Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Colbert was Wrong

Colbert was wrong.

On Saturday, Stephen Colbert was a featured speaker at the White House correspondents' dinner. The monologue he delivered at the podium became the talk of the town, as it were. The mainstream news organizations refused to talk about it much, but it was all the rave in liberal blogs. Crooks and Liars, for example.

Yet, Colbert was wrong.

He was not wrong in what he said. In fact, I found little in what he said that I disagreed with. However, the context in which he said it was not appropriate.

The event in question is one in which reporters and the President himself gather for an enjoyable and entertaining evening. This was designed as a peace dinner in a relationship between the White House and a press that is generally hostile (until recently). It would not exist except under a banner of true.

Colbert violated that truce.

For an analogy, consider the Olympic Games. This is an event where people are supposed to come together in peaceful competition of the best athletes from each country. We can imagine two countries at war, both of which send competitors to the Olympics. We can also imagine that some of those competitors are members of the military of their respective countries.

Now, imagine that the members of one country's team attacks and kills members of the other team. Recall, these nations are at war. Back home, these individuals would be shooting at each other. Let's also stipulate that the attacking nation is in the right when it comes to the war back home. None of this mitigates against the fact that it is wrong -- it is completely inappropriate -- for any country to carry its conflicts into the Arena, and to launch an attack against the representatives on the other country.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the [event], like the Olympics, is a place where potential adversaries agree to put down at least their sharpest weapons and to get together in peace. Just as with the Olympics, it is good that people do this from time to time, particularly if it helps to promote the peace. As such, Colbert violated the rules of participation.

Colbert was wrong.

I do not know if he was intentionally wrong. He might have thought that his material was appropriate and discovered only later that it was not. Or, he might not have tried. Or, he might have felt that this was an excellent time to attack some people that he has wanted to attack to their face. I cannot say which description is the most accurate. Yet all of these options are consistent with his actions being wrong, They only diverge on the question of, "How wrong?"

Truth to Power

The Liberal blogsphere is using the term "truth to power" to praise Colbert for his actions. Ultimately, this supports my point. This phrase refers to the willingness of an individual to tell somebody in power what he or she does not want to hear.

The very use of the concept "truth to power" makes it plain that Colbert acted inappropriately for this setting. If this was a Presidential press conference, it would have been legitimate to attack Bush for his record. However, this was an event specifically designed with the intention that it NOT be a press conference, and to which the President could go without being made to feel uncomfortable.

If it is accurate to say that Colbert's presentation was an example of speaking truth to power, then it is accurate to say that Colbert's presentation was not appropriate for this particular venue.


More important, I suspect that most of the liberal blogs out there praising Colbert would recognize just how inappropriate it was if the situations were reversed -- if this turned into a rant from Dennis Miller, for example, against a Democratic President. Liberal bloggists from one end of the country to the other would point out how the event is supposed to be neutral ground, and this right-wing nut job violated the rules in order to score some cheep points.

(And, no doubt, right-wing bloggers would speak about the virtue of speaking truth to power -- demonstrating perfect hypocrisy in doing so, and doing so without a twinge of conscience, since partisans operate on the principle that one who is promoting the party can do no wrong.)

Indeed, there is evidence of this. In 1996, Don Imus made a similar type of attack on Clinton. Liberals condemned him for his rudeness. However, they do not call Colbert rude. Indeed, they praise him.

This is the typical partisan double standard. It is yet another example of the type of morality that governs those who are devoted to a party – that no act is wrong if the party benefits. “It’s only wrong if the other guy does it.”

It would be nice to have a party that one can point to as the party of principle. However, it does not seem to be realistic.

Civil Disobedience

There is one context in which Colbert's skit would have been fitting. It could have been presented as an act of civil disobedience. There are things that needed to be said to the President whose lust for power is beyond the measure of any previous President, and a media that has sat aside and done nothing through all of his trangressions and usurpations. It would have been fitting for Colbert to have said, "I know that this is supposed to be a truce between the two factions, but there are things that my conscience requires of me."

If he had done this, then he could have broken the rules without condemnation. Like the sit-ins during the civil rights days, and Ghandi's civil disobedience, it is sometimes necessary to (non-violently) break the rules to accomplish important tasks. This could have been one of those instances. However, Colbert's act was not an act of civil disobedience. His violation has no such defense.


