South Park and Open Society: A Response

An essay I recently wrote. Loved reading about Karl Popper, didn’t really like the essay.

South Park and Open Society: A Response

            When examining a democratic society there should be ample evidence of open expression, where ideas can be examined and critiqued by the people as a whole. Professors David Curtis and Gerald Erion investigate this evidence in their essay South Park and the Open Society by presenting the controversial cartoon show South Park. South Park gained popularity in the nineties, and has since built the reputation of parading society’s most controversial topics for the public eye. Curtis and Erion provide examples of how the open examination found in South Park was intentionally designed to exercise and preserve the health of liberal democracy. To support their case and qualify the importance of an open society, the authors cite twentieth century political philosopher Karl Popper and his critique of totalitarianism, The Open Society and Its Enemies.

            In the opening paragraphs of their essay, Curtis and Erion reference media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s position that many social criticisms are intentionally interwoven into seemingly harmless entertainment mediums and serve to illustrate the fundamental principles of democratic philosophy at work (para 1).  South Park, they instance, does this explicitly by portraying its characters as ‘overzealous political activists’. The show openly offers up caricatures of extremism on the right and left for ridicule and derision. Because South Park finds no person or subject taboo, it has been constantly targeted for censorship and cancelation. Curtis and Erion believe that the creator’s decision to allow open discussion of such extremism places them in a position safe from the extremists who threaten to shut down the show.

            While South Park may come off as a crass cartoon filled with crude humor and ‘tasteless’ jokes, authors Curtis and Erion create convincing parallels between serious social and political gestalts that allow for deeper considerations of South Parks methods of free expression. What has protected South Park from much of this ridicule is that by silencing the shows message, many people would effectively be silencing their own. What lends credibility to the show is that it rests on the ideals of open society that are needed for critique and criticisms. It is just as natural that the show is a critic that it is producing critics.

            Curtis and Erion cite South Park cocreators Trey Parkers and Matt Stone in a PBS interview as they remark on the importance of openly recognizing that people screaming on both sides of an issue are the same people, and that it is ‘OK’ to be in the middle and laugh at both of them (para 3). What is paramount here is that these extremists don’t stifle the message of one or the other. Curtis and Erion refer to Karl Poppers principle of intolerance for intolerance to support Parker and Stone’s position (para 14). This principle emphasizes what Popper saw as a necessity in a democratic society in order to ensure open discussion on all subjects that call for critique and lead to progress. While the creators may not intentionally have society’s best interest at heart, they are most definitely furthering the healthy process of examining controversial subjects so that progressive ideas can be exchanged.

            When looking at the heart of this type of free expression in action, twentieth century scientific and politic philosopher Karl Popper provides the best framework for examining the system. As a major proponent of liberal democracy, Popper championed the notion of open society while criticizing the controls of government and customary myths perpetuating closed societies.  

            In order to avoid being subject to criticism from one extremist group or another, the creators of South Park opt to bash all sides, playing it safe in the middle ground. Referring to the remarks of the co-creators about the importance of extremism being expressed, Curtis and Erion find evidence of Poppers open society framework in the countless characters of South Park who openly embody this extremism and portray stereotypes of all kinds. Each of the main caricatures of SouthPark, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny, encapsulate characterized beliefs within our culture.

            Through the character Cartman, the obnoxious overweight authoritarian, the co-creators exhibit the abhorrent stereotypes associated with the right wing fanaticism (para 11). Curtis and Erion describe the qualities and character defects that Cartman poignantly displays in characterizing ‘un-democratic’ conservatives. He has no issue berating anyone with his foul mouth and fascist opinions and most often takes his anger out on Kenny, a character that best represents the poorer class.

            With his coat covering his mouth and inhibiting recognizable speech, Kenny’s role usually consists of random muffles here and there, followed by his eventual death in most episodes. His lack of speech is similar to the lack of voice and influence within the poorer class. His regular deaths, and the utter lack of concern his friends share when he dies, represents the constant struggle within the lower classes that is often overlooked or ignored as a whole.

            With just as much ease, Curtis and Erion reference the characters identified with the extreme political left. An episode with their teacher, Mr. Mackey, portrays the hypocrisy of the watered-down leftists as his attempts to get the students to stay away from drugs lead to his own addiction.

            For middle ground the creators introduce Stan to exemplify the every day American middle class Christian populist. Along with Kyle, they represent an open and diplomatic approach to problems which allows the audience to receive him easily. While similar to Stan, Kyle is Jewish and embodies the prejudices as a minority.       

            The friendship between these four not only illustrates the volatile dynamics within American culture as they interact, but creates a satirical stage as they encounter other residents and extremists within the show that demonstrate extreme beliefs and opinions. What makes the show so popular is how these characters encounter these extreme ideas and the scenarios they contain. As an audience we witness our own behaviors, biases and prejudices exhibited through the characters.

            Curtis and Erion present convincing evidence in their essay South Park and the Open Society that South Park creators Parker and Stone share Karl Poppers political philosophy of an open society. By actively identifying and discussing the extremism on all sides, they offer themselves up as an extreme, and legitimize an important stake in open discussions. If Popper were alive to witness South Park on the air, he would rest assure that the health of American Democracy is alive and well.

Fundamental America

This is what a paper written in 1 hour and 20 minutes looks like.

