“Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” said George S. Kaufman, after his play “Strike Up the Band” did indeed close in Philadelphia before it could ever make it to Broadway. (Also what closes on Saturday night: synagogues.) Stephen Colbert’s brand of satire seems an exception (as, actually, was “Strike Up the Band”, which Kaufman later rewrote and had great success with): pointed, smart, funny and most of all, seamless, a satire that never tipped its hand that it was in the business of making fun of what it portrayed. Colbert has achieved such success at this difficult feat that some significant portion of his audience consists of right-wingers convinced that he is what he seems to be: a bloviating right-wing pundit with a streak of racism a mile wide.
Because that’s what satire—when it works—does: it blows up its target without ever letting on that the satirist is the enemy. Colbert’s frequent assertion (often to guests of color) that he “doesn’t see color” points up the racism of that kind of “we’re all equal” rhetoric on the part of privileged whites, for example. We don’t know, of course, but we strongly suspect that Colbert’s not that guy, nor did Jonathan Swift actually advocate eating Irish babies.
Satire: it’s pretending to be what you’re not to undermine what you’re pretending to be. Once upon a time, racists satirized black people by donning blackface—which, in case you wonder, is why we frown upon that kind of thing today. Instead, today we satirize racists. It’s like the circle of life, but with fewer annoying animated Disney animals.
The Colbert Report recently poked fun at Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s attempt to defuse criticism of the team’s name as an ethnic slur with the establishment of a Washington Redskins “Original Americans” Foundation. Colbert compared Snyder’s attempt to purchase freedom from accusations of racism to Colbert’s blowhard character’s establishment of a foundation to buy off Asian people outraged by the racist depiction of a “Ching Chong Ding Dong” character. In the context of the full bit, it was clear that Colbert intended to deride Snyder’s racism by juxtaposing it to that of Colbert’s bigoted onscreen persona.
And then Twitter got into it.
To take a satiric sketch that required several minutes of setup and reduce it, out of context, to just its racist punchline would seem like an act of utter insensitivity and insanity. Apparently, the people in charge of Comedy Central’s (and not Stephen Colbert’s or The Colbert Report’s) Twitter account own just the required amount of insensitivity and insanity; they posted that punchline without context: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Shortly after that tweet, graduate student and Asian activist Suey Park started #CancelColbert. Noted crusader for racial sensitivity Michelle Malkin then weighed in: “I'm sick of liberals hiding behind assumed ‘progressiveness’”, the author of In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror tweeted to Park.
The hashtag gained momentum, Park continued tweeting, frequently about the hashtag gaining momentum, and Malkin…continued being a horrible opportunistic person. A society that lives for outrage, to shame others, even those on the same side of the issues, had found its newest target. Even awareness of the satirical context did not slake the thirst for outrage of those demanding that Comedy Central (who, you may recall, actually tweeted the out-of-context punchline, not Colbert) #CancelColbert. Even if Colbert meant to fight racism, even in satire, even in a box, even with a fox, the #CancelColbert-ists would not step back from their outrage; Stephen Colbert was their green eggs and ham.
As Neil Drumming pointed out in Salon, Colbert’s actual attack on actual racism, the quite definitive needs-no-construction racism of a Dan Snyder, got lost in the glee at having an icon to clast. And Michelle Malkin, friend of noted civil-rights crusaders Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, got to express her outrage at the racism of the left. And to what end? There is zero chance that Comedy Central will indeed cancel Colbert. I suspect Colbert might have Suey Park on his show as a kind of ritual absolution, which, well, good for her, and perhaps good for all of us; it will probably do us good to hear more about racism directed against Asian-Americans, and The Colbert Report is one of the few venues where that’s likely to happen, not even a little bit ironically.
But if, in the closest thing to a sport Americans actually participate in in the 21st century, you tweeted your outrage I suspect you probably feel quite good about yourself, and that’s all that matters, so well-done; that feeling might even last until, well, Saturday night. Personally, I find all this ginned-up context-free outrage harmful and a distraction. You may accuse me, in the newest iteration of the “-splaining” trope, of “whitesplaining” (and Neil Drumming appears to be African-American, so was he “blacksplaining”?), and I’ll even own it, but let me tell you: you have helped the world get just a touch more awful.