Jewish Atheist said...

Interesting argument. I'm willing to accept that Colbert was violating the implied rules of the occasion. It certainly made me uncomfortable just watching it. But, the question is: is violating the rules of a "peace dinner," serious enough that Colbert should have squandered the opportunity to "speak truth to power?" It's hard for me to believe that Colbert did any serious harm to the press or its relationship with the president, and it's easy for me to see that he maybe reminded some members of the press of what their job is -- not to cozy up to those in power, but to serve as a check and balance. The press works for the people, and Colbert gave it to 'em. He also demonstrated what the press should be doing -- not explicitly, as he's not really a member of the press, but rathre through his art - which is in the tradition of satire.

I think the potential good to the country here was far greater than the possible harm to... what? A pleasant evening? Warm feelings between the press and the administration?

Anonymous said...

Well as far as your analogy goes for the olympics, what if the two countries were at war and the rest of the world had completely ignored it? What if the only way you could call attention to the fact that your people were being systematically wiped out was to do something extreme like attack the other side at the olympics so that the outrage caused by such an event could gain recognition.

Now I'm just sort of exploring the other side of the argument here, I don't completely disagree with you as I think it is hypocritical of the liberals to applaud him, when they would certainly be in arms in the situation were reversed.

However, Colbert has never really shown any love for the administration, has always been about satire and comedy, and to expect anything else out of him even at such an event is silly. Indeed much of his speech was directed at the media for failing to stand up to the administration.

And considering that Bush hasn't really shown any propensity for following the rules I don't see how you can make an issue out of colbert being essentially rude.

I think a better analogy would be going to the olympics knowing that your rival team is cheating and using performance enhancing drugs and bribing the refs and judges. And knowing that the losing team will be killed. Are you still bound to follow the rules and play fair?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jewish Atheist

One cannot always measure a wrong by the harm done, but instead by the harm that tends to be done by acts of that type. I recall once reading a story about a man shot in the head during a convenience store robbery. The shooting victim had obsessive-compulsive disorder. which the gunshot wound seemed to have cured. Would you allow the shootist to claim, "No harm; therefore, no wrong?"

In this case, the wrong was violating the spirit of the gathering.

There are worse things he could have done. He did not, for example, strap a bomb to himself and detonate it during the speech. Yet, the claim "he could have done worse" does not imply "therefore, he did no wrong."

As I wrote: if the skit had been presented as an act of civil disobedience -- characterized by a statement recognizing that a rule was being violated, that it was deemed necessary to violate the rule to call attention to an important issue, and that the act was non-violent (nobody was being threatened with physical harm to themselves or their property), I would have defended it. Indeed, I would have praised it. But that was not the context in which he delivered this skit, and I can't praise it for being something it was not.


My response to your statement about Bush not following the rules will go under the heading, "Two wrongs do not make a right." There were 2600 people at that gathering -- all of whom showed up under a banner of truth that said that there would be no attacks that night.

Your 'better analogy' also does not fit because:

(1) At that dinner no such transgressions were taken place.

(2) The cheating in your example would have justified a decision not to participate -- and Colbert had, but did to exercise, that option.

Again, there were terms and conditions -- explicit or implicit -- for this meeting, and Colbert violated those terms. It is not much different from breaking a contract.

Anonymous said...

Do you honestly think that Colbert would have been allowed to speak "the truth" for 20 minutes at a press conference? He probably wouldn't have even been allowed to attend one that Bush is at.

First in your premise (or argument) that Colbert violated a truce. Colbert is not on either of the sides! He's not part of the media and he's not in the admnistration. Your anology does not follow. It would be more appropriate to say that some anarchist showed up and shot someone on both sides (or perhaps more appropriately pointed out how stupid both sides were for their acts in the war). Either way, neither party violated a truce.

Second, Colbert never agreed to any rules of participation other than to give the key note address. They brought him to be his persona and he was. Also, why do you keep on saying it was an attack? It was speaking the truth. If speaking the truth is an attack, then yes it was an attack, but I would say an attack is if Colbert came in and started calling bush a monkey or maybe insulted his man hood by saying he was in adequate in the sack.

