Atrios is mad at Ana Marie Cox for her column about the Colbert performance at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. Well, Atrios is always mad at someone, isn’t he? He seems to share with George W. Bush the sincere and passionate belief that anyone who disagrees with him must be A Bad Person. (And would someone please send him a dictionary so he can look up the term “wanker”?)
Atrios links to Digby at Hullabaloo, who provides a detailed fisking of Cox’s column. Digby’s point seems to be that Cox is acting like an insider journalist, thus betraying her Web roots. Or something. (“Our little Wonkette is all grown up.” Do I hear the voice of condescending envy, with just a touch of misogyny? Update: If I heard misogyny, it must have been with my tin ear. My apologies to Digby. More here.)Now as it happens I loved Colbert’s performance. I thought, and think, that it was the best precis ever offered of what’s wrong with the Bush Maladministration. I wish that it had gotten wider attention from the mainstream press, and I think it didn’t get that attention largely because the mainstream press was the other primary target of Colbert’s satiric wrath.
But nothing in Cox’s trenchant, sensible, and well-written column is inconsistent with those beliefs. The main points of the column, as I read it, are:
1. Bloggers are insisting that the press’s failure to laugh at Colbert’s routine was due entirely to the press’s complicity with the Bush Administration. An alternative view is that they didn’t laugh because it wasn’t funny.
2. Running a poll to determine whether something is funny reflects a misunderstanding of the concept “funny.”
3. Insisting that other people laugh at the jokes you enjoy, or suggesting that their failure to do is morally culpable, reflects either a bullying temperament or a misunderstanding of the concept “joke.”
4. Political humor is a poor substitute for political action.
Comedy can have a political point but it is not political action, and what Colbert said on the stage of the Washington Hilton — funny or not — means far less than what the ardent posters at ThankYouStephenColbert.org would like it to. While it may have shocked the President to hear someone talk so openly about his misdeeds in the setting of the correspondents dinner — joking about “the most powerful photo-ops in the world” and NSA wiretaps — I somehow doubt that Bush has never heard these criticisms before. To laud Colbert for saying them seems to me, a card-carrying lefty, to be settling. Colbert’s defenders might aim for the same stinging criticisms to be issued not from the Hilton ballroom but from the dais in a Senate Judiciary committee hearing. And I wouldn’t really care if they were funny or not.
As I said to a friend the next day, Colbert’s routine was deeply comic but mostly not funny. (The “glacier” line and the “greeting” to Scalia were the major exceptions.) After all, being ruled by this collection of clowns and criminals is, as we say, no joke.
Ridicule, and especially ironic ridicule, has a long and respectable history. But its purpose is not to cause laughter. No one, I think, denies that Swift’s “Modest Proposal” is among the masterpieces of the comic art. But it would take a heart of stone to laugh at it. The coroner’s jury that (according to Chesterton) found in the case of a starvation victim from the Irish Potato Famine that the cause of death was “Wilful murder by Lord John Russell” was making an excellent joke, but it wasn’t a joke intended to start uncontrollable giggling.
That’s the tradition I take Colbert to have been working in. It’s hard to tell without the perspective only time can afford, but I think his routine enriched that tradition.
Had I written Cox’s column, I would have said some of that, in order to defend Colbert from the silly charge of having “bombed” when a routine not primarily designed to cause people to laugh did not, in fact, cause them to laugh. And I wouldn’t have claimed, as she did, that the press did in fact cover Colbert’s routine in a way that give readers and viewers a sense of what it was about, or implied that only a ha-ha-funny stand-up act would have been an appropriate way to fill the role Colbert had agreed to fill.
But Cox’s primary target wasn’t Colbert. Her target was the self-importance of some of us on the left side of the Blogosphere. Her column reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s satiric attack on those who confused folk-singing with political activism.
Remember the war against Franco.
That’s the kind where each of us belongs.
He may have won all the battles,
But we had all the good songs!
A good audience response to a satiric attack on a person or an idea is certainly a sign that the audience dislikes, or is prepared to dislike, that person or idea. But a sign isn’t the same thing as a cause. As Macaulay says of Thomas Wharton’s claim that in writing “Lilliburlero” he had “sung a king out of three kingdoms,”
… the song was the effect, and not the cause of that excited state of public feeling which produced the revolution.
Yes, politics is partly conducted through talking and writing, and those of us whose primary mode of political engagement is talking and writing can sometimes do useful work. Obviously the mass media matter in politcs, and those of us who engage in media criticism can sometimes help shape media behavior, which has real-world political consequences. But politics is mostly conducted by asking people for their votes, and by organizing to do so. Cox is reminding us that writers and talkers, and in particular comic writers such as Colbert and Cox herself and those who find their work amusing, shouldn’t take themselves too seriously.
Update Incorrect “iceberg” changed to correct “glacier” per a commenter’s suggestion. Several commenters think the above is unfair to Atrios. I’m not cricizing him for being angry; Lord knows, I hate BushCo about as much as one can on an outpatient basis. I’m criticizing him, and Digby, for attacking Cox personally for her failure to join the chorus on this one occasion, despite Cox’s well-established Blue credentials. As to “wanker,” of course Atrios knows its original meaning, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed its obvious inappropriateness as applied to a female.
Second update Atrios, responding to my suggestion that he tends to personally denigrate people who disagree with him rather than responding to their ideas, helpfully suggests that my criticism of his post results from my illiteracy. I’d like to thank him for providing evidence for my point.
In response to comments, I’ve changed “male chauvinism” to “misogyny.”
I’ve edited the comments, not to remove criticisms of me or the post but in accord with our published “play nice” rules of engagement. If you feel the urge to read reams of obscene abuse directed my way, let me refer you to the comments on the second Atrios post. Most of the obscene abuse directed at Ana Marie Cox is in the comments to the original post.