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Truthiness and Consequences


Certain elements of the crew had decided to pretend that it was not a crash but a crash landing that was seconds away. After all, the difference between the two is only one word. Didn't this suggest that the two forms of flight terminaton were more or less interchangeable? How much could one word matter? An encouraging question under the circumstances, if you didn't think about it too long, and there was no time to think right now. The basic difference between a crash and a crash landing seemed to be that you could sensibly prepare for a crash landing, which is exactly what they were trying to do. The news spread through the plane, the term was repeated in row after row. 'Crash landing, crash landing.' They saw how easy it was, by adding one word, to maintain a grip on the future, to extend it in consciousness if not in actual fact...Suddenly, the engines restarted. Just like that. Power, stability, control. -- Don DeLillo, White Noise

There are times when you have to leap into the clusterfuck, and then there are times when you just have to sit back and enjoy the delicious ironies of life. Which is another way of saying that I wasn't late to the blogger party on Stephen Colbert's in-person smackdown of the president of the most powerful country on Earth (for now, anyway, but probably not for long). Rather, I was soaking up the unrestrained love and the hate, and searching for the type of hyperreal hilarity that once belonged to the finest show on television -- Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, if you must know -- but now almost wholly belongs to one of that show's flawless talents and his new show, an equally hyperreal laugher on Comedy Central.

Like his soon-to-be-retired Birdman doppleganger Phil Ken Sebben (Falcon Seven, for the cartoon nerds in the audience), Stephen Colbert's blowhard doppleganger has an unquenchable penchant, like the president he skewered, for ignorance and zealotry in equal measure. And he's decided that the most productive way to transmit that ignorance is through language. Phil Ken Sebben is prone to making ludicrous statements, punctuated by a hearty "Ha Ha!" -- which is then followed by a repeat of said statement's core content. (My favorite? "Dangly parts.")

Meanwhile, Colbert's show self-consciously abuses the limits of language to prove that, in the end, reality can take a backseat to fantasy when the right words are weaponized for action. This practice is most capably illustrated in Colbert's "The Word" segment, where terms and phrases are ripped out of their context, destroyed, refashioned as slogans or propaganda, dissected and ridiculed (by Colbert's own right-screen commentator, yet another metafictional element of his vertiginous show), before being then resituated once again in their reality-based meanings, courtesy of the right-screen textual commentator.

Colbert's linguistic satire, of course, reached its apotheosis at the White House Correspondents Dinner, a back-slapping orgy of consensual hallucination that, to mangle Pink Floyd's hyperpolitical missile "Pigs," is "really a laugh/But [it's] really a cry." For so long, the line between fake news of Colbert and Jon Stewart's invention and the "real" news of CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Weekly Standard, The Drudge Report -- Christ, this fucking list goes on forever! -- has been inverted to the extreme. That is, while the "real" news media have fed the American people a steady diet of bullshit built equally by the Bush administration, think-tanks (always a handy repository for those who lost their virginity in their 20s), and a Republican party bursting at the seam with haters of every stripe, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report -- "That's French, bitch!" -- have been answering the late John Lennon's clarion call, "Gimme Some Truth." Though Lennon died too early to see those very "short-haired, yellow-bellied, son[s] of Tricky Dicky" stick around to goose the same, stupor-stoned populace into unnecessary war and wiretapping, Stewart and Colbert have been searching (and outing) the truth -- the reality beneath the Bush administration's "real" -- with a vengeance.

So just what in Hades did Bush and his sycophants (you know who you are) think was going to happen when Colbert took the podium and wrecked shop -- right in Bush's face, I might add? That he would be cowed, awed, intimidated into cojone-less humor? Didn't they watch Stewart on Crossfire? Don't they remember how he handed Begala and Carlson's asses to them, then got their show canceled as one last kick in the nuts before he was done with them? Does anyone even look at Tucker Carlson now without laughing? One suspects that neocon William Kristol, who helped diagram our war of choice in Iraq, wishes he never said that he deserved thanks for helping Colbert get the gig in the first place.

Those, of course, are all rhetorical questions. The answer is, plainly, yes: The Washington establishment thought they could cow Colbert the way they cowed the rest of the media, government and listless American people, who have given Bush free reign to do just whatever the hell he thinks God is telling him to do. To the Iraqis, to the homosexuals, to the Democrats, to the economy, to the nation, to whoever and whatever. That, suck it up, is reality. That is what happened. To all of us.

And the idea that a man who makes his living -- and will be making a better one, if Bush or Pat Robertson's followers don't kill him first -- trafficking in the machinations and complexities of language wasn't going to do the very same to the very man who has made him a full-fledged phenomenon is as telling as the fact that Bush spent time at the same event talking to a a simulation of, what else, himself. But it only took one person to make it stick for Colbert's smackdown, albeit one with dual identities speaking in dual modes (truth and "truthiness," which are not the same as Colbert will tell you himself). Meanwhile, the president literalized his dual identities (fearless leader and fear-mongering liar) by employing an impostor to play one of them, not a bad idea. Except that it was followed by a man so adept at language that he got himself invited to a cushy affair where he could both praise and insult the president without restraint, right to his face. To the shock and awe, pun intended, of the so-called journalists and bloggers (you know who you are too) out there who feel, for some inexplicable reason, that Colbert either stunk up the joint or didn't show Bush the proper respect.