Fundamental America: Free for a Price

Examining the paradoxes of social inequalities within the scope of democratic sentiments

Inherent Paradoxes

            Two hundred and thirty years ago the American people declared their independence from tyrannical autocratic rule. The founders synthesized the enduring democratic rights and truths of the greatest philosophers that ever lived. Despite this, democracy was reserved for a margin of people and out of reach from the vast majority. Since our countries conception, great advances have been made to refine what democracy is and establish who has the right to contribute their voice. Major movements in women’s suffrage and later slavery and African American rights were milestones that helped shape the seemingly exclusive ideal of democracy. Currently America faces several fronts that challenge the legitimacy of our current democracy.

Social Inequalities

            In our readings in Signs of Life in the USA, authors Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon address a variety of paradoxes that exist within our American culture in chapter six, American Paradox. No paradox is more controversial and relevant than America’s simultaneous declaration of universal human freedom and equality and its long history of racism. This paradox addresses the tip of the iceberg of much larger paradox illustrating an advertised freedom that was not intended to be free.

Historical inequalities

            Examining our American roots we can see that our puritanical Christian forefathers desired a society of their own, free from autocratic dictation. They envisioned this society for the United States. As time went on, these puritanical sentiments persisted and found their way into our legislation. Because their ideals subjugated the rights of women and African Americans, they were prevented from voicing themselves for the first half of American history. Only after massive opposition and generations of change have these become matters of the past.

Xenophobia of Middle Easterners

            In our current culture racism seems to be localized to extreme fringe groups. Popular culture has seen women take center stage on political issues, and African Americans dominate multiple industries from entertainment to sports. However, social inequalities are still alive and well, and although racism may be withering, xenophobia continues to blossom with every generation. Most recently our country has been in multiple wars and with every war is an accompanying fear. Middle easterners have been the target of these fears as our government denounced radical Muslims and extremists from the middle east of reeking havoc world wide. While the atrocious crimes were committed by radical sects, the language used to single them out has effectively caused a mass hysteria directed towards the Middle East as a whole. Ignorant Americans forget that the numbers of such extremists are next to nothing.

Xenophobia of Illegal Immigrants

            Another xenophobia gripping our nation is that of illegal immigration. The news of illegal immigrants storming our borders, scaling walls, digging tunnels, enduring deserts and dangers has America in a panic. While Americans national security has been called into question, another issue of economic security has been the focus of most news. Illegal immigrants are publicized as taking hard working tax paying American’s jobs. In light of our economic decline, this has been the spotlight of most Americans concern. To compound the issue further, America’s war on drugs is now directly battling the major trafficking of illegal drugs through our southern Mexican border.

Social Inequality of Homosexuality

            The last social inequality that challenges the fabric of our constitution and agitates the ethical and moral minds of America is the issue of homosexuality. It seems it would be an inevitable topic given our ‘free’ country was founded by puritanical Christians. While the issue of homosexuality has made much headway in popular culture and open acceptance the past two decades, it has only recently been challenging the roots of America. Proposition 8 and the issue of same sex marriage has been the most widely publicized debate on the issue.

Examining the Paradoxes

            Why are these paradoxical? While some might look at these issues and produce valid concerns for their legitimacy, they overlook the very foundations of America. This land, whatever the founder’s initial intent, was established as a haven for the persecuted, a home for those underfoot, those whose rights were molested or stripped. Social inequalities serve to destabilize the creed of freedom. To remove one man his rights would be to undermine the rights of all men. This, however, is what America has done throughout its history as it has attempted to reserve democracy to a select few.

Reserved Freedoms

            These examples illustrate a major flaw in America’s declaration of freedom and equality: where the line of freedom is drawn. While we hold our relativistic and tolerant values supreme, we are terribly protective and afraid of anybody watering this down and wavering from these values.  In the case of illegal immigration, most would think that America, of all places, would be the most receptive and lax about this process. Considering that there are no true natives other than the Indians, we should embrace the people who venture here to exercise their rights. The truth is that earning your citizenship and freedom in America is an arduous test of patience that many people simply do not have the time to pass.

Paradoxes: Generational Entrapment

            Democracy is defined as a government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is retained and directly exercised by the people. These people make up the common people and dictate the governing rule through the legislative and judiciary process. However, problems arise when one generation’s laws improperly reflect the current generation. As the generation of one common people phases out, another phases in, often met in opposition to outdated traditions and beliefs that made their way in legislation. These tendencies create obstacles for progress, as is seen throughout American history with landowners only being able to vote, women’s rights, and African American rights.

Defining a Free Democracy

             Another paradox that exists within these paradoxes is that of a free democracy itself. Any form of government is a form of control. Whether that control is derived from single or multiple sources detracts from that fact that there is a degree of freedom is forfeited. In a democracy this power is derived from the common people, the populous. This causes difficulties among those who compose a margin of the population or any minority with fringe beliefs and philosophies.


            Overcoming these paradoxes will be the result of overcoming an inherent part of the human nature: fear, specifically the unknown. That includes all unfamiliarity extending to foreigners, homosexuality, or just change in general. While I would love to say these inequalities have all but disappeared with the advent of the mass media, internet, and other mediums of communication that break down the one sided walls of ignorance, the truth is they remain an enduring part of our culture.  Though America once related with the tired huddled masses in Emma Lazarus’s words on the statue of liberty, we have grown alien to these feelings and are less empathetic to those who need it most.