Video clip before the sermon
Writer Mary Hirsch has this to say about humor: it’s like a “rubber sword—it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.”
Go back in time with me to 2006, to a special event of that year called the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Washington DC. Media movers and shakers in the house, political movers and shakers in the house. Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report is the main speaker for the evening. He’s looking President George W. Bush right in the eye when he says:
“We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say ‘I did look it up, and that’s not true.’ That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.
“Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the “No Fact Zone.” Fox News, I hold a copyright on that term.
“I’m sorry, but this reading initiative. I’m sorry, I’ve never been a fan of books. I don’t trust them. They’re all fact, no heart. I mean, they’re elitist, telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was built in 1914? If I want to say it was built in 1941, that’s my right as an American! I’m with the president, let history decide what did or did not happen.”
That’s Stephen Colbert. Pulled out his rubber sword and made his point. A former aide of the President said that “[Bush] had that look that he’s ready to blow.” As for the rest of us—at least for many of the rest of us—we were cheering, and still are. Feeling relieved. The reality before our eyes—denied or obscured in so many ways—finally being affirmed.
Bring out the rubber sword! The point needed to be made. Colbert was speaking to something that is one of the most troubling features of our social and political landscape today: people voting against their own interests because they equate smart with tricky and dumb with honest. Factinistas and brainiacs: bad. Looking it up in your gut: good.
As the saying goes, in politics, when you are explaining, you are losing. So don’t explain, don’t look it up in books. Go, not for truth, but truthiness. The no-fact zone. Thomas Frank, author of the best-selling book What’s the Matter With Kansas, speaks to this as he acknowledges voters’ preference for emotional engagement over reasonable argument. People who are hurting in this nation, in love with politicians whose policies only serve the interests of the very few who are very well off. Thomas Frank says, “You vote to strike a blow against elitism and you receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our life times, workers have been stripped of power, and CEOs are rewarded in a manner that is beyond imagining. It’s like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy.”
In a time like this, we need the Stephen Colberts and Jon Stewarts of the world. One of the things we affirm as Unitarian Universalists is “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” We’re going to see it in action later today, during our congregational meeting. And we want to see it in America at large. We want to see it healthy and vibrant. That’s what my sermon today is all about. The points that Colbert and Stewart are making about this with their rubber swords.
One of them has to do with the media’s role in creating an American citizenry addicted to the high fructose corn syrup of truthiness.
This is real. Just listen to these results from Farleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll. Came out just last month. “The real finding,” says the report, “is that the results depend on what media sources people turn to for their news. People who report reading a national newspaper like The New York Times or USA Today are 12-points more likely to know that Egyptians have overthrown their government than those who have not looked at any news source. [On the other hand,] people who watch Fox News, the most popular of the 24-hour cable news networks, are 18-points less likely to know [this] than those who watch no news at all.” Commenting on this, Dan Cassino, a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson and an analyst for the PublicMind Poll, says, “Because of the controls for partisanship, we know these results are not just driven by Republicans or other groups being more likely to watch Fox News. Rather, the results show us that there is something about watching Fox News that leads people to do worse on these questions than those who don’t watch any news at all.”
In other words, better to watch no news at all than Fox News, with its Bill O’Reillys and Sean Hannitys and all the shouting… How many of you are positively shocked by this revelation? Your world has just been rocked?
But it’s just not Fox News. It doesn’t have proprietary rights to all the shouting, not by a long shot. Take CNN—one of its current events debate programs that aired from 1982 to 2005, designed to allow the exchange of opinions between liberal and conservative pundits. Know which one I’m talking about? Crossfire.
Right before Crossfore was cancelled, guess who came on the show? Hint: it’s a guy with a rubber sword. Jon Stewart. This is a little of what it sounded like…
“So I wanted to come here today and say… Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America. See, the thing is, we need your help. Right now, you’re helping the politicians and the corporations. And we’re left out there to mow our lawns.”
This is Stewart chatting with hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, and slowly, they’re realizing that Stewart is bringing something very different from what they THOUGHT he’d be bringing….
Back to Stewart: “But the thing is … you’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate, which would be great. […] It’s not honest. What you do is not honest. What you do is partisan hackery.”
Now things are heating up.
STEWART: You know, the interesting thing I have is, you have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.
CARLSON: You need to get a job at a journalism school, I think.
STEWART: You need to go to one.
CARLSON: Wait. I thought you were going to be funny. Come on. Be funny.
STEWART: No. No. I’m not going to be your monkey.
CARLSON: Is this really Jon Stewart? What is this, anyway?
STEWART: It’s someone who watches your show and cannot take it anymore.
I think a strong argument can be made for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as a new breed of public intellectual. Legal scholar Richard Posner defines a public intellectual as “a person who, drawing on his or her intellectual resources, addresses a broad though educated public on issued with political or ideological dimensions.” Now it used to be that public intellectuals were like Ralph Waldo Emerson or William James or John Dewey: serious but accessible, profound but practical. Nobody’s monkey. Today, however, with the ascendency of truthiness, and schlocky punditry everywhere, what we need is the rubber sword. People who are willing to be monkeys for the greater good. Funny—with a point.
