November 6, 2007

A wag of the finger at Colbert Nation

I’ve been a fan of Stephen Colbert since his show premiered in 2005. I’ve found him to be one of the most incisive, poignant, and hilarious satirists in America. He’s launched ingenious initiatives out of nowhere—from his Gravitas-Off to his Decemberists showdown to his Wriststrong campaign. That being said, I breathed a sigh of relief Thursday when Colbert was denied a place on the ballot in the South Carolina Democratic primary. For the first-time ever, his satire went too far. Not only was this campaign an embarrassing P.R. stunt for Colbert, it was embarrassing for America’s political landscape. The fact that a fake candidate could take so much attention from real candidates is a reflection of how our love for irony has superseded our desire for sincerity, even in something as vital as politics.

From Colbert’s end, it was a weird angle to take, and one with dubious motives. For one, it’s not really original. It was the subject of a bad Robin Williams movie just last year, and it’s been done a million times. Granted, Colbert took it to an extreme never really seen before, but I can’t imagine he expected his campaign to come crashing down so quickly. Still, it was no coincidence that he decided to launch this campaign right after he released his book. Of course, if Colbert (in character) were pressed about this intention, he would probably admit campaigning only to hype his book. But does his ironic take on this excuse his motives? In terms of sales, starting a controversy to promote your book has the same effect as promoting it sincerely. In that sense, Colbert is no different from the likes of Ann Coulter or José Canséco.

The most depressing part of his campaign was how successful it was. At various points Colbert, a fake candidate, actually outpolled real candidates. The Facebook group “1,000,000 Strong for Stephen Colbert” was the fastest growing group in Facebook history, easily outpacing analagous groups for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

What did these people expect? If elected, would he ironically pass ultra-conservative legislation? It was even scarier when there was a chance he would only be on the Democratic ticket, as opposed to both the Democratic and the Republican as he originally intended. I had thought the whole point of his campaign was to subtly mock conservative mantras as ridiculous and self-aggrandizing. If he took away votes from issue-driven Democratic candidates like Richardson and Kucinich in a crucial primary state, he would be serving the causes he usually satirizes.

If you were working for a fringe candidate and trying to build up hype for your campaign, how would you feel if you were losing space in the press to a fake presidential campaign by a late-night talk show host? Although Kucinich and Richardson may not have a prayer of winning the nomination, Colbert may have killed their chances of having their voices heard and getting their messages out. When issue-driven candidates are forced to the fringes, everyone loses.

From the beginning of Colbert’s show, the main source of satire has been the concept of “truthiness.” The joke is that is that there’s no limit to how willing conservatives are to bend the truth in order to promote their own selfish gains. It could be argued that Colbert’s entire career has been made on his mocking of truthiness. But in my mind at least, what makes satire so great is its pessimistic detachment from the things it seeks to ridicule. In this postmodern era, where irony is used as a lazy excuse for apathy about real politics, however, the line between satirists and their materials has been blurred. It’s one thing for Colbert to mock the political landscape as a joke, but it’s another to attempt to turn that landscape into a joke.

Ethan Stanislawski is a fourth-year in the College majoring in HIPS. His column appears every other Tuesday.