Cons Think Colbert Is a Double Agent

Stephen ColbertDigby sent me to this very interesting study that shows exactly what I’ve known for a long time, The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report. For those who do not know it, The Colbert Report is more or less a parody of Bill O’Reilly’s The Factor. It is to right wing opinion shows what The Daily Show is to news shows. The whole gag is that Colbert is extremely conservative and stubbornly resistant to facts. He says that he thinks with his gut. He also coined the word “truthiness,” which means, “A quality characterizing a ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.”

But this is not how everyone perceives the show. With a group of 332 participants, the researchers found that when conservatives watch the show, they thought that Colbert was something like a double agent:

Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.

What is especially interesting about this is that Colbert commonly says things on his show that would be considered totally unacceptable if they were taken straight. For example, he recently started the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” If there were any question whatsoever that Colbert really believed that, I would not watch the show. And that’s but one example. So the fact that people watch him thinking it’s satire of satire is extremely troubling.

But the fact is that I’ve known this about his show. I’ve commented about it to friends. It bothers me that a sizable section of his studio audience seems not to get the joke. The joke they get is the outrageous guy just telling it like it is. It disturbs me because most politically active people can put a nice face on conservatism. Take Paul Ryan: he always claims that his policies that seem to be bad for the poor are actually good for them. And maybe he really thinks that. But the conservative voter is the guy who watches The Colbert Report and thinks that “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” is a valid attack on Chinese Americans.

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Apologies to Fra Bartolomeo

Madonna in Glory with Saints - Fra BartolomeoLast year on this day, I think I was a little harsh to Fra Bartolomeo who was born on this day in 1472. While I did say that “he is insanely great,” I also said that I wasn’t much of a fan. Even then, though, I admitted that the problem wasn’t with him. It was the times. It was the early days of perspective painting and religious painting especially had lost a lot of its pizzazz. But the truth is that Bartolomeo did amazing work within the constraints of the time. And really: I like him more than Leonardo da Vinci.

Two things really stand out in his work. The first is his absolutely impeccable design. That is something that is sorely missing in other painters of the period. You can see it in Madonna in Glory with Saints above. But it is found throughout his work. In fact, I haven’t seen a single painting of his that wasn’t exquisitely composed. And here is another excellent example, Scene with Christ in the Temple:

Scene with Christ in the Temple - Fra Bartolomeo

What else is clear in this painting is the second thing that I love about his work: the use of light. Here is another example, St Mark Evangelist:

Happy birthday Fra Bartolomeo!

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Moral Cowardice in Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good LuckLast night, I watched Good Night, and Good Luck for the first time since it came out. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did the first time. The screenplay is thin. There are lots of musical interludes and similar tricks to fill out the film to its short (for a drama) hour and a half running time. What’s more, the two main characters — Edward R Murrow and Fred Friendly — are the least interested in the whole film. I especially would have liked to know more about Don Hollenbeck, the liberal newscaster who is viciously attacked as being a communist sympathizer.

But the film wants to be more about the battle between Murrow and Joseph McCarthy. And that’s great! There’s a lot of wonderful material. Of course, there is a bit of a problem. Murrow is not as big a hero as the movie makes out. These concentrated attacks were in 1954 — well on the road to McCarthy’s downfall. Even McCarthy taking over the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was on his way down. Still, in the television industry, not known for its guts, Murrow’s work was laudable. But the film isn’t much interested in the politics.

What particularly bothered me was how the film danced around the central issues. This was not just a matter of simplifying the concepts for the screen. The film wants to tell a very simple story: McCarthy was a bad guy because he was going after innocent people. But that’s not the issue at all. McCarthy was bad because he stood against everything this country supposedly holds dear. In the name of stopping the country from becoming the freedom-destroying Soviet Union, he tried to turn us into the freedom-destroying United States.

The freedom to say what the powerful like is no freedom at all. That’s why I’m always so amazed at supposed truth tellers in politics. We have Alan Simpson who tells us the “truth” that we must cut Social Security. We have Obama who tells us the “truth” that black parents must provide better nutrition to their kids. We have Rick Santelli who tells us the “truth” that underwater homeowners are losers who we shouldn’t support. So these “truth tellers” are attacking low income senior citizens, poor African Americans, and poorer homeowners. These are all “truths” that the power elite want to hear. There are no mainstream figures who tell uncomfortable truths to the powerful.

The film highlights McCarthy’s attacks on Annie Lee Moss. But it is implied that Moss was not a communist. Well, the truth is that she almost certainly had been to communist party meetings in the 1930s. By Joe McCarthy’s way of thinking, that made her a communist—and one who shouldn’t be allowed to have a job, I guess. But the issue should be whether she was a traitor: was she working to overthrow the government by violence? No she was not. In fact, in 1954, she wasn’t even anything like a communist. But there should be no punishment for having heterodox beliefs. If Moss then or ever wanted to turn the United States into a communist utopia via voting consistent with the Constitution, we had no right to complain.

At the same time, today we have people very much following in McCarthy’s footsteps. Interestingly, watching the actual video used reminded me very much of watching Darrell Issa who now heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But apart from that, we have conservatives all over the nation who say quite explicitly that they are prepared to “take my country back” by violence. These people are very much a concern—or they would be if they were more than just talkers. Yet because they claim to love America—just as McCarthy did—they are somehow beyond reproach. I will only note that Lenin and Stalin doubtless said that everything they did was for mother Russia.