In your truth to power segment, I'm not sure I follow your argument at all. This event was designed for the press core not for the president. The president (I think with Nixon) started to show up at the event so they made him the guest of honor. Eitherway, the president takes the risk upon himself to show up to an event where people take jabs at each others. Clinton took that risk too and suffered at the hands of Imus (whom I thought was pretty funny, though others apprently didn't).

Also, following your logic, all of the other jokes that were "true" made at bush that night were also inappropriate? They were just as appropriate as Colbert's but Colbert's were on topics that no one has dared to challenge the president on. It was the only time Colbert could get the president to sit there and listen and he took the opportunity.

Your Hypocracy argument may hold some water when you make this a partisan issue. But, as a moderate and someone whose voted for both parties in the last few elections (Republican Governor, Democratic President, Republican Reps.) that argument falls flat and should not even be considered. It's well known that both parties will defend their own irrationally and thus his actions should be analyzied outside of a partisan point of view.

Finally on to Civil Disobedience. Do you think Colbert could have said this to the president with a sit in at the dinner? He would have received 2 minutes of media attention and probably just kicked out. Instead, Colbert delivered a biting rebuke of the President and the media for 20 minutes, which the president had to hear and the media had to hear. Much harder to dismiss that than some lunatic trying to make a point with a sit in at the dinner.

Also, your response to Robert is not accurate because 2600 were not allowed to speak at the event only 4 or so were (so only 4 needed be gathering under that banner--even still I contest that some of the 2600 were not there under that banner. e.g. The Wilson's). Either way, what the president did or didn't do is irrelevant. Colbert was invited by two factions to speak at a dinner at which both sides wanted to hear light hearted barbs about their perceived but not actual short falls. Colbert, instead pointed out the absurdity of the event and knocked them both for their actual short falls. He made them all feel uncomfortable.

Anonymous said...

Just as an aside though. I do appreciate you analysis and thought it was probably the best argued one i read from those saying what he did was wrong/unfunny.

Anonymous said...

1)You compare this weazly gathering of crooked journalists and corrupt politicians with the olympics, an international event older than the US itself (and therefore almost 'sacred').

You ... should ... reconsider.

2)The media using their power to impose censorship is misplaced. The public should be the judge.

Anonymous said...

This president is extraordinarily shielded from criticism. Wearing a T-shirt his staff disapproves of can get one thrown out of one of his speeches. There just aren't that many venues to do what Colbert did.

The president is always roasted at the Correspondants dinner. Colbert did a particularly thorough job of it, but I'm not convinced it was wrong. Indeed, given the gravity of the presidents numerous offenses (many of which have been analyzed on this very blog), the direction he may now be leading us in Iran, and the lack of criticism in the press, I think Colbert probably did a good thing. I admit that I was a little uncomfortable watching Colbert because it was so devastating and the president had to sit right there and endure it. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but one that was needed.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the Olympics, I think Alonzo's point was simply that even athletes who are enemies agree to treat each other with some civility at the games. Not doing so violates the agreement, and endangers the games themselves.

At the Correspondant's dinner, the roasters agree to keep things fairly light, even though they may really want to rip into the president.

It could be argued that Colbert violated this agreement and was too strong. If this type of criticism became too common, then future dinners might be boycotted by the president.

I think it's fairly obvious that the line between good natured ribbing and harsh (if accurate) criticism is hard to identify. It could be argued that Colbert was probably somewhat across the line. But, given what I believe are extraordinary circumstances (mentioned in my post above), I think even if he was, it was justified. Or, at worse, a rather minor infraction.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The mere fact that there is such a strong correlation between judging Colbert's actions as 'right' and agreeing with the content of his speech gives reason to be suspicious.

The comments that I have received so far confirm the suspicion that people are not judging Colbert's actions based on any principle, but on whether they agree or disagree with the content of his speech.

That is to say, "It is permissible for a liberal (or a person delivering a liberal message) to do things that it would be wrong for a conservative (or a person delivering a conservative message) to do."

This is not a valid moral principle.

