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The Cussed State of Civil Discourse

Two of the late night comics who lampoon the newsmakers have lately found themselves in the news, and neither comes off any looking any better than their targets. Such is the sorry state of both politics and political satire.
One of the two is Stephen Colbert, host of the Columbia Broadcast System’s “Late Night” program, is being widely criticized on both the left and right for a particularly vulgar joke he told about President Donald Trump. Pretty much the entirety of every episode is devoted to Trump jokes, so far as we can tell, except for when the guests are plugging their project, but this one involved Vladimir Putin and fellatio and a word that was censored even late at night, and that was a punchline too far. There were outraged editorials in the most respectable publications of the left, partly because they like their anti-Trump jokes more acerbic and partly because they thought the gag seemed slightly anti-homosexual. On the right they denounced Colbert for all the usual reasons, and there’s even a “hashtag” going around to boycott his advertisers and force his firing. Most folks in the middle probably found the joke tasteless, and not at all funny.
So far Colbert is unapologetic, though, and has every reason to expect that he’ll emerge from the controversy only slightly scathed and far more famous. He’s getting some unexpected support from several of the right-wing talk radio hosts, who of course deplore the joke but have reasons of their find advertiser boycotts and mob censorship even more deplorable. All the pundits on the left seem content with some mild scolding, and will no doubt be back to praising Colbert’s more clever Trump-bashing soon enough. By now most folks in the middle are probably wondering what all the fuss is about. Such vulgarity as Colbert used is almost ubiquitous by now, showing up on t-shirts and bumper stickers and shock jock radio shows all those endless cable channels, and it long ago invaded the political realm.
Even before the Colbert incident people were noticing the Democratic National Committee chairman’s very public penchant for barnyard epithets, and how commonly profanities are used in all sorts of leftist venues, and how vicious it has become. The right must grudgingly concede that the Republican president also has a habit of cursing in front of the kids, and revels in an ad hominem slur as much as any of his late night tormentors, and that some of cause’s allies of convenience can get pretty vicious themselves.
Both sides of the street will probably continue to slide into the gutter. There’s an assumption among too many people that cursing and trash-talking signals some of sort of proletarian authenticity and honest, and we’re often tempted to sell them some ocean-front property in *$%*@ Arizona. All of the fuss about Colbert should be focused on this general decline in political discourse, but everyone would probably just shout about it.
The other comic in the news is the eponymous host of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” on the American Broadcasting Company, who more quietly stepped into a controversy. In a recent monologue he took a break from his usual smart-aleck comedy to speak softly and tearfully about the recent birth of his son, who was found to have serious congenital heart defects, and spoke passionately against some of changes that Republicans have proposed making to the nation’s health care laws. The speech was respectful and reasonable, and we were heartened to see that so were most of the rebuttals. A few writers chided him for using the story for political purposes, and of course the comments sections were filled with the usual bile, but the response from the sorts of conservatives we read and even from the White House was also respectful and reasonable, and dealt only with the facts and the logic of the broader issue at hand.
We’re inclined to agree with those who have expressed their polite disagreement with Kimmel, but we’ll be willing to listen to what he has to say in response, and we thank him for furthering the discussion on such civil terms, and we’ll hope and pray that son of his lives a long and happy life. That’s the way politics is supposed is to work.

