks, I am mainly interested in Wall Mart rather than Wal-Mart. That is, my analysis once again deals with the representation of
Wal-Mart in South Park, not with the actual retail chain. For a defense of the real corporation and its practices, see Paul Kirklin, The
Ultimate pro-WalMart Article, Mises Daily Article, June 28, 2006, http://mises.org/daily/2219 (consulted August 4, 2011).
Several commentators fail to understand the media sophistication of South Park and miss the humor in moments like this. See, for example,
Johnson-Woods, Blame Canada!, 153154, 205. She thinks that the horror elements are the shows way of characterizing Wal-Mart, not its
way of characterizing the common misperception of Wal-Mart. Parker and Stone evidently have their personal doubts about Wal-Mart, but they are mainly
concerned with the absurd extent to which its critics go in demonizing it. On this episode, see also Becker, I Hate Hippies,
Quoted in Gillespie, South Park Libertarians, 63.
The episodes in question were pulled only from the repeat rotation; they were allowed to air originally, and they are now once again available in the
DVD sets of the series.
This incident has been widely discussed. See, for example, Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, Simpsons Did It!: South Park as
Differential Signifier, in Weinstock, Taking South Park Seriously, 9193; Kevin J. Murtagh, Blasphemous Humor in South Park, in Arp, South Park and Philosophy, 2939, especially 33; and David R. Koepsell, They Satirized My Prophet
. . . Those Bastards!: South Park and Blasphemy, in Arp, South Park and Philosophy, 131140, especially 138.
In this case, the images of Mohammed were not made available on the DVD version of the episodes. For discussion of another South Park episode
dealing with Muslim themes, Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants (#509), see chapter 9, on The X-Files and 9/11.
Quoted in Gillespie, South Park Libertarians, 64.