If an act is permissible, then it is just as permissible for somebody who is delivering a conservative message as once who delivers a liberal message. Whatever principle one is using to judge this event, make sure that it is one in which it is possible to reach exactly the same judgment even if a Bush supporter, were to do the same thing.

Bush also came under some criticism at the funeral of Coretta Scott King. Conservative pundits called that 'rude' -- saying that it was wrong to turn her funeral into a political event. Yet, I hold that it would have been absurd NOT to turn her funeral into a political event. There was no better way to honor a person who spent her life promoting certain principles than to promote and defend those principles, and to speak harshly of those who violated those principles.

Now, I did not say that Colbert's skit was not funny. Indeed, I consider it one of the best political skits I have seen, and I said so in my post. Furthermore, I got an immense sense of personal satisfaction from the fact that Bush that the White House Press were there to hear a message that I have wanted to shout at them for years.

Yet, when it came time to evaluate the ethics of the situation, a deep sense of personal satisfaction is not a valid foundation on which to build.

Instead, I looked at two things:

(1) Is it legitimate for such an event to happen at all? (It is.)

(2) If so, what rules are necessarily binding on everyone to make such an event possible.

To answer (2), I looked at the rules that I would seek to impose on, say, Bill O'Reilly at such an event. Then I apply those same rules equally to liberal and conservative commenters alike. That is the essence of fairness and justice.

On these criteria, I do not see any way out of the conclusion that Colbert acted in violation of the rules that would make such an event possible. To classify Colbert's actions as permissible implies that the equivalent actions from somebody who condemns the message that Colbert delivered would have been equally permissible.

I see no way to support that conclusion.

I can imagine somebody creating a similar routine to drive home conservative points. I can imagine Ann Colter giving the same type of satire, only claiming how liberal journalists are traitors who allie themselves with terrorists. I would have condemned such a speech. Furthermore, I bet almost every liberal blogger who is praising Colbert would have done the same thing.

The difference between me and them is that I believe that Colter and Colbert should live by the same rules. It would be the antithesis of ethics to assert that there is one standard that applies to Colbert, and a different (stricter) standard that applies to conservatives.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with the claim that Colbert's actions were inappropriate given the venue, but I don't have a problem with that. For that matter I didn't have a problem with Don Imus back during the Clinton years either.

Colbert is neither a member of the press corp nor a politician and he was invited to perform his act at the event. Anyone offering such an invitation should have been aware of just what his act is before making such an invitation. As far as has been said so far there were no restrictions placed on what he was allowed to discuss or requests that he tone it down. The folks who invited him are at least partially responsible if they're not happy with the results. As for violating a truce, from what I saw Colbert was a third party who attacked both sides in the dispute.

Was it rude? Sure. Was it inappropriate given the situation? Probably. Was it wrong? I'm not so sure.

Mark said...

A poster at Dkos points out that the whole event is "wrong." The press and the DC big shots are by design supposed to be adversarial. That they should call a truce, meet, and drool all over each other is wrong.

See my post on this subject (with a link to the Dkos diary about the Dan Froomkin article) here.

The upshot, Froomkin, a well known and effective WaPo reporter is now, is a small way, beholden to a DC Insider because that insider introduced Froomkin to Karl Rove at the dinner. BTW Froomkin has written some pretty tough stuff about Rove. But, on their first face to face meeting, he didn't ask any of the tought questions because it was "inappropriate". How sad is that?

Anonymous said...

I think we are arguing semantics between inappropriate and wrong. Sure it was rude, but Colbert did exactly what he does normally. He also attacked both sides, so it wasn't a withering assault on the president. It must have been expected when he was invited.

And I don't think adding a single sentence to make the whole act "civil disobedience" changes the whole thing from right to wrong. Is it not possible to for it to be "civil disobedience" without the statement?

I agree that both conservatives and liberals need to be held to the same standards, and that Colbert is more liberal than conservative, yet would Coulter or O'Reilly have made both sides the brunt of their joke, or would they have just praised the president and attacked the media?

In the end, yes Colbert broke the rules, but he was invited, and he did what he does, no surprise there. I don't think he was under any obligation other than politeness to not attack anyone. So I guess the only appropriate punishment is acknowldege he was rude. I think Colbert would be proud at that.

As an aside though, I do appreciate the discussions and posts here. I often disagree with them, but I always enjoy them!

