Soon after Sept. 11, Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, announced that we had reached the "end of the age of irony." The comment was particularly odd since Carter was one of the co-founders of Spy, the often brilliant and irony-rich satirical magazine of the 1980s.
Spy, under Carter's guidance, demonstrated well that irony, the main tool of the satirist, is irreplaceable. The satirist, frequently by pretending approval of the very thing he or she despises, reveals wrongdoing in a way the moralist cannot. The moralist has to argue (and arguments can be lost regardless of the truth one speaks). The satirist simply approvingly retells the wrongdoing. And the wrongdoer can make no protest without compounding the ridicule, since he's technically been accused of nothing.
An example: Some years ago, A Friend Who Shall Go Unnamed told me a secret. He used to raise money through direct mail for a conservative church. Spy reprinted one of his fundraising letters with no comment. He was on the one hand complimented. His letter was an example of the perfection of his craft.
On the other hand, it was so baldly excessive that its mere appearance in a satirical context revealed everything wrong with his exploitative craft. What protest could he or the church make? Spy merely quoted him at length without comment.
So, the idea that irony will ever die is absurd. But I cut Carter a break. He made his claim during a painful time when the country was pulled together in its grief. Historically, satire least prospers when there is consensus. It is when a society is most divided that satire is most successful.
And that's why a satirist like Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" has come to the forefront. Colbert was the lead entertainer at this year's White House correspondents dinner. If you were unaware of his astounding performance, there can only be one reason. His 20-minute deadpan evisceration of President Bush, who sat four feet from him, was mainly ignored by the mainstream media.
Even the New York Times, which gushed about Bush's own comedy routine, didn't mention Colbert's performance until days later -- after it became the main subject of discussion on the Internet. Whatever side you're on, that has to feel spooky. Without the Internet, we wouldn't even know Bush was viciously roasted with no place to run.
Why did the media so uniformly ignore Colbert? For one thing, his performance as a Republican-licking pundit held a mirror up to the media's sycophancy as much as it criticized Bush. So, by ignoring the criticism of them, the media whores performed in just the way Colbert described their reporting of, say, the period before the Iraq invasion. They ignored reality -- it has a liberal bias, Colbert observed -- and slavishly licked Bush's ass clean.
Of course, many in the media, as well as the conservative robots on the Internet, produced their own reason for not reporting Colbert's shtick. It simply wasn't funny, they said. Well, of course it isn't too funny if your own idiocy was being reflected.
That again comes back to the question of satire's function. It isn't meant to produce slapstick laughs. It is meant to make people think about the absurdity in which they are participating. In fact, satire assumes, and usually demonstrates, that its object is capable of behaving differently.
Thus, part of Colbert's performance featured a video -- admittedly overlong -- that showed veteran correspondent Helen Thomas stalking Colbert, as she has the president, with the question, "Why are we in Iraq?" Thomas' rare gustiness itself demonstrates that media whores do have an alternative way of behaving. Likewise, the video demonstrated, in Colbert's bumbling effort to evade Thomas, that Bush could bring an end to complaints about his affection for "truthiness" -- reporting what you wish was true as fact -- by answering simple questions.
It isn't just media people on the right who misunderstand satirist's role. An example is Philip Weiss, who writes for the Nation and the New York Observer. In a piece on the Huffington Post blog, he complains about Morley Safer's interview of Colbert on "60 Minutes." Weiss writes that Safer dropped the ball by not asking Colbert about his politics.
In other words, Weiss is annoyed that Colbert didn't abandon his phony pundit's role to become a real pundit. That, of course, assumes people would be more sympathetic to the liberal perspective if the popular Colbert explained the joke to them. It's insulting enough that Weiss thinks the average American doesn't get the joke. But it's just dumb to think you can make jokes, then preach about their meaning and still be an effective satirist.
Let's be thankful Colbert knows better, and hope he continues cultivating the ironic, satirical power that we haven't seen in America in a very long time.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.
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