Earlier this year, when I started the Professor VJ blog, I was glomming on to the truthiness meme as started by the Colbert Report
. I quoted Stephen Colbert saying
Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word. I don't know whether it's a new thing, but it's certainly a current thing, in that it doesn't seem to matter what facts are. It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.
Brilliant stuff. So prescient, that I immediately integrated it as a keyword and operating concept in my new media art seminar. A question we posed was, "Is fake news more informative than so-called 'real' news, and why is so much of the Daily Show and Colbert's success tied to their ability to 'go meta' with the data?"
During this past Spring, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Colbert's keynote performance was dark comedy at its best and harshly ridiculed not only Bush, but the docile and masochistic Beltway media elite who underserved their country when it came to reporting the news in the lead up to the war in Iraq. In a blog entry from May
, I cited a Salon
article, entitled The Truthiness Hurts
, that compared Colbert's performance to the Situationists and their "ironic mockery 'détournement,' a word that roughly translates to 'abduction' or 'embezzlement.'" The writer goes on:
It was considered a revolutionary act, helping to channel the frustration of the Paris student riots of 1968. They co-opted and altered famous paintings, newspapers, books and documentary films, seeking subversive ideas in the found objects of popular culture.
Situating Colbert's performance in the lineage of Situationist détournement in a mainstream press venue like Salon
is a good start. And like Lautreamont, Colbert's "shtick" released the "deadly emanations" of his comic barbs so that they would "soak up our souls like water does sugar." The funny thing is that the clueless Washington press corps did not even realize this was happening to them and that the entire event was a pitch-black joke at their expense (most did not laugh and, in fact, did not know what to do). I ended this blog by saying "We need more Situation(ist) Comedy."
Since that time, some six months has passed and now that we are hours away from one of the most important elections in my lifetime, the blurring between truth, fiction, truthiness, spin, and straight out lies and deceit, has become one of the top meta-subjects of the campaign. Who to believe? Frank Rich
, in his Sunday New York Times column published yesterday, has a few things to say on the subject:
The 2002 midterms were ridiculed as the “Seinfeld” election — about nothing — and 2006 often does seem like the “Colbert” election, so suffused is it with unreality, or what Mr. Colbert calls “truthiness.” Or perhaps the “Borat” election, after the character created by Mr. Colbert’s equally popular British counterpart, Sacha Baron Cohen, whose mockumentary about the American travels of a crude fictional TV reporter from Kazakhstan opened to great acclaim this weekend. Like both these comedians, our politicians and their media surrogates have been going to extremes this year to blur the difference between truth and truthiness, all the better to confuse the audience.
But there’s one important difference. When Mr. Colbert’s fake talking head provokes a real congressman into making a fool of himself or Mr. Baron Cohen’s fake reporter tries to storm the real White House’s gates, it’s a merry prank for our entertainment. By contrast, the clowns on the ballot busily falsifying reality are vying to be in charge of our real world at one of the most perilous times in our history.
While lying politicians and hyperbolic negative TV campaign ads are American staples, the artificial realities created this year are on a scale worthy of Disney, if not Stalin. In the campaign’s final stretch, Congress and President Bush passed with great fanfare a new law to erect a 700-mile border fence to keep out rampaging Mexican immigrants, but guaranteed no money to actually build it. Rush Limbaugh tried to persuade his devoted audience that Michael J. Fox had exaggerated his Parkinson’s symptoms in an ad for candidates who support stem-cell research purely as an act.
And always, always there’s the false reality imposed on Iraq: “Absolutely, we’re winning!” in the president’s recent formulation. After all this time, you’d think the Iraq fictions wouldn’t work anymore. The overwhelming majority of Americans now know that we were conned into this mess in the first place by two fake story lines manufactured by the White House, a connection between 9/11 and Saddam and an imminent threat of nuclear Armageddon. Both were trotted out in our last midterm campaign to rush a feckless Congress into voting for a war authorization before Election Day. As the administration pulls the same ploy four years later, this time to keep the fiasco going, you have to wonder if it can get away with lying once more.
In retrospect, the defining moment of the 2006 campaign may well have been back in April, when Mr. Colbert appeared at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Call it a cultural primary. His performance was judged a bomb by the Washington press corps, which yukked it up instead for a Bush impersonator who joined the president in a benign sketch commissioned by the White House. But millions of Americans watching C-Span and the Web did get Mr. Colbert’s routine. They recognized that the Beltway establishment sitting stone-faced in his audience was the butt of his jokes, especially the very news media that had parroted Bush administration fictions leading America into the quagmire of Iraq.
Five months later, a video of Mr. Colbert’s dinner speech is still a runaway iTunes hit and his comic contempt for Washington is more popular than ever. It’s enough to give you hope that the voters may rally for reality on this crucial Election Day even as desperate politicians and some of their media enablers try one more time to stay their fictional course.
As I continue to construct my own fluid, flux identity in the networked space of fictional flows, I assume that Wednesday morning I will wake up and America will have willfully, collectively, in even eagerly, thrown many of the current bums out of office and started on its absolutely necessary self-correcting course toward the 21st century version of political sanity.
Metadata: politics, Colbert, truthiness, Frank Rich, voting