Absolutely, Jon Stewart wasn’t going to be Tucker Carlson’s or Paul Begala’s monkey during that particular episode of Crossfire—but it’s a different story on The Daily Show. Speaking truth to power, through hilarious irony. The gap between what’s said and what’s meant. Here’s an example, from one episode:
STEWART: Obviously what’s going on in the Middle East is awfully complicated. The fuel that fans the flames: The rival factions within Islam, both of them seem to have antipathy towards the US, Israel. It seems like there are some authoritarian regimes that are using proxy countries to fight their wars. It’s a very difficult situation to grasp. Luckily, news organizations are on hand to give us context and ask the important questions.
cut to PAULA ZAHN, on CNN: (The graphic up on the screen says “Armageddon?”) Are we really at the end of the world? We asked Faith and Values Correspondent Delia Gallagher to do some checking.
Here’s another example. The context is former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, taking a question during one of his speeches. Camera is on the questioner:
QUESTIONER: I’m Ray McGovern, a 27-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency. Why did you lie to get us into a war that was not necessary, that has caused these kind of casualties?
RUMSFELD: First of all, I haven’t lied.
cut to STEWART: Oh, he didn’t lie. Well, that settles it. There’s pound cake in the back, we can have a good time, and uh—
back to RUMSFELD: It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction.
MCGOVERN: You said you knew where they were.
RUMSFELD: I did not.
STEWART: See? He never said he knew where they were.
RUMSFELD: (from a video three years earlier) We know where they are. They’re in the area around Baghdad.
STEWART: Well to be fair, Rumsfeld probably never saw that episode of Meet the Press.
Yet another example: this one took place shortly after the Washington DC-area sniper shootings of 2002. Stewart is speaking: “By watching the 24-hour news networks, I learned that the sniper was an olive-skinned, white-black male—men—with ties to Son of Sam, Al Qaeda, and was a military kid, playing video games, white, 17, maybe 40.”
And on and on. Add to this the over-the-top graphics and music, a Senior Correspondent for everything, segments like “Great Moments in Punditry as Read by Children,” and Lewis Black, and it’s monkey time, but with a point. Makes you laugh for five seconds and think for ten minutes. Cuts through all the addictive high fructose corn syrup truthiness and all the No Fact Zones and gets to something real.
It’s the Colbert Report too. Listen to Colbert commenting on Governor of Texas Rick Perry’s “pro-Christmas” ad, from just a couple of days ago. Rick Perry saying, “I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in a pew every Sunday to know that there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas. “Yes,” agrees Colbert, “Governor Perry is right. Thanks to the gays, our children can’t openly celebrate the birth of our savior in school, and yet, these gays in the military can openly celebrate their favorite holiday: being away from their families, risking their lives in Afghanistan.”
It’s the rubber sword. And that’s the second point that Stewart and Colbert have to make. The power of humor. As Chinese proverb says, “one never needs their humor as much as when thy argue with a fool.” “If you can find humor in anything, even poverty,” says Bill Cosby, “you can survive it.”
It even makes you smarter. That Farlieigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll? It found that when Jon Stewart (ands no doubt Stephen Colbert) talk about something, viewers pick up a lot more information than they would from all other news sources. Study after study repeatedly shows this, across the years. Contrary to Bill O’ Reilly’s famous comment that Daily Show viewers are all “stoned slackers,” they’re in fact the best-informed of all. All the wit keeps them on their toes, makes them sharp. Thus this observation from philosopher Terence MacMullan: “The greatest irony of the show is that even though Stewart isn’t a news anchor and his writers couldn’t get jobs on Family Guy, they’re still able to exceed, in many respects and for a fraction of the cost, the quality of news shows produced by real journalists.” Stewart and Colbert are the new breed of public intellectual: liberating the popular mind from the fog of truthiness—and doing it through a lot of monkeying around…
Liberating that popular mind for a purpose—that’s the third and last point I want to explore. The purpose being reintroducing democracy as a viable way of political life. Reminding us that we are better than we think, we are up to the challenge of American politics.
It’s what 2010’s Rally to Restore Sanity was all about. More than 200,000 people in attendance. Stewart and Colbert in top form. Colbert doing his trademark shtick as a right-wing blowhard fearmongerer, playing against Stewart’s motto, which is, “I may disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.” Sanity vs. Fear, Peace Train vs. Crazy Train. In the Rally’s finale, a giant paper-mache puppet of Colbert (“Fearzilla”) was brought on stage to symbolize his superiority. Peter Pan—played by John Oliver—then appeared and led the crowd in a chant that caused Colbert and his puppet to melt into the stage, thereby handing final victory to Stewart’s message: “Take it down a notch for America.”
We can do this. We are better, said Stewart in his closing remarks, than the political process suggests or how our media portrays us. The image of Americans reflected back to us from all that, he says, “is false. It is us through a fun house mirror, and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead and a butt shaped like a month-old-pumpkin and one eye.” “We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is—on the brink of catastrophe—torn by polarizing hate and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day!” “Most Americans,” he says, “don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do—often something that they do not want to do—but they do it–impossible things every day that are only made possible by the little reasonable compromises that we all make.”
We love John Stewart and Stephen Colbert because their rubber swords make the ultimate point that we don’t have to live our lives stuck in tiny dogmatic boxes separate from each other, and the best we can ever do is just shout at each other. We love them because they are stealing our reality from truthiness in politics and truthiness in the media, stealing reality from this and handing it right back to us; helping us step back from voting against our best interests; strengthening us with the power of humor, amidst all the shouting and all the spin; reminding us and encouraging us, we can do this, we can make America work, I Am America and So Can You. It comes as a huge relief.