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Winter 2006

Fall 2005


Always leave 'em laughing
Victor D. Infante
Photo by Kelly Morello

Photo by Kelly Morello


"Reader, suppose you were an idiot," wrote Mark Twain, on what was inevitably a day not much dissimilar to the day you're reading this on. "And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

Sure, that quote gets dredged up a lot, but that's because it's funny . It doesn't matter if there's Republicans or Democrats in office, I don't think there's a right thinking American who doesn't look at the news once in awhile and come to the same conclusion Twain did more than a century ago. Times have changed, but not that much. Sometimes - perhaps privately, in the quiet of one's own home - you just have to confess that the world of politics is, for the most part, ridiculous.

Take, for example, the current darling of American satire, Stephen Colbert:

"I stand by this man," said Colbert of President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. "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."

Heh. It didn't go over that well with the audience - let's face it, both Washington and media types tend to be a bit humorless, and as an old editor of mine once told me, the one thing the devil can't abide is being mocked - but it evidently struck a chord out in the real world: The video of Colbert's speech became iTunes' number one download for a spell, and the ratings for his TV show, "The Colbert Report," rocketed up by 37%.

The reason for the appeal is self-evident: In addition to being just-plain funny, the Colbert speech laid bare the single most obvious and yet rarely-dissected fact about Washington: The majority of it is theater. Indeed, in the weeks since the speech, Congress has engaged in a debate on immigration, a debate on gay marriage and a resolution to 'support the troops' - does anybody even know what that means anymore? -all of which involved a lot of bluster and grandstanding, and accomplished very little in the way of practical navigating through thorny social issues or an increasingly-unpopular war which has left, as of this writing, 2,500 U.S. soldiers dead.

The tenants of these debates, upon inspection, really are ridiculous, and smack of cynical election-year scapegoating After all, it's not as though homosexuals or illegal immigrants have just appeared in the United States, and somehow what seems like salient, underlying points seem to get lost in the rhetoric. The theater distracts from the real - and disturbing - issues that underscore the nonsense.

For example, is the problem that "immigrants are stealing American jobs," or is it that the number of well-paying manufacturing jobs has plummeted at an alarming rate? And while we're at it, why is it that every time the gay marriage debate manifests, social conservatives seem to be defining a woman's place in society as a mother and wife as much as they are arguing about the merits of gays raising children?

No, the theater is easier for them. It's easier to scapegoat immigrants than address the lack of quality jobs. It's easier to scapegoat gays than it is for them to come right out and say they think women should be home taking care of the kids. Not that the humorless rhetoric on the other side is any better: Earnest, politically correct and (in the case of a truly frightening amount of Democratic politicians) so overly cautious as to be ineffectual. Is it any wonder they come off as, to quote Nixon speechwriter William Safire, "nattering nabobs of negativism." Which is also a pretty good phrase. It makes people chuckle. And when they're chuckling, they're inclined to see things your way. Sometimes a joke gets you further than all the earnest reason in the world.

For my part, this was the first real lesson in politics I learned, ironically enough, on the day they handed me my degree in political science. As VP of Academics on the student council, I had lobbied fruitlessly the entire year to have the computer lab open 24 hours after the academic dean had decided that it would be closed instead at midnight. I appealed to reason, I turned in petitions. Nothing. Then, at graduation, where I was one of the speakers, I cracked a joke about it from the stage. The students and faculty all laughed. The parents needed to have the joke explained to them . and like most jokes that need explanation, they didn't find it that funny. The semester after I left, the lab was re-opened 24 hours.

Always leave 'em laughing. Because as Twain said, "Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."