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The Truthiness Hurts
Stephen Colbert's brilliant performance unplugged the Bush myth machine --
and left the clueless D.C. press corps gaping.
By Michael Scherer
May 1, 2006 | Make no mistake, Stephen Colbert is a dangerous man -- a bomb
thrower, an assassin, a terrorist with boring hair and rimless glasses. It's
a wonder the Secret Service let him so close to the president of the United
But there he was Saturday night, keynoting the year's most fawning
celebration of the self-importance of the D.C. press corps, the White House
Correspondents' Association dinner. Before he took the podium, the master of
ceremonies ominously announced, "Tonight, no one is safe."
Colbert is not just another comedian with barbed punch lines and a racy
vocabulary. He is a guerrilla fighter, a master of the old-world art of
irony. For Colbert, the punch line is just the addendum. The joke is in the
setup. The meat of his act is not in his barbs but his character -- the dry
idiot, "Stephen Colbert," God-fearing pitchman, patriotic American,
red-blooded pundit and champion of "truthiness." "I'm a simple man with a
simple mind," the deadpan Colbert announced at the dinner. "I hold a simple
set of beliefs that I live by. Number one, I believe in America. I believe
it exists. My gut tells me I live there."
Then he turned to the president of the United States, who sat tight-lipped
just a few feet away. "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."
It was Colbert's crowning moment. His imitation of the quintessential GOP
talking head -- Bill O'Reilly meets Scott McClellan -- uncovered the inner
workings of the ever-cheapening discourse that passes for political debate.
He reversed and flattened the meaning of the words he spoke. It's a tactic
that cultural critic Greil Marcus once called the "critical negation that
would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems."
Colbert's jokes attacked not just Bush's policies, but the whole drama and
language of American politics, the phony demonstration of strength, unity
and vision. "The greatest thing about this man is he's steady," Colbert
continued, in a nod to George W. Bush. "You know where he stands. He
believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what
It's not just that Colbert's jokes were hitting their mark. We already know
that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that the generals
hate Rumsfeld or that Fox News lists to the right. Those cracks are old and
boring. What Colbert did was expose the whole official, patriotic,
right-wing, press-bashing discourse as a sham, as more "truthiness" than
Obviously, Colbert is not the first ironic warrior to train his sights on
the powerful. What the insurgent culture jammers at Adbusters did for
Madison Avenue, and the Barbie Liberation Organization did for children's
toys, and Seinfeld did for the sitcom, and the Onion did for the small-town
newspaper, Jon Stewart discovered he could do for television news. Now
Colbert, Stewart's spawn, has taken on the right-wing message machine.
In the late 1960s, the Situationists in France called such ironic mockery
"détournement," a word that roughly translates to "abduction" or
"embezzlement." It was considered a revolutionary act, helping to channel
the frustration of the Paris student riots of 1968. They co-opted and
altered famous paintings, newspapers, books and documentary films, seeking
subversive ideas in the found objects of popular culture. "Plagiarism is
necessary," wrote Guy Debord, the famed Situationist, referring to his
strategy of mockery and semiotic inversion. "Progress demands it. Staying
close to an author's phrasing, plagiarism exploits his expressions, erases
false ideas, replaces them with correct ideas."
But nearly half a century later, the ideas of the French, as evidenced by
our "freedom fries," have not found a welcome reception in Washington. The
city is still not ready for Colbert. The depth of his attack caused
bewilderment on the face of the president and some of the press, who, like
myopic fish, are used to ignoring the water that sustains them. Laura Bush
did not shake his hand.
Political Washington is accustomed to more direct attacks that follow the
rules. We tend to like the bland buffoonery of Jay Leno or insider jokes
that drop lots of names and enforce everyone's clubby self-satisfaction.
(Did you hear the one about John Boehner at the tanning salon or Duke
Cunningham playing poker at the Watergate?) Similarly, White House
spinmeisters are used to frontal assaults on their policies, which can be
rebutted with a similar set of talking points. But there is no easy answer
for the ironist. "Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively
negative function," wrote David Foster Wallace, in his seminal 1993 essay "E
Unibus Pluram." "It's critical and destructive, a ground clearing."
So it's no wonder that those journalists at the dinner seemed so uneasy in
their seats. They had put on their tuxes to rub shoulders with the
president. They were looking forward to spotting Valerie Plame and "American
Idol's" Ace Young at the Bloomberg party. They invited Colbert to speak for
levity, not because they wanted to be criticized. As a tribe, we journalists
are all, at heart, creatures of this silly conversation. We trade in talking
points and consultant-speak. We too often depend on empty language for our
daily bread, and -- worse -- we sometimes mistake it for reality. Colbert
was attacking us as well.
A day after he exploded his bomb at the correspondents dinner, Colbert
appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes," this time as himself, an actor, a suburban
dad, a man without a red and blue tie. The real Colbert admitted that he
does not let his children watch his Comedy Central show. "Kids can't
understand irony or sarcasm, and I don't want them to perceive me as
insincere," Colbert explained. "Because one night, I'll be putting them to
bed and I'll say ... 'I love you, honey.' And they'll say, 'I get it. Very
dry, Dad. That's good stuff.'"
His point was spot-on. Irony is dangerous and must be handled with care. But
America can rest assured that for the moment its powers are in good hands.
Stephen Colbert, the current grandmaster of the art, knows exactly what he
Just don't expect him to be invited back to the correspondents dinner.
and from the SF Bay Situationists:
Comedian Stephen Colbert's keynote speech at the White House Correspondents'
Association dinner last Saturday may represent a new stage in the crumbling
of the Bush regime's image from within the dominant spectacle itself...
It's a bizarre experience because most of the audience was decidedly not
sympathetic. Not only was Bush himself sitting a few feet away at the same
table along with various other political bigwigs, but the major portion of
the audience was the very journalists who with rare exceptions have treated
the Bush regime with kid gloves over the last five years, and who were
satirized almost as scathingly as Bush himself. So some of Colbert's
funniest remarks are received with a deafening silence, and the rare moments
of laughter are brief and uneasy, the audience obviously not having expected
such a scandal and wondering how they were supposed to take it.
The following article, which originally appeared at the Salon.com website,
gives some information and commentary on the event, but is also of interest
because the author makes a somewhat dubious and confused, but not totally
inappropriate, link between Colbert's methods and the subversive tactics of
On the latter, see:
"A User's Guide to Détournement"
"Détournement as Negation and Prelude"
"The Situationists and the New Forms of Action Against Politics and Art"