Anonymous said...

I don't see where you get the idea that there is a no-criticism "rule" in effect at these dinners. I don't think Imus crossed a line either, I draw the line a lot further out than you seem to. Public figures like the President are fair game for criticism anytime, anywhere. Indeed, it's fundamental to the nature of democracy that public leaders not be allowed to use power entrusted to them by the people to shield themselves from criticism. Certainly, anyone inviting a satirist to speak at any event should expect a strong possiblity of satire.

Advocating violence against the President (or anyone, really) - *that* would be crossing a line away from political discourse and into something else. Calling attention to the President's flaws, or even calling on him to resign or advocating impeachment, is one thing, and calling for his assassination would be quite another. That's the line IMO, and Colbert was well on the "legitimate political discourse" side.

If Bill O'Reilly was invited to speak at such an event, I would expect him to express his views the way he normally does (except, of course, at the dinner he wouldn't have the authority to exclude people he disagrees with the way he does with callers on his own show). And he would be within his rights to do so, whether I agreed with him or not.

Colbert was exercising his right - indeed, responsibility as a citizen of a democracy - to criticize the political leadership's faults. At the same time, he criticized certain elements in the media for not fulfilling the same responsibility themselves.

Drawing an analogy between satire - even very sharply pointed satire - and murder seems rather strained. As if you were more interested in manipulating readers' emotions than in making a real point. Furthermore, it should not have escaped your attention how raising the civility "issue" has already been used to delegitimize criticism of government figures and particularly the present administration; I'm disappointed to see you enabling and perpetuating this behavior.

In short, while I agree with your condemnation of the hypocrisy of political partisans on both sides (defending Imus and attacking Colbert or vice versa), I think you're being consistent but consistently wrong. Political discourse needs to be open, even when it is harsh, for the benefit of a democratic society.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, you shot yourself in the foot with that last paragraph. After spending so much time talking about why it was wrong to violate the "truce" you gave him - and everyone - an out. So now you have to explain why it would be wrong for, say, an Olympian from an Arab nation to say "I know the Olympics are supposed to be a peaceful atheletic contest between the nations, but my conscience cannot suffer a Jew to live," before he guns down the Israeli team.

So, which is more important, the rules you agree to prior to participation or your conscience?

Anonymous said...

I'm with Les: your criticism is premised on the idea that Colbert should somehow consider himself a party to the de facto "truce" which holds during the correspondents dinner. He is not. His whole act is designed to satirize "TV news journalists", and for him to be given a forum like that and not ride it for all it's worth would be hypocritical of him.

Inviting Colbert there to do a presentation was inviting the Fox into the henhouse. To then go ahead and blame the fox for his moral transgressions while he seized the opportunity is childish.

Then there's your summary

"There is one context in which Colbert's skit would have been fitting. It could have been presented as an act of civil disobedience. There are things that needed to be said to the President whose lust for power is beyond the measure of any previous President, and a media that has sat aside and done nothing through all of his trangressions and usurpations. It would have been fitting for Colbert to have said, "I know that this is supposed to be a truce between the two factions, but there are things that my conscience requires of me."

Did I miss something? Isn't this pretty much exactly what he did, minus the upfront declaration that it was an act of civil disobedience? It was unnecessary for him to say so explicitly, because, well, he is a fox after all. His entire career at this point can be seen as an act of civil disobedience.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I still see a shortage of commenters responding to the question of whether they would allow the same rules to apply to Ann Coulter that they are allowing for Stephen Colbert. I am certain that Coulter could have found somebody to create some jokes that accused "the liberal press" as traitors with sufficiently sharp barbs that conservatives listening to her routine would have been rolling off of their chairs in laughter.

There are two points that seem to recur in these comments that I agree with, to a point.

First, there are those who say that his actions were 'rude but not wrong.'

There is a distinction between etiquette and ethics that is often hard to draw. I draw that line on whether the rule is one that can be violated without threatening the activity. Because Colbert's action violated a rule that people must obey for the event even to be possible, I count his act as a wrong.

However, there are degrees of wrongness -- and this certainly is not a wrong on the same level as launching a war under false pretenses or instituting a policy of torture and abuse of people, none of whom have been tried for any crime and some of whom are innocent.

Second, there are those who put the responsibility, not on Colbert, but on those who invited him. To these people, one can say, "This is what you ordered. If you wanted something else, you should have ordered something else."

This is a legitimate point. Plus, it obeys the universalizability criterion. If they request Ann Coulter to speak, then they should expect Ann Coulter to make the same types of points she makes elsewhere -- unless they specifically tell her otherwise, and she agrees to those terms.

As long as the speaker is willing to hold those who extend the invitations equally responsible for the comments of a conservative speaker, I have nothing to say against those who hold this view.

Hume's Ghost said...

I agree with most of your analysis, but the bit about civil disobediance I'm not sure about. I'm not saying your wrong, I'm just saying that my mind isn't made up about it. I'm not certain I see the necessity for verbally stating one is performing civil disobediance for it to be civil disobediance.

"I do not know if he was intentionally wrong."

The tension I see is that the reason he had the celebrity to be invited to speak there is because of the persona he plays on his show, so when he might have believed that he was expected to perform as that persona at the dinner. When they invited Colbert there it has the superficial appearance of bringing on someone who is going to roast the President.

Had Colbert not been a comedian whose routine consisted of parodying an ultra-conservative, then I think it would be easier to say that his actions were inappropriate in the context.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the slight concession. Yes, I do in fact hold that view: take for example, the case of Don Imus. Definitely cringe-inducing, but, well, he is Don Imus after all. What did they expect? That he would NOT mention Monica and the creative use of White Owl cigars?

Same goes for the hypothetical Ann Coulter-invite. If they want to hear from her, well then, God bless 'em, but they shouldn't expect her to say something other than, oh I don't know, how liberals are all evil and should put on a giant garbage barge which is then pushed into the mid-atlantic and sunk. You know--Ann Coulter type stuff.

Still, you have to admit, the sheer audacity and panache with which Colbert pulled this off is a much higher form of slight than what Imus did or what Coulter might do. Sure he was rude, not just plain rude though, but the Oh-my-God-I-wish-I-had-the-combination-of-creativity -and-cajones-to-pull-something-like-that-off kind of rude that makes his work a pleasure to watch. Perhaps in a few years it will be recognized for what it was: an unmitigated act of civial disobedience, except that he wasn't flouting the law, he was flouting conventions (de facto laws, if you will): the very conventions that your original post indicates you regard as important.

Ultimately, maybe that's the whole point: who gives a rat's ass about conventions, if by accepting their validity it means you have to get into a room with a bunch of people you have good reason to regard as morally compromised, and play as if you like them?

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, I'm not sure upon what grounds you think we'd all be complaining about a conservative giving a similar speech.

Because we liked the content of Colbert's and would presumably dislike the content of a conservative's speech? If I disliked the content of a conservatives speech, I'd criticise the content, not the person's right to speak.

Likewise, a conservatives complaint about Colbert should focus on whether the content of his speech has merit. I contend that one does not have to be a liberal to find that it does shine a light on many significant problems with the administration and its policies, as well as the ineptitude of the press.

After thinking more, and reading the above posts, I don't think Colbert was at all out of line.

Anonymous said...

Well said Thayne.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree that a no criticism rule is necessary for the event to be possible. The Friars Club roasts are based on the reverse principle, yet they exist. And the target of honor is expected to not only take it, but take it in good humor.

I think it's instructive to compare Bush's reaction with Scalia's. Scalia practically fell out of his chair laughing when Colbert parodied his use of a Sicilian obscene gesture (followed by an attempt to pass it off as an innocent gesture, which was instantly refuted by other Sicilians via the internet). Colbert pretended to accept Scalia's explanation and use the same gesture as a greeting, which was funny because by that time everyone in the audience knew what it *really* meant.

Scalia knew that he had been fairly skewered - and was able to recognize the humor in mockery directed at him.

If we had a president that reacted the way Scalia reacted, then clearly Colbert's act wouldn't have endangered the dinner or future events of the same kind. So you could just as easily see Bush's humorless reaction as the real danger, rather than the satire itself.

It now occurs to me to wonder how Clinton reacted to Imus... Does anyone have video of Imus's routine and Clinton's reaction to it, to compare and contrast with the present case? In any case, clearly the Imus/Clinton incident didn't destroy the dinner, which seems to refute your claim that the supposed rule is/was necessary to the existence of the event. Although it may be 12 more years before the next time a satirist gets invited to speak.

Fundamentally I see both of the objections you identify as the same objection: there isn't, and never was (and I would add, shouldn't be), a rule against criticism; giving a podium to a professional satirist is an acknowledgment that satire is allowed. Therefore, rudeness isn't wrong in that context (for any speaker of any political persuasion).

A genuinely separate argument is that the rudeness of, e.g., calling someone a liar is justified - absolutely and in all contexts - if they really *are* a liar; this kind of merciless honesty makes some people uncomfortable, but there is something to be said for it. Again, it's hard not to see this defense applying to Colbert *and* Imus, provided their criticisms were accurate.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


First of all, it is inappropriate to put this discussion in terms of "free speech". The right to free speech is not a right to speak wherever and whenever one wants to speak.

If somebody were to stand up in a crowded theater and start ranting about his favorite political cause at the top of his lungs, I would hope that you could see the sense in my claim that this speech is inappropriate without accusing me of being against free speech.

I would also hope that you could see the sense in criticizing those who assert that the speaker did no wrong in interrupting the movie, or who condemned the act as inappropriate under those circumstances, based on whether they agreed or disagreed the content of the speech.

There is no moral sense in claiming that 'those who say what I believe have a right to speak under circumstances where those who say what I disagree with must remain silent.'

Now, personal testimony as to how you may react to a similar presentation put on by somebody you disagree with is a poor argument. I am fully confident that the vast majority of liberal bloggers who are praising Colbert and calling his actions appropriate, would in fact have called a similar action on the part of a conservative speaker inappropriate in that setting. Evidence of that can be found in the liberal response to Dom Imus' comments about Clinton in 1996. Your personal testimony is not relevant to that claim.

I hold that the people at the White House Correspondents' Dinner participated in a private gathering for a private purpose and that Colbert's actions did not fit that purpose.

Now, I have granted that the fault may not rest with Colbert. Some people have suggested that the situation may have been one in which those who organized the dinner made the mistake of ordering something for dinner that they really did not want, or that was not served in a way they expected.

It is a matter of conjecture whether this was the result of those who placed the order not being clear about what they wanted. Or, whether the chef decided to prepare what he likes rather than what he was asked. I do not have the information that I would need to decide between these two options.

However, the chef who decides to prepare mutton for a dinner for a conference organized by a vegetarian organization can be justifiably criticized for that decision. It may be an act of negligence -- he just did not think about it (when he should have), or he could have knowingly wronged his customer (realizing that they do not eat meat but fixing it anyway because he likes meat), or intentionally doing harm (he hates vegetarians and fixes meat because he knows that it would displease them).

Such a chef would not be able to point to the contract and say, "Look, it does not say 'no meat'". The head of the organization would be within his rights to answer, "You should have been able to figure that much out for yourself." The chef who failed to figure this out for himself is guilty of negligence. The chef who figured it out but intentionally prepared meat because it would offend the vegetarians is guilty of an intentional wrong.

Nor should the chef be allowed to claim "free speech" -- making a statement against vegetarianism by fixing meat -- as a way of legitimizing this violation. Similarly, "free speech" does not save Colbert from moral criticism if he intentionally acted in a way that he knew was inappropriate for that situation.

Finally, some measure of criticism is due the anti-vegetarian who praises the Chef for his courage in fixing a meal of mutton for the vegetarians -- simply because they find personal enjoyment in somebody sticking it to those arrogant, self-important vegetarians.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo --

You are right, I phrased that poorly. It is not an issue of free speech, but rather an issue of whether the type of speech he gave was appropriate.

I described how I would react because you said:

The comments that I have received so far confirm the suspicion that people are not judging Colbert's actions based on any principle, but on whether they agree or disagree with the content of his speech.

That is to say, "It is permissible for a liberal (or a person delivering a liberal message) to do things that it would be wrong for a conservative (or a person delivering a conservative message) to do."

Your analogy to the chef and the vegetarian diners is a good one. I