Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Truthiness & Consequences

“Speaking truthiness to power.” That’s how Stephen Colbert’s recent performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner has been described, picking up on Colbert’s famously coined word. Basically, Colbert lampooned President Bush to his face, with jokes such as this:

“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”

And this: “The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.” (Transcripts and video are readily available everywhere on the internet, if you’re interested.)

In spite of Colbert’s role as a comedian, the audience was uncomfortable. Laughter was muted. The president looked perturbed, as did the First Lady. So the question everyone is asking is, why? Can’t these folks take a joke?

While many reasons for the lack of laughter have been proposed, here’s my take: people didn’t laugh because deep in their gut, they know that insulting a President to his face in such a manner is dishonorable.

The Bible tells us, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Furthermore, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (v.7).

I heard an excellent sermon on this passage when President Clinton was in office. At this time, conservatives and plenty of Christians enjoyed “Bill Clinton” jokes. Yet most such jokes and parodies were clearly demeaning to the president. I’ll never forget the simple exhortation my then-pastor gave, to always refer to “President and Mrs. Clinton” - not “Bill and Hillary.” God placed President Clinton in power. Then, as now, God orders us to demonstrate respect to those who hold high offices.

Does this mean we can never laugh at political humor? I don’t think so. I think the difference is whether, in our laughter, we are able to retain respect. One way we retain respect even in laughter is when we are humble enough to see ourselves in our leaders, to realize that we have the same or similar faults. This didn’t come across in Colbert’s monologue, and people winced.

Another way we retain respect in laughter is when we are humble enough to realize that there is another side to the story. This is another reason laughter was stifled last Saturday – Colbert did not come across as evenhanded.

I have often laughed at Stephen Colbert’s humor. I enjoy much of The Colbert Report and find him to be quite talented, and his parody of cable news shows pretty funny. He parodies the all-American, anti-liberal, confident conservatism typified by folks such as Bill O’Reilly and Joe Scarborough. I “lean right” and tend to agree with folks such as O’Reilly and Scarborough (don’t ask me about Sean Hannity) – so in effect, Stephen Colbert helps me laugh at myself.

And that’s why people didn’t laugh last Saturday night as Colbert dug into President Bush. The jokes may have been funny. However, no respect or humility was demonstrated because there were not, for example, other jokes made about the media, the Democrats, and so forth. It was clearly a disrespectful attack – a rant, of sorts.

Ecclesiastes is right: “There is a time to laugh, and a time to weep.”

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