Good Night, and Good Luck glosses over all of these issues. And as a result, it turns McCarthy into an easy target—a buffoon more than a real threat. And it takes away much of the triumph of Murrow and Friendly. If a film wants to be political, it should simmer in it. This film tips a toe into the political water and removes it. Then it tips a toe into the personality water and removes it. And this repeats over and over again. If it had committed to either direction, it might have been a great film. As it is, it’s good enough but only barely worth the time.

Christie’s Government Abuse Continues

Chris ChristieFrancis Wilkinson gives a great rundown, Christie’s Bridge Report Is an Embarrassment. The report is even more sordid than the actions imply. It focuses on an alleged affair that Bridget Kelly had with Chris Christie’s campaign manager Bill Stepien. Apparently, they broke up and Kelly went on tilt, closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge for reasons that the report does not explain. Why exactly David Wildstein would go along with this is unclear. But then the whole report seems to be unclear.

The strategy of the investigation seems to have been to simply take Chris Christie’s word for everything. Wilkinson says the best line in the report is, “Governor Christie’s account of these events rings true.” And that does seem to be how the writers of the report see their job: to push the governor’s narrative. Check out this passage which is pure Christie apologetics:

Wildstein even suggested he mentioned the traffic issue in Fort Lee to the Governor at a public event during the lane realignment—a reference that the Governor does not recall and, even if actually made, would not have registered with the Governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable.

In other words: (1) Wildstein never told that to the governor; and (2) even if he did Christie couldn’t have known what it was all about. But the report doesn’t just exonerate the governor. It also exonerates those around him that have not already been caught:

Our investigation also found that Bill Stepien (then the Governor’s campaign manager) and Bill Baroni (then the Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority) knew of this idea in advance, but we found no evidence that they knew of the ulterior motive here, besides the claimed purpose of conducting a traffic study.

That’s the report in a nutshell. It can be simply summed up: everything we already know is the whole truth; there is nothing more to it. They found no evidence that would implicate Stepien and Baroni. But then, they found no evidence about anything other than the fact that Kelly and Stepien had had an affair. Really the report is little more than a hit job on Bridget Kelly.

What’s terrible is that this is not a report paid for by Chris Christie to help him in his defense. This is a report paid for the taxpayers of New Jersey. Its intent is clearly not to shed light on the bridge scandal. It is simply to give Christie cover. It is to provide a plausible narrative for him going forward. But that’s Christie, ain’t it? That’s long been the hit on him: he abuses the office for his own personal gain. That’s what the bridge scandal is about. That’s what the “Stronger Than the Storm” ad was about. And that’s the case here where Christie uses the people’s money to further his presidential aspirations.

And it may all be for naught—too little, too soon. The New York Times just reported that, Port Authority Chairman Resigns, Christie Announces. That’s David Samson, Christie’s chief ally, and the guy Christie has repeatedly claimed was absolutely positively not involved in the scandal. I do hope Christie goes down in a big way, just like Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

The Black Cultural Dysfunction Myth

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait is back, Barack Obama vs the Culture of Poverty. It is the fourth article in the debate that he is having with Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I discussed last weekend, White Power and Black Oppression. It discusses the reasons that blacks are doing relatively poorly in our economy. Chait claims that it the history of oppression causing cultural dysfunction in the black community. Coates argues that we shouldn’t be discussing culture and that the issue is nothing but the abuse of white power. Coates is getting the better of the argument.

In Chait’s most recent article, he cedes a lot of ground without admitting it. As usual when one is trying to lose an argument gracefully, he’s splitting hairs. And that’s fine. The truth is that his position is really not that far from Coates’. But he keeps coming back to this idea that Obama ought to be a cheerleader for “Team Negro.” He writes, “I believe Obama can speak to the African-American community as an African-American without any wider cultural damage…” I have a real problem with this.

Ta-Nehisi CoatesLet’s go back to Obama’s infamous “Popeyes Chicken” speech. During the 2008 campaign, Obama was speaking to a mostly black audience in Texas. He used the opportunity to chastise the audience about their child rearing. In particular, he said that they shouldn’t feed their kids junk food. “You can’t do that,” Obama said. “Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school.” But here’s the thing: the audience cheered. I think that indicates that the African Americans in that audience did not raise their children on Popeyes Chicken. Racism works on the oppressed as much as it works on the oppressor. They were all imagining a stereotype that, like most stereotypes, had only the thinnest relationship to reality.

When Obama gave that speech, he was feeding the bigots. He wasn’t helping the black community. He was harming it by reinforcing negative stereotypes. When I lived in Richmond, there was a Popeyes right on the edge of town. And it was not terribly busy. I assume that’s because, just like for nice middle class whites, getting fast food is a treat—something that is done now and then. Now that I live in a nice white suburb, I can tell you: there are way more fast food joints than there were in Richmond.

There are cultural problems in the black community. There are cultural problems in the white community. But somehow, we only ever think that cultural problems are what hold back the black community. This is especially ironic since black communities don’t have 200+ years of accumulated capital. We have a screwed up political environment where Republicans are allowed to be racist just as long as they don’t use the n-word. But Democrats are forced to show that they aren’t beholden to the black community by lecturing it on good nutrition. That skewed framing is symbolic of what is holding back the black community.