November 7, 2007

SaTired of It All

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I know I haven’t columned in a while; I’ve been too busy crying my eyes out over the end of Stephen Colbert’s candidacy for the President (in South Carolina). No, really.
Okay, you’re right, I haven’t. I’m actually relieved the charade is up, and not just because I would hate for my hero to become the next Ralph Nader. I’m relieved because even satire can go overboard.
So let’s establish one thing first. Stephen’s candidacy? A joke. A joke on the ridiculousness of a political system that offers so many loopholes that a TV character (or caricature, depending on who you think the real Stephen Colbert is) could run for President off of the money his show brought in. A joke on himself and his own ego. And mainly, a joke on us, not only for falling for it, but for being so enamored with satire, humor and our own damn apathy that no one really said — ok, that’s hysterical, but Stephen, seriously?
It’s like the old adage says: it’s funny because it’s true, and satire is no different. It makes its knowing wink to the audience: Look man, I’m just playin’! I’m not being offensive, sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, classist or too irreverent. I’m just doing it to make a point! Look at yourselves! After all, isn’t that the point of satire — a safe way to critique something without getting caught or called on it? In fact, the form is condoned because by mocking itself it mocks its subject.
For Jonathan Swift, it was to challenge the assumption that the Irish could take care of themselves. For Stephen Colbert it was to not only question our political system, but to prove just how truly apathetic the American public was. I like to imagine how that pitch went down:
“So Jon, I think I’m gonna ‘run’ for President on the show.”
“Steve, isn’t that a bit much, even for you?”
“No! I bet we can keep it going for months.”
“Great, pass the Doritos.”
But if satire uses irony to challenge the status quo, than it simultaneously challenges — and stabilizes — itself.
The best argument for this is the Borat controversy. Now, my contention was that it inspired genuinely unfunny people to think that quoting it incessantly would make them funny. But the real problem with Sasha Baron-Cohen is that, while using it to illustrate the multiple instances of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism we like to pretend no longer exist, he may simultaneously have perpetuated all three — not to mention offending those who don’t get or don’t like the joke.
Right after 9/11, Roger Rosenblatt wrote an article entitled “The Age of Irony Comes to An End.” He argued that maybe one good thing to come from the tragedy would be a rejection of ironic, apathetic mockery and a return to genuine compassion. I actually didn’t agree with him, partially because I don’t think I could operate on a day-to-day basis without irony and sarcasm, and mainly because I think the medium does more good than harm.
But at the same time, it’s important to remember that it does cause harm, even through its cynicism. When we laugh at the joke, we not only acknowledge the problematic nature of the inversion; we also accept the offense. Each time I laugh at Dave Chapelle’s sketch about the blind black Klan member, I mock the KKK, yes; and yet each time I also become slightly more desensitized to its implication.
It’s a slippery slope between wearing a mask to mock something, and becoming that something. At what point does Stephen Colbert become Don Imus? Where is the line between Sasha’s genius and Kramer’s flat-out racist idiocy? Am I off the hook when I write satire? No. Are Colbert, Stewart, and Baron-Cohen? Definitely not. Do they realize this? Hopefully. (Am I asking too many rhetorical questions in this column? ….)
Whether you agree with Rosenblatt or not, the age of irony is still in full force. But, like Stephen pointed out in Barton a few weeks ago, it’s somewhat pathetic that such a large percentage of our populace get their news from fake sources. Maybe the end of Stephen’s campaign will signal the beginning of Age of Irony 2.0: Irony + Awareness of What We’re Actually Laughing At.
Or, maybe I’m just taking it all, including myself, a little too seriously. I probably shouldn’t be so damn sensitive: It’s only the election for the American Presidency, after all.