As if the worst employee this country has ever had wasn't doing a fine enough job disrespecting the presidency all by himself.

Indeed, the outcry itself had all the earmarks of metafictional madness. Here are a couple of my favorites. See if you can spot the hypocrisies:

-- "Colbert crossed the line." US News and World Report

-- "How do you criticize the president without disrespecting the presidency? Then there's the human dimension. Here's a comedian dissing a man non-stop in front of the subject's wife." Chicago Tribune's blog, The Swamp

-- "Stephen Bridges played 'George W. Bush' in the same way that Stephen Colbert plays a pompous talk-show host named 'Stephen Colbert' who interviews 'real' people in politics. Bridges was successful, because he brought along a 'real' person ready and willing to take part in the joke." Robert George, Huffington Post

-- "Consensus: Colbert did indeed bomb." David Frum, National Review

-- "Self-mockery can be funny. Mockery that is insulting is not." Some loser from the Washington Post

-- "Insulting the Prophet is one thing, but insulting Stephen Colbert, the patron saint of the piously correct left! That's really blasphemy." Nathan Gardels, Huffington Post

OK, that's enough. Every stomach -- and well-defined sense of irony -- has its limits. To start with the unnamed critic (wimp!) in the U.S. News and World Report, which line Colbert actually crossed is not expressed. Would it be constructing an appearance on false pretenses? Insulting intelligence, not of the national security variety but of the audience? This president has crossed so many lines during his nearly six years in office that it's insulting to make me find all the necessary hyperlinks to illustrate my case.

How about The Swamp's lament for the "human dimension?" Not too convincing, especially when you're talking about a guy who calls butchered civilians "collateral damage," right before he refuses to count them. Or one whose administration terms raining incendiaries from the skies "shock and awe." A guy who flew over Katrina's aftermath, to get a better look at the "real" situation.

Fine then. How about the misguided concretizations of Robert George? Amatuer night. "Stephen Bridges played 'George W. Bush' in the same way that Stephen Colbert plays a pompous talk-show host named 'Stephen Colbert' who interviews 'real' people in politics?" Did he now? Really? Aside from being a nice example of a logical fallacy known as "X is the common thread," George's conflation of Colbert and Bridges misfires because it fails to recognize the obvious, which is that Colbert interviews real politicians, while Bridges' "real" interview was, in fact, a constructed charade. The parallel would have been apt had Bush, for example, decided to conduct the schizo monologue by himself. The fact that he brought a real person (not a "real" person, George, come on!) goes to show that he cannot comprehend the complexities of metafiction, which is exactly what Bush's stunt with Bridges attempted to pull off. Right before it sucked ass.

On to Frum's judgment that "Colbert bombed." Did he indeed? Which country? Last time I checked, the only guy on the stage who had bombed anyone was Bush himself. And he's bombed the shit out of pretty much everyone he can get away with, and wants to bomb more. Frum was using a metaphor, you say? Employing a general colloquialism to manipulate the collective recall of the event? Ah, got it. My point exactly. Language is power. Except when you don't know how it works. Especially against you. Which explains the "Consensus" stab in Frum's banal jab. To quote Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: "You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

As for the Washington Post hack's theorizations of the nuances of "mockery," I'm speechless. Unlike Colbert, who more fully understands what the term mockery means than anyone I've watched in recent memory. The fact that he attacks it from both ends (the real and the hyperreal) means that he's got it on lockdown. The Post hack, otherwise known as Richard Cohen, has a little bit of it, as evidenced by the first sentence of his clumsily arranged criticism: "First, let me state my credentials: I am a funny guy." You sure are, dude. I laughed my ass off reading your column, as well as the "fact" that you're so funny is , as you state, "well known in certain circles." Which circles, one asks? Who knows? Maybe they're located somewhere near that line Colbert wasn't supposed to cross.

Then there is Gardels' particularly huffy (no disrepect, Arianna, you're the ma'am!) comeback, which was about as long as a third-grader's book report. (OK, that's not fair to the third-grader.) Adopting religious metaphor when criticizing those who criticize Bush makes about as much sense as calling a free pass for polluters The Clean Skies Act. Remember, Gardels, this is a guy who says God told him to invade Iraq, which so far has led to thousands of inhabited body bags and the loss of billions of dollars. And the best you can do is tar Colbert as a leftist saint? Really? Like I said earlier, amateur hour. Or in the case of Gardels, amateur 127 words.

The truth, or truthiness, is this: Colbert's attack on Bush was the bravest thing any entertainer has accomplished this year. He's fashioned a simulation so startlingly coherent and productive that Republican tools like Kristol, Michael Brown (!), Lou Dobbs and countless more are lining up around the block to appear on his show. Better yet, they think that doing so will give them a sorely needed image makeover. That is, rather than do something real to save their skins, they'd rather subject themselves to the hyperreal ravings of a Bill O'Reilly-like madman. They'd rather sit through someone who lampoons the nation's most grievous ills by pretending to approve of them than actually set about fixing any of them. And that is why they invited Colbert to Washington, and that is why he roasted all of them like the pigs they are.

I don't believe in God and openly ridicule those who do -- man, is it ever fun! -- but if I was, I'd thank Him, Her or It for sending Colbert's "balls-ilicious" comedy earthward. Just in time for Armageddon.