"Don't be disrespectful!" reverberated across my Eisenhower-era childhood. "Why not?" I'd disrespectfully ask? Even a kid could see that the McCarthy-ites, the John Birch-ers did not deserve respect. So why now would I roll over to the likes of the odious Limbaugh kid from Poplar Bluff, Missouri (where some of my family lived, too), now that he's old enough to know better?

When it protected Limbaugh and his fellow wing-nuts, they were content to be "just entertainers." Now that they've been outed as clearly complicitous in bringing down their keepers' political and economic house of cards, I'm supposed to take them seriously? So here's the question: What to do about them?

Answer: Give them what they DO deserve. Their ideas are ridiculous. Their self-importance is ridiculous. Their dishonesty is ridiculous. Their ignorance is ridiculous. So: ridicule is the appropriate response. (Had they had been less obtrusive, ignoring them would have been better.)

Which brings me to the under-appreciated heroics of comedians.

Thank goodness for the shrewd and smart nuttiness of Jon Stewart, his talented on-camera colleagues, and the gallant researchers on "The Daily Show", from which also sprang the remarkable Stephen Colbert and his "Report". Where would I have been during the past 10 devastating years -- yes, Stewart's in his 10th year with this Show -- without Jon Steward and Steven Colbert? Savvy, smart, magnificently irreverent, abidingly funny ... disrespectful and much given to ridicule.

They loosed me from my rage with the laughter that made it possible to breathe, commanded merriment during the worst of the worst and got in the face of unrelenting outrages. And they never, never, never gave up. OR lost their nerve.

Saturday, April 29, 2006. Rumsfeld's running Defense, Gonzales the "Justice" Department, the would-be unitary president briefly back in Washington from his seemingly permanent vacation in Crawford, and the timorous press acting as handmaidens. Enter Stephen Colbert, proud son of South Carolina (fergodsake). No doubt because he's so wickedly funny, someone's engaged him as keynote speaker for the White House Correspondents' dinner. The haute media are assembled to pat themselves on the back while doing preening obeisance to He-Who-Feeds-Them-Their-Lines, the self-reinforcing miasma of faux-newspeople who consistently rolled over to Bush at incalculable cost. It's that funny guy, Steven Colbert -- standing spittin' distance from the President of the United States of America -- who voices the awful truth: "You're a failure, a fraud and a liar!"

And all this august offended assemblage could do ... was laugh, timidly.

Stewart and Colbert are heirs to a long and illustrious line. Fear and fear-mongers are far from new -- read any history of any time -- and when the people got really lucky, you'll find the jokesters. Maybe it's what that kid we first encounter in "The Emporer's New Clothes" grew up to be. These are the people who, if not given license, take it, who eviscerate the ridiculous of all flavors by laughing at them. Many traditions carry the idea of a "sacred clown" whose duty is to mock the self-important. What can their targets do? Whine.

Today's reactionaries are not newcomers, and we cannot wish them out of existence. Remember our cultural DNA -- from the earliest days, virulent reactionary screeds have been heard from America's fringes. Garry Wills reminds us that the United States has had three dangerous encounters with a particular group of those who would impose their constricted version of the world on the rest of us.

It just happens that these inflammations within the great democratic experiment came at the turn of the 19th century (the Second Great Awakening), the 20th century (Christian Fundamentalists, who overplayed their hand with Prohibition) and the 21st century.

This latest version came to a head with the virulent Bushites. It will be years before all the facts are in about just how deadly earnest they were about fulfilling their dark visions for this country and the world. But we must not forget that this did not spring from nowhere. It is the ugly spawn of America's extreme right-wing, political and religious zealots perennially intent on cowing us, on shutting us up, or down.

Beginning after the end of World War Two, there's a direct line to us from Cold Warriors Nixon and Reagan. (Where Nixon got caught and shamed -- not very funny -- Reagan was caught, but got off, scot-free. Also not funny.)

From 1968 forward, our homegrown Grade B actor-turned-politician president proved himself a powerful magnet for the disaffected. And screwed 'em. Looking for the roots of today's economic calamity ? It's the natural conclusion of what Bush The First called R.R.'s wild-eyed notion of trickle down economics: "voodoo economics".

Closer to home, Bush the Lesser falls all over himself doing his imitation of his idol Reagan, mirroring the magical thinking and self-deceit, another made-to-order stand-in for malingering right-wing political, economic and religious conservatives. Once again, war profiteers, oilmen and Wall Street stick it to Main Street.

What to do?

Laugh at them! Then get to work restoring to its rightful place the people's government. Over millennia, we've seen time and again that the only way to keep humanity's dark potential in check is to put justice before greed, legitimacy before brute force and to value that which we share in common rather than giving license to the lust of individuals for ill-gotten gains.

Earlier in the week, a friend asked, "What is HAPPENING?" I found myself paraphrasing the radical wisdom of an under-appreciated hero of our Civil Rights movement, Diane Nash: We the people are sovereign in this country. Therefore, we are responsible for what happens. You don't like it? Fix it.

What to do? Hold tight to the reality that the conservative wrong wing really is dangerous ... over-stuffed buffoons, winkers, creationists, nature-defilers and all. Name their ridiculous thoughts, words and actions. Ridicule them. Do it again. And again. Then laugh them off the stage! And keep them there.

(Note: We turned off broadcast news on the 12th day of September, 2001, and with their faux news went all the TVs that used to clutter our house. I relented on election night and went to friends' house to watch the returns ... as reported by Stewart and Colbert! So hats off to Hulu and Comedy Central for making these shows available on the internet -- no TIVO, no cable, no charge, and we see it the next day, along with people who know the value of sleep.)

For more from Garry Wills, we've put an excerpt from our conversation with him on our YouTube site . Another of our guests, James Carse, does a brilliant job of articulating how powerful ridicule is in addressing the Dark Side in his book The Religious Case Against Belief. We also feature Professor Carse on YouTube. Complete ".. Conversations with People at the Leading Edge"(sm), with them both, and with many others, are available to you on your own schedule at our PaulaGordon.com site. Or take them along in MP3. Either way, they're free.