You’re considering not voting in elections? That only works if you’re in ‘HarmonTown’
Don’t let anyone tell you not to vote in the upcoming presidential election, or any election. And if you think Dan Harmon did, take it from me: He did not.
For the rest of you, who is Dan Harmon, and who cares? He’s the guy behind the cult television sitcom “Community,” the Adult Swim animated show “Rick and Morty” and, most importantly here, the “HarmonTown” live show, video stream and podcast. In pockets of progressivism nationwide, from Portland, Ore., to Austin, Texas, and Cambridge and Somerville, he’s a guru to millennials whose gospels are disseminated and debated on Twitter and Instagram.
But he’s also emblematic of a strain of an essentially libertarian cynicism in vogue among techies and privileged pseudo-intellectuals that applies a political spectrum so stark that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump somehow come across as equally good and equally bad. Because this is a poisonous, dangerous philosophy, I went on a pilgrimage to Hollywood to talk with Harmon while catching him and his co-host, improv comedian and actor Jeff Davis, do a summer “HarmonTown” podcast.
I’m a fan, but when Harmon and Davis talk about politics, it nearly always makes my head explode. (I’m not the only one. There’s occasional critical response online, but never a challenge on the podcast, where the audience just seems to soak it up.) Since I’ve been through 152 episodes of “HarmonTown” before the one I attended, that’s a lot of potential head explosions.
“Fuck all governments”
What drives me nuts about the stance, although in the case of Harmon and Davis it comes out in drunken banter on a comedians’ podcast and thus is just incoherent enough to leave room for doubt, is the idea there’s no difference between Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Rodham Clinton, let alone a difference between either of those Democrats and Scott Walker, Donald Trump or Jeb Bush; and asserts that politics is all about telling people what to do and not at all about filling potholes or maintaining parks or, say, desegregating schools in the 1960s or enabling same-sex marriage over the course of the past decade. Such things are just left out of the conversation. This is how Davis breaks it down, from Episode 147, “High Concept Humiliation”:
“There’s no good politics for me. The idea that someone thinks they know how everyone else ought to operate is fucking insanity or dimwitted.”
And back in Episode 112, “Popeye Is Our Lord and Savior”:
“Fuck all governments, all of them. They’re all bullshit. There’s no such thing as a good one. The only good government is no government. And people do have the ability to live without government and be absolutely orderly … people can do that creatively on their own … you have to be very educated, you have to spend a lot of years getting it together. There have been times in history when people have tried.”
With more than 260 hours of podcasts out there, I couldn’t extract every bit of the pair’s political insight. But Episode 9, “Examine Before You Fight,” is considered by many fans to be solid and even seminal, and it holds a fairly classic Harmon political rant. I assure you not much has changed since it went online September 2012:
“I don’t like the idea we all accept that government is necessary. It’s a bummer … can’t everybody stop telling people what to do? There’s this class of people running against each other in these popularity contests, and they’ve never done anything in their life, they’ve never lifted a box, they’ve never washed a dish … They’re not real people. They don’t do anything. [They’re] these disgusting, gross, Oxford-shirted fuckin’ – they’re just gross schmooze, they’re proto-human, and I’m sorry, but I include all your favorite people, I do, and the fact that I’m afraid to say the words ‘I include Obama’ for fear that I’ll get, like – politics turns us all into fascists. You start to get afraid to say the wrong thing around your friends … Every four years I get more and more crotchety and I don’t know what to do about it. The young people get so excited, and you don’t want to piss on that. Because of course Obama’s a better president than some fucking clone from a Republican vat in the basement of the Pentagon. Obviously. But that’s like saying Diet Pepsi is better than piss. Neither of it’s water! Water is what you need. You’re dying of thirst. We need to sustain ourselves. We’re human beings. … You want me in shackles. Don’t make me choose between Pepsi and Coke, because you’re just pushing corn syrup. That’s it.”
This is nonsense – elections have consequences, and the presidencies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (let alone Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush) aren’t going to taste the same any more than we would have come out of an Al Gore presidency with the same aftertaste as we got from George W. Bush. And if I could get Harmon and Davis to listen and maybe reconsider, or just express another opinion directly to their listeners, I thought that might be a small victory.
Off to HarmonTown
I went to “HarmonTown” in Hollywood with an image of going up on stage for a dialogue. This is not arrogance – nearly every episode an audience member or two goes onstage. A major aspect of the show is the huggability (or, if you’re former Bostonian Adam Goldberg, an intimate hostility) underlying the relationship between the folks on stage and in the audience – especially considering dungeon master Spencer Crittenden was an audience member first and several others have semi-regular cameos. Check out Neil Berkeley’s “HarmonTown” documentary on Netflix – which includes the crew’s stop at Johnny D’s in Somerville’s Davis Square – for 101 minutes worth of evidence, or go right for the deluxe package of more than 50 hours of material.
In fact, only a couple of weeks after I attended, Harmon was having a lackluster show and invited up anyone who was feeling “passionate.” He drew a regular whose passion was to exhort support for Harmon with such excruciating sincerity you’d think Harmon was having an existential crisis, rather than just feeling sluggish after eating to excess on a diet cheat day.
Announcing that a political debate was on the menu, even though I was passionate enough to travel 3,000 miles for it, was clearly not the way to get a Dan Harmon hug.
I came on a guest-heavy week and nearly all of the show was taken up with a self-help-style conversation about empowerment, relationships and how to make the world a cozier place for celebrities with Twitter accounts. (Harmon, who is described as a narcissistic, idiot-savant man-child even by himself and his fans, has been in therapy, and it shows – he’s now as fascinated by talking about the stuff as he is by making poop jokes.) Telling their producer I’d come all the way from Cambridge to take on political nihilism didn’t win me any stage time, and when podcast regular DeMorge Brown went into the green room after the show to let them know I was still waiting to talk, long after everyone else in the audience had departed, there didn’t seem a lot of enthusiasm for it. Davis came out, eyed me during a lengthy conversation with Brown, and left without a word.
I’m grateful Harmon came out at all, and he was generous with his time, considering he’d been dragged into the conversation after a sweltering two hours of stage time. I basically got another 20-minute private show, but there’s a downside to that: I talked for probably less than 5 percent of the conversation, and the rest was all Harmon. Most was “HarmonTown” greatest hits from the politics playlist, but his main point was that he was careful to technically never tell his young listeners – that the Harmenians are classically about half their guru’s age is a running joke – not to vote.
That was also covered on the podcast. It was only May 19, in fact, that Davis said, “We all agree, we’re not going to vote.” Harmon’s response:
“I’m not going to say that aloud, because there’s too many kids listening to me, and I don’t want to be part of the problem. I never want to be that guy. There’s such a terrifying fucking terror-ism for this non-voting thing. ‘You didn’t vote? You AIDS cancer asshole fuckface!’ So I do turn out, because I just want to be able to go, ‘Yeah, I did, and I also don’t give a shit.’”
So, technically, yes, Dan Harmon avoids telling listeners not to vote. He even says that “any candidate that would come on this show would be doing so because they had decided that this demographic is very savvy and young and critical thinkers and skeptical and that their votes matter the most in what is sure to be a very important election.”
Pretty much everything else he and Davis says is anti-vote. In Episode 17, “Grumblesnakes,” Harmon talks about how there’s “some weird military-industrial complex pretending like we have a choice when we don’t actually,” to which Davis sarcastically replies: “Wait, Dan, are you saying that voting for one of two people using an Electoral College creates a myth of efficacy and your vote doesn’t matter at all?”
Or in Episode 28, a traveling “HarmonTown” show from Charlotte, N.C., Harmon has a critique for people such as myself:
“People that defend [voting], they have to reduce themselves to weird mental riddles by going, like, ‘Oh, you don’t believe in that? Well, what if somebody were stepping on a baby’s head?’ Well, I’m not in favor of stepping on a baby’s head – you got me! ‘Well, then, you should vote for so-and-so, because otherwise, uh, baby’s head!’ That’s silly. You’re stepping on a theoretical baby’s head. You’re bullying me.”
Seven things that aren’t a baby’s head
Here are some things that aren’t a theoretical baby’s head:
The Islamic State (also known as Daesh, ISIL and ISIS) wouldn’t exist now, raping 12-year-old girls, beheading innocents and destroying ancient art, because President Al Gore would never have invaded Iraq for an attack planned out of Afghanistan and expunged every Baathist from the Iraqi government. That is, if 9/11 had happened at all; it was the Bush administration neocons who ignored not just one, but several panicked warnings from the intelligence community about Al Qaeda attacks because they were focused instead on Saddam Hussein.
It also hasn’t been the mass of Democratic and progressive politicians ignoring 99 percent of the world’s climatologists and other scientists and denying there’s such a thing as climate change, which is almost certainly going to cause worldwide upheaval and violent conflict over resources and could lead to a mass extinction.
The increasing hardship of women seeking abortions is due almost solely to Republican-elected politicians; if we get President Mike Huckabee, he would demand even a 10-year old raped by her stepfather to carry her baby to term despite doctors finding a vaginal birth would be too dangerous. (So, not even a theoretical baby’s head, but a real one, and probably not even close to the flavor of corn syrup Hillary Rodham Clinton sells.)
Trickle-down and so-called “supply side” economics have never worked and were revealed to be a Trojan horse for upper-class tax cuts as far back as the Reagan administration, yet Republicans stick with them. This economic farce frees Republicans (and many Democrats) to make the rich richer on the backs of the working class and quickly evaporating middle class. It has killed the American Dream and made us forget how good things were during the years of strong labor unions, so now we aspire instead to win the lottery or maybe even have one full-time job instead of three.
Agriculture and even the restaurant industry suffers from a lack of immigrants willing to take low-paid work Americans don’t want, because the country has gotten tougher about undocumented workers crossing the border. The current crop of Republican presidential candidates want things to be even tougher, led by Donald Trump and his call for mass deportation, while Democrats realize that Latinos are not just a serious voting bloc, but an integral part of our economy.
How far along would gay and lesbian rights be without Democrats and progressives? Compare Democratic leaders such as the out Barney Frank with hypocritical closeted Republicans such as Larry Craig.
How about voter suppression? All the efforts to make it harder for people to vote are coming from Republicans, who claim they’re trying to protect against vote fraud. In truth, vote fraud is incredibly rare; suppression policies target minorities, the young and the poor, who tend to vote Democratic.
Theoretical baby heads? These are real-world issues for which voter turnout and post-election mandates make life-and-death differences. To talk “theoretical,” a “HarmonTown” listener would have to turn to valuing Davis’ vision of a world without government (remember, in his words “there have been times in history when people have tried”) vs. imagining how much more free Democrats would be to act decisively on everything from climate change and helping the poor and middle class to abortion rights, universal health care and gun control if Republicans, with the help of political nihilists such as Harmon and Davis, weren’t suppressing the vote among the young who care about these things.
The bottom line: Harmon technically never tells people not to vote.
But “HarmonTown” is also a show founded on the conceit of organizing a 100-person moon colony where there is no government, an anarchical paradise where everybody is totally equal … and according to Episode 67, “Click here for Bacardi,” where Harmon himself gets to choose who goes.
It’s a joke. But it’s funny because it’s not true.