From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:
The Blurry Borderline
How to Think about the Upcoming Stewart/Colbert Rallies in Washington, DC
By Santiago Ramos
So writes Camille Paglia, literary critic and professor, in an article on singer and performer Lady Gaga for the London Sunday Times last month. The point she is making is that the technology which mediates every communication and every entertainment for those of us born after, say, 1980, has deformed our ability to recognize certain things as good and beautiful. Thus we make the mistake of thinking that Gaga’s voice is as good as Janis Joplin’s, or that her dance moves are as skillful as Madonna’s. But the point I want to extract from her argument is something that she says implicitly: that there is a baseline reality against which we can measure our illusions—that even though the borderline has melted away, there are still facts distinguishable from fictions.
When the Colbert Report first aired on Comedy Central in 2005, Stephen Colbert satirized this same dissolving border when he coined the word, “truthiness,” which has since entered the American conversation and been defined by the American Dialect Society as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” Again, there is a standard against which to measure our wishes, with the implication that those of us who disrespect the standard are committing violence against good sense. For a political satirist like Colbert, the standard is necessary because it is the standard against which he measures his targets: corrupt politicians, failed promises, and the simple irony of disappointed expectations. The sniper’s targets, when hit, always have to hit the ground.
When Colbert “testified” before Congress last month, however, instead of mocking truthiness, he seemed to further blur the line between fact and fiction by blurring the line between satirist and satirized. During a House Judiciary Committee Hearing on migrant farm labor, Colbert pretended to oppose immigrant labor in order to support it. But as the blogger The Last Psychiatrist pointed out, Colbert was not the only one acting. The members of Congress, too, were playacting, as such a hearing is more for show than it is for real work. The real work of crafting a law gets done without the cameras on. The joke, in a sense, was on those watching.
The risk for Stephen Colbert is, then, that he may help to further blur the line between fact and fiction and, by doing so, sabotage his own profession. Instead of rebelling against the fantasy that has become our politics, he risks becoming incorporated into it. Worse: the powers that be may have found a way to absorb his attack not with censorship, but in a more nefarious way—by diluting its content while maintaining its form.
This is something to keep in mind as we watch—again, as always, on television—the Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart rallies on the National Mall on October 30. (There are actually two rallies, playing off of each other: Stewart’s is “The Rally to Restore Sanity,” while Colbert’s is “The March to Keep Fear Alive.”) The rallies are, of course, a response to Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, which billed itself as being non-political. Stewart and Colbert are, though left-leaning, non-partisan. It seems that Washington has become a place where people come together to not do politics. Meanwhile, the real politics happens behind the scenes.
The satirist is supposed to straighten our perceptions about ourselves and about the world. Humor is his weapon of choice in part because it relaxes us, allowing us to set aside our pride and look at ourselves more truthfully. When we look at ourselves more truthfully, we admit that we also bend and twist and break the truth about other things. Politicians do this and, more wickedly, do this through language. Thus the natural fodder for the satirist has always been political slogans—be it “Mission Accomplished” or “Hope” or “Change.” These slogans are the Wizard of Oz, and the satirist is eyeing the man behind the curtain.
All of this is something that Colbert and Stewart, as the showmen, and we, as the spectators, should keep in mind. It would be a shame if they return from Washington having unwittingly neglected their crucial task and, instead, further confused the line between fact and fiction—neglecting what Dr. Paglia rightfully signals to be one of the key issues in our culture in our day. It would be a shame if Colbert spends October 30 making a spectacle of himself, when his calling is to make a spectacle of others.
Santiago Ramos has written for First Things, Commonweal, Image Journal, Traces, and the Kansas City weekly, The Pitch. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in Boston College.