Democracy, Satire And Stephen Colbert

When Stephen Colbert talks, people listen.

The cable-show host often brags of the “Colbert bump,” usually enjoyed by politicians who appear on “The Colbert Report.” But his humor, a zippy blend of insight and irony, isn’t just entertainment. According to the compelling book “Colbert’s America: Satire and Democracy” by Penn State professor Sophia A. McClennen, it champions critical thinking and citizenship.

Not bad for a guy who goes with his gut.

For example, when Colbert roasted President George Bush at a 2006 White House press dinner, it wasn’t just tough-love theatrics. It was a bold reminder that speaking truth to power is vital for a healthy democracy.

Similarly, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who co-sponsored a bill to have the Ten Commandments displayed in Congress, was stumped when asked to name them. Colbert made a crucial point: Westmoreland, who advocates breaking the longstanding separation between church and state, could not articulate the principles he claims should guide our legislature. 



Colbert has an Emmy, a Peabody and a NASA treadmill named after him. Now, he’s got academia on board.

“Colbert’s America” salutes a pretend pundit who uses a comedy show to hold our leaders accountable. “The Colbert Report,” a parody of “The O’Reilly Factor,” apes conservative punditry to send it up. He doesn’t just make us laugh, contends McClennen, who directs the university’s Center for Global Studies. His satire doubles as public service: He makes us think. And give. He's encouraged viewers to support charitable organizations focused on education and injured vets.

His famed “truthiness” called out the fear-mongering of the Bush years and what McClennen decries as Fox News’ “reactionary and reductive public pedagogies,” such as Obama is a Muslim; Obama is a socialist.

Sounding like the president of Colbert Nation, she makes a thoughtful, well-researched case for concluding his satire is "redefining the parameters of political dissent.”

Colbert’s “The Word” segment exposes logical fallacies and the twisted reasoning of clueless politicians on both sides of the aisle. Like his colleague Jon Stewart, he exposes an often lazy, self-serving media, devoid of any depth.

McClennen gives props to Colbert by noting that in post-9/11, the Bush Administration deemed it nearly treasonous to question its policies about war, torture or reduced civil rights. Yet in 2005, the year his show debuted, Colbert gleefully lampooned faux patriotism and paranoid government policies.

In an NPR interview, he said he was trying to capture the hubris of O’Reilly, Sean Hannity’s bullheadedness and Lou Dobbs one-issue obsession (immigration) to ramp up his uber-patriotic pose. He’s adopted their modus operandi: shouting or silencing an opponent as a substitute for truth.

His specialties are puns (“factose intolerant”) and malapropos (“wikiality”) to justify dubious positions. “It’s not a recession, it’s a correction. Correction, it is a recession. This is The Colbert Report!”

She salutes the comic faker as ace satirist who exposes the disconnect between political rhetoric and reality to provoke public engagement. When Stewart’s Restore Sanity 2010 rally was announced, a reaction to Glenn Beck's Restore Honor rally, Colbert reminded viewers that “reason “was only one letter short of “treason.”  And he kicked off his own effort: March to Keep Fear Alive. “Now is not the time to take it down a notch, now is the time to freak out for freedom,” he said.

This is serious commentary, delivered with a wink and a nod. Colbert, she claims, is heir to Ben Franklin and Mark Twain; all use satire to challenge and enlighten. More proof? His “Better Know A District” series was so good at getting Congressional reps to make compromising statements Nancy Pelosi advised Democrats to steer clear of him.

Whether confronting right-wing fundamentalism or left-wing relativism, Colbert mocks both.

True to form Colbert, who touts his disdain for books, would probably zing hers -- then bask in the afterglow of conquering another world.


3 comments about "Democracy, Satire And Stephen Colbert".
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  1. Mike Yonker from AT&T, August 28, 2012 at 1:51 p.m.

    I'm so disappointed that you have neglected Mr. Colbert's GREATEST achievement...Ben and Jerry's Steven Colbert's AmeriCone Dream. The shame. An editorial correction will be required, of course.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 28, 2012 at 3:22 p.m.

    It has been noted that what has been missing in theatre and media in general are political cartoons and satire during this hyper talky talk over talky talk times. Stewart and Colbert seem like the only ones who have broken the overcast.

  3. Carolyn Hansen from Hacker Group, August 28, 2012 at 3:48 p.m.

    Not to mention his super-PAC-as-educational-tool. No one knew how those things "worked" until Colbert/Stewart showed us. (I Stephen Colbert.)

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