Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Colbert and Disarmament

So many are hailing Stephen Colbert as a “genius”,who displayed unmatched guts during his speech at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner on April 29th. Throughout the online community, commentary and video postings of the event have circulated like viruses, particularly among the 20-something crowd, those who assert confidence in the subversive, anti-establishment quality of the Daily Show. The speech was clearly intended for this demographic, a group that has inherited a self-conscious political apathy from the previous generation. For many, a comedic recognition of our lack of democracy is the only form of political engagement. When they DO vote, there is a sense of resignation to the fact that it doesn’t "mean anything".

I put myself through the torture of watching Colbert's "roast" of Bush. Most press coverage of the event has placed undue emphasis on the reaction of the crowd, and the subsequent denunciation by the political class. Looks of shock, dismay, disagreement were widely reported. What I saw was indifference, a quiet recognition, as if those present were aware of its underlying performative necessity : satisfaction of the felt desire for a superficial, but personal criticism of Bush himself. The type of critique one hears in most college age circles. "he's stupid, uneducated, and cannot speak properly". As Mark Crispin Miller has demonstrated, this popular image of the president as a simpleton has been carefully cultivated, and reveals much about the way figureheads are used. In a similar way, the Colbert exercise was well-planned and flawlessly executed. He spent alot of time simply poking fun at Bush. The cameras alternated between shots of laughter from those Colbert targeted, and looks of complete disinterest. The editing failed to mask the odd, almost choreographed nature of its project. The current debate over why the major media either ignored, downplayed, or criticized the speech is simply another layer in an extremely complex, confusing web of social control.

The jokes themselves were not particularly funny, but more importantly, they did not touch any core issues. Colbert ran through the list of topics which have been routinely scrutinized in the national media, often with an anti-administration, “liberal bias". Everyone knows these issues, they are far from secret. The failure of the new Iraqi government; Bush's dismal approval ratings (below pre-9/11 levels); the administration's use of photo-ops; illegal NSA wiretapping; the Cheney hunting incident; allegations of "secret" military prisons in Eastern Europe; criticism of Rumsfeld. These are all standard issues that have been filtering through the news cycles. This was no real critique of the administration, or the corporate state system itself, just the usual litany of failures. To explain is to explain away, and this fulfilled that function perfectly. The wealth of available information seems to do us no good. Understand that this is far from a conspiracy. This stuff is out in the open. The use of the media in shaping public perceptions is well understood. There are simply more layers of information being stacked atop one another than ever before, and it becomes more difficult to peel away. One could easily see a paranoiac impulse behind such extreme skepticism, but this is simply an extension of old theories about propaganda. Nothing new here, nothing sinister. The system's internal logic takes care of itself, automatically, and builds upon previous successes, or one could say, novelty.

Those familiar with Colbert’s style recognized the strange, awkward delivery. This is characteristic of his humor, and not well-known to those outside of the Daily Show audience. Just another reason to believe this speech was addressed to his nightly audience. It helped to lend an innocuous quality to even the most controversial topics he addressed. But the comedic treatment of these stories is no more controversial than the fact that they are major news items. Disregard proclamations that this was some sort of coup. The truly disturbing aspect is that those issues with real seriousness, and with possible consequences for political freedom, civil liberties, and our democratic institutions were re-inscribed again into use-value for a discredited administration. The Valerie Plame affair was mentioned, and she herself sat in the audience, the camera focused on her laughing deeply, dutifully participating. That an issue so serious can be addressed in this way with no critical comment in the mainstream is fascinating. There is a terror in this, an otherworldly vertigo that continues to accelerate.


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