The Pope of Satire

Socrates said, “Know thyself.” Don Draper said, “Know the other guy.” Steve Colbert might be wise to heed both.

In the episode of Mad Men titled “Love Among the Ruins”, Draper gets a visit from a developer planning to tear down New York’s beloved Penn Station to make room for something to be called “Madison Square Garden”. Problem is, the public is furious and the bad publicity threatens to kill the project. It doesn’t take Draper long to gaze into the situation and, like the oracle of Delphi, channel some wisdom from the gods to his client, and speak the magic words: “If you don’t like what is being said about you, change the conversation.”

The morning after I watched that episode, one of several bizarre wrinkles in the Vatican’s ongoing pedophilia scandal hit the news cycle. The New York Times headlined, “Vatican Priest Likens Criticism Over Abuse to Anti-Semitism” (by Daniel J. Watkin and Rachel Donadio, 2 April 2010) Wha…? Of course: the Vatican needed some professional intervention, here.

I imagined the phone ringing over at Sterling Cooper, moments before the press run began, and mere minutes before the journalists hit ‘send’ on their keyboards.

“One moment please. Mr. Draper, the Vatican’s on line one.”

“I’ll take it. This is Don Draper.”

An agitated Italian male voice is on the line. Draper rolls his eyes and cuts in, “Of course it didn’t work. What were you thinking? When I say, ‘change the conversation,’ I mean change it to something you and your audience agree about, or at least something people feel good about. Issue a press release about…I don’t know… The Beatles or something.”

There’s another New York-based philosopher with experience in this area. Stephen Colbert knows that Draper’s method is not the only way to handle (or avoid) unpleasant truths. Instead of changing the course of an uncomfortable conversation, we may sometimes simply choose to end it. That’s what happened to Colbert, more or less, when he spoke in praise of George W. Bush in April 2006 at the White House Press Correspondents’ dinner.

Judging from the worried silence that met Colbert’s satirical comments about the current president, it seems Colbert had stepped over the line from his trademark truthiness that entertains to plain-old truth (or perhaps taboo) that his audience did not want to hear. So instead of laughing or applauding, they murmured and shifted uncomfortably in their seats. As comedy routines go, this one died fast.

Analyzing the event in his chapter in Stephen Colbert and Philosophy, Mark Ralkowski compares Colbert to Socrates, who also didn’t do so well with his audiences. There are some big differences, of course. While Colbert probably nursed his embarrassment with a shot or two of Jack Daniels, Socrates felt compelled to end it all by downing poison hemlock.However, Ralkowski’s question remains: if Colbert is today’s Socrates, who are his targets? Who is he attempting to expose for hypocrisy, stupidity, and weakness? Politicians and media pundits, or the people who take them seriously? Or is Colbert lampooning his own fans, which of course would include m…. Hey, isn’t that the Beatles on the radio?

The below is excerpted from, “Is Stephen Colbert America’s Socrates?” by Mark Ralkowski in Stephen Colbert and Philosophy: I Am Philosophy and So Can You, Open Court Publishing Company, 2009.

At the end of the day, Colbert elevates his audience to a position of cool ironic detachment and superiority. Their culture, their most exalted institutions, and especially their loftiest authority figures, are all full of it. They are charlatans, and America is a cesspool of hypocrisy. Colbert illustrates this. He lets his audience in on his clever deconstructive insights, and he lets them take pleasure in unmasking the pretenders to wisdom and moral authority as nothing more than ordinary phonies.

There is no question that Colbert “wins the battle.” He embarrasses many of his most confident guests. He refutes the bad arguments made by politicians and members of the media. He goes after higher education, the Catholic Church, modern science, and many others. And he exposes American culture in general as an increasingly irrational society awash in a sea of truthiness. Maybe the Democratic Party isn’t very democratic. Maybe manliness is foolhardiness. Maybe anti-feminism is chauvinism in disguise. Maybe our system for choosing our presidents is broken and our media is deadening our democracy. These are serious topics, not just light entertainment. But to what end? Does Colbert achieve his aims as a critic of American culture?

Colbert’s War on Truthiness

Colbert may achieve some influence within the system of political punditry, but he does not appear to be winning his war on truthiness. If anything, he may be reinforcing its grip on us—why should we worry about truthiness if it’s good for a few laughs every night?

