Two “Bloom County” comic strips have been on my mind, of late. The first strip, from May 1988, depicts a presidential campaign spot for Bill the Cat, a catatonic perversion of “Garfield.” “He’s been a redneck Northern liberal ethnic pro-life Jewish fixed-income no-nukes gun nut,” one panel declares, while another panel paints Bill as “a handicapped unionist minority farmer” and another explains, helpfully, “he’s been a woman named Frieda.” In the second strip, from earlier this month, Steve Dallas brings Opus the Penguin along on a flight as his emotional support animal. Opus, being Opus, hams it up: “You poor battered henpecked 21st century white male! The world seems so against you now! But I’m still with you! Courage!” The two strips amuse for different reasons. The first simultaneously mocks voters who expect candidates for office to be all things to all people, rips the foolhardy notion of even attempting to appeal to dozens of interest groups at once, and highlights politicians’ disinterest—then as now—in acknowledging the existence and concerns of women. The second elicits laughter because Opus is a humanoid penguin, because Dallas continues to be a useful avatar for the increasingly oppressed and antagonized white guy, and because if “Bloom County” bard Berkeley Breathed were a decade or two younger, Opus would have described Dallas as a “battered henpecked 21st century white CIS male.”
These cartoons resonate because they’re funny and true and because, on some level, their truth is exhausting; the demographic pie of the past has, in the present, splintered beyond comprehensibility. Everyone, it seems, is a demographic of one as the well-meaning pursuit of identity divides, and then sub-divides us—and the megaphone of social media has the queasy effect of pitting one marginalized sub-group against another without necessarily making anyone much happier or more whole. More empowered? Sure. With a stronger voice and a sturdier soapbox? Certainly.
Information is power and we’re hurtling deeper into an Information Age, yet information is proving, in some ways, to be our undoing. Slang has long fed the popular lexicon in baffling and bemusing ways, but at some point in the recent past, academic nomenclature suddenly began to follow suit: safe spaces, trigger warnings, “CIS,” white privilege, shaming, and a disorienting host of almost boutique sub-sexualities. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for people rising and pulling themselves and their disparate communities up, for the opening of dialogues, for acknowledging that we all inhabit a complex and many-splendored world awash in gray areas. But in the process of waving separate flags clashing over whichever causes we’re most inclined to champion, we all run the collective, very real risk of distraction as the very rights we think of as central to our collective humanity are trampled, and sold for scrap.