This was a lesson for me. I fell into the trap of looking past unique unethical conduct because it resembled harmless conduct I had seen many times before, a close cousin of using “everybody does it” to excuse and invalidate the inexcusable. Thank goodness Washington Post columnist Colbert King was paying attention.
In King’s column today, he catalogues the activities of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert’s faux presidential run. I had already commented on Colbert’s gag earlier this week, but the target of my criticism was George Stephanopoulos, who devoted a ridiculous amount of time to a pointless interview with the comedian at the expense of real news. I assumed Colbert was just another in a long line of comedians who have used a presidential election year as a prop, and thus harmless….and I stopped paying attention to his antics. But as King ( his first name is pronounced KOHL-bert; the comedian’s name is Kohl-BARE) points out, Colbert has moved beyond satire into something akin to comedy terrorism, actively attempting to warp and influence the presidential selection process for laughs, and casualties be damned. King writes:
“…It’s one thing to play presidential politics for laughs. It’s quite another matter to run ads against candidates. A super PAC supporting Colbert urged Iowans in to write in Rick Perry “with an a” (Rick Parry) on the Ames straw poll, Politico reports, and recently has run ads in the Palmetto State accusing Romney of being a serial killer because the former Massachusetts governor “believes corporations are people and used to chop them up while at Bain Capital.” I fail to see the humor in Colbert urging South Carolinians to vote in Saturday’s primary for businessman Herman Cain, who dropped out of the presidential race but whose name remains on the ballot. Throwing away votes degrades a system already brought low by the unprecedented airing of negative ads so early in the nominating process.”
KOHL-bert goes on to compare Kohl-BARE’s conduct to Rush Limbaugh’s justly derided campaign to snarl the Democratic nominating process by urging his Hillary-hating followers to vote for Mrs. Bill in the Ohio and Texas primaries in 2008, to maximize conflict at the Democratic National Convention. I flagged Limbaugh as unethical for that dirty trick, but Colbert’s pranks are worse. At least Limbaugh has a utilitarian argument, if a poor one: his objective was to elect a Republican, which he believed was best for the country. Colbert is willing to mess up the Republican election process just for laughs and ratings. Well, choosing a president is important to a lot of us. Stephen Colbert’s cynical stunt is irresponsible, disrespectful, unfair and a breach of his duty as a citizen.
It is made all the worse because of the degree to which Colbert and his colleague Jon Stewart are taken as serious pundits by cynics, progressives and the politically disenchanted on the sunny side of 30. He can’t have it both ways, but like Stewart, he tries, alternately making pointed political observations while pleading a clown’s immunity when he goes too far. For example, his anti-Romney ad undoubtedly fuels the indefensible complaint by Occupy Wall Street naifs and the smugly ignorant that corporations shouldn’t have constitutional rights. (For a thorough explanation of why the increasingly common attacks on the legal personhood of corporations is both bad logic and dangerous policy, read Ken at Popehat, here.) Keeping people indignant, misguided and uninformed isn’t funny, it is irresponsible and dangerous.
Colbert King concludes:
“Acquiring the millions needed to get a presidential campaign off the ground requires grueling hours of asking people and groups to part with their treasures on behalf of your cause. Now introduce into that mix an entertainer who takes neither himself nor the political process seriously, who lives for laughs and satire, and has the prominence and enough dough to form a super PAC and try to muscle his way into the nominating process. The result is a mockery of the race. Maybe I’m becoming a curmudgeon. But I don’t see the humor.”
That’s because it’s not funny.