In this respect Colbert and Socrates share at least one thing in common: they’re both failures. Socrates failed to convince Athenians of their inverted priorities. He warned them of the dangers of avarice, and they ignored him, waged a war of conquest in spite of his warnings, lost their empire as a consequence, and in the end blamed him for their losses. Colbert’s failures are no different. He wins the battle—he refutes his extremist guests and reveals his various targets, in the media and politics and religion, as hypocrites—but he loses the war: his audience is persuaded in theory, but not in practice. The jokes go down easy, and nothing really changes.

In the 2008 election coverage, for example, we’ve spent most of our time talking about Barack Obama’s missing flag pin and the beliefs of his pastor, John McCain’s age and the names he calls his wife, and Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and whether she cried in New Hampshire. Forget about climate change, war, energy, health care, and a steadily weakening dollar. Those issues don’t sell magazines or garner strong ratings.

Consider Colbert’s famous speech at the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner. He went after the President on illegal wiretapping, the Iraq war, his low approval ratings, his exploitative photo ops and political posturing, his stubbornness, his denial of global warming, his reliance on a timid and complicit media, the leaked identity of Valerie Plame—and the next day none of the major opinion makers said a word about it, or if they did it was to critique Colbert for failing to be funny. The mainstream media ignored the content of his speech with a nation-wide collective yawn, even though some of his jokes were downright blistering in their condemnation of the president.

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.

This is extraordinary. Colbert told the President to his face on national television that he was a failure in the Iraq war, the defining issue of his presidency. “I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.” Then he blamed the president’s own bullheadedness for his failures. “The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady…He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.” Biting stuff, the type of attacks one would expect to be newsworthy, maybe even paradigm shifting in the national media, but nobody other than the marginalized blogosphere blinked an eye.

Charlie Rose discussed Colbert’s “failures” in his December 8, 2006 interview. Comedy can be insightful, persuasive, even visionary, he said. Often it is more revealing than journalism because it operates under fewer constraints. But in the end it’s a toothless tiger. It never manages to effect the change it envisions. “Cabaret Satire had never been better than it was pre-Weimar,” Rose said. “And it just stopped Hitler in his tracks!” Colbert didn’t miss a beat. He admitted that his jokes were politically impotent. “I would say that in the lead up to the Iraq war, The Daily Show was highly dubious of the idea. And it didn’t seem to stop it.” But he also suggested that he never expects anything more. “You can’t be disappointed if you don’t actually change things because it can’t have been your intention.” In comedy you go for the laugh, he said, not for social justice.

This may sound like Colbert is denying that he has a political agenda, much as Jon Stewart has done. But it is more than that. There is a paradox here. Colbert (i) intends to illustrate hypocrisy as a character, but (ii) he doesn’t expect to change things. Think about this for a moment. It says something about us, Colbert’s audience. He intends to tell or show us the truth, but he doesn’t expect us to do anything with it. We are the ultimate targets of Colbert’s condescending irony. America is Colbert’s Euthyphro, the self-satisfied one who is ignorant and ignorant of his ignorance, the target of Socrates’ thinly veiled scorn.

Or perhaps we are even worse than this. Are we the ultimate targets of Colbert’s irony, and is he the final audience, watching all watchers of his show? He seems to admit as much when he discusses the origins of The Colbert Report. Bill O’Reilly is one model for his character, he says, but not the only one. When he developed his character and planned his show, he “was thinking of passion and emotion and certainty over information,” he said. “Passion and emotion, what you feel in your gut,” what Colbert famously calls “truthiness.” “The thesis statement of the whole show,” he said, is that truthiness “is more important than [true] information to the public at large, not just the people who provide it.” This is a stunning revelation. Colbert intends to mock all things truthy, the peddlers and the consumers of truthiness, ABC news and the people who watch it, our broken election system and the people who accept it, our sophistic political representatives and the people who vote for them.

Colbert is not just parodying Bill O’Reilly and the others who “provide” America with her truthiness. He’s going after us as well because we identify with Colbert’s critique of American culture but embrace that culture no less vigorously. We accept its profound flaws and injustices with a shrug of the shoulders and a few laughs. We want the revolution, but only if we don’t have to do anything or make any real sacrifices.

Mark Ralkowski teaches philosophy at the University of New Mexico and is writing a book about Heidegger’s Platonism.