— Bud Norman

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The Least Bad Choice

Sometimes life offers only bad choices. Such was the case in Tuesday’s special election for South Carolina’s first congressional district, where the ballot offered voters a choice of Elizabeth Colbert Busch or Mark Sanford.
The district has been reliably Republican for decades, and went for Romney by 18 points in the past presidential election, but Democrats around the country were nonetheless hopeful about their chances. Such optimism was based in part on the assumed appeal of Democratic nominee Busch, a university administrator and political neophyte with a semi-famous brother, but mostly on a widespread distaste for Republican nominee Sanford, a former governor who resigned in disgrace following the disclosure of an extra-marital affair.
Other politicians have recovered from similar shenanigans, but they were Democrats and they weren’t running in a southern Republican district. Sanford’s scandal had also included official lies about his whereabouts during one liaison with his Argentine mistress, campaign money spent on a cover-up, a seeming lack of contrition, and a widely popular wife. Although Sanford used all the right religious language about repentance and redemption, he has continued the relationship with the other woman and during the campaign he was accused by his still-angry ex-wife of violating a court order by making an unapproved visit to her home. Democrats had reason to believe that Sanford could be beaten for the first time in his career.
Their faith in Busch, on the other hand, was probably misplaced all along. Her complete lack of political experience was expected to provide a refreshing contrast to the tainted career politician, but it resulted in an ineffective strategy of dodging interviews with the press, refusing to take clear stands on such important issues as the repeal of Obamacare, and amateurish stump campaigning. Being the brother of sneering cable television comic Stephen Colbert was supposed to provide a South Carolina sort of glamour and bring in national fund-raising, but it also seems to have raised suspicions that her vaguely-stated politics were secretly as sneeringly left-wing as her more famous sibling’s. Her own arrest record from her own failed marriage many years ago was politely ignored by much of the state’s media, but word seems to have gotten out enough to do some damage.
As it turned out, Sanford won again and it wasn’t very close. The most likely explanation is that voters figured they had two bad choices so they might as well go with the one who was most loudly promising to restrain federal spending. With the only other options being a Green Party candidate who was presumably to the left of Busch or not voting at all, it seems that the voters of South Carolina’s first congressional district did the best with what they had.

— Bud Norman

L’Commedia e Finita

These are hard times for the left-wing humorist.

The observation is prompted by a story over at the invaluable Bretibart.com’s Big Hollywood site, gloating over the surprisingly paltry ratings for “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” both of which are attracting fewer viewers than such fare as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Bad Girls Club,” and professional wrestling. The paltriness of the shows’ ratings is surprising because both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” are widely hyped by other media, and their stars are often lauded as the modern days heirs to Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain, but upon reflection it is not difficult to believe that the shows have a limited appeal.

Left-wing humor has been a rather smug and self-righteous genre since at least the late-‘60s heyday of Lenny Bruce, The Smothers Brothers, Dick Gregory, and Mort Sahl, but in recent years it has become especially tedious, predictable, and downright mean. The left-wing comic continues to think himself a brave and intrepid iconoclast, challenging the stale conventions of an uptight and conformist society with devastating wit, but they never challenge the assumptions of their like-minded audiences nor seem to notice that it’s no longer the 1950s and that all of the conventions of that era have already been quite thoroughly demolished. Lenny Bruce did indeed run afoul of the law by dropping a few naughty words into his stunningly un-funny routines back in the pre-cable days, and has been hailed as a champion of free speech ever since, but these days an equally un-funny comic such as the execrable Louis CK can devote an entire set to a stunningly vulgar rant about Sarah Palin’s daughter having Down’s Syndrome and instead of an arrest he gets an invitation to address the Radio and Television Correspondents Association.

The past three years or so have been particularly tough for the left-wing comic, not just because they lost their favorite whipping boy in George W. Bush but because it’s so glaringly absurd for a comic to pose as brave and cutting edge while speaking truth to the out-of-power.

One of the last episodes of “The Daily Show” we bothered to watch was during the early days of the Obama administration, when the euphoria of hope and change was still rampant in the popular culture, and we tuned in merely to see how Jon Stewart would continue his anti-establishment pose now that his hero had become the establishment. The big headline story of that day was Obama’s executive order to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and we were curious to see what humor he might find it that. Predictably enough, the joke was that there were still a few Republicans left in Congress and they were so laughably absurd as to raise questions about the decision. The show aired some footage of a Rep. Pete King wondering if the prisoners would be set free to continue their terrorist activities, transferred to an American prison in a community that would become a natural terrorism target, tried in a court with the defense given access to top-secret anti-terrorism protocols, or some other problematic solution, followed by a cut back to Jon Stewart responding with one of his “can-you-believe-this-guy” stunned expressions. The audience howled at this Swiftian riposte, but we couldn’t help thinking that King had raised some reasonable and not at all funny questions, and we now can’t help noticing that three years later the best and brightest minds of the Obama administration are still trying to come up with better answers than a comically stunned expression.

Stewart probably hasn’t noticed, his attention no doubt being diverted by a Republican primary campaign that has undeniably provided some grist for the left-wing comic to mill, but he’d probably find some good material if he were to look at his side of the aisle from time to time. Of course there would probably be boycotts, denunciations by respectable society, and presidential phone calls to the targets of his barbs, but at least he’d be able to claim he was an iconoclast with a straight face.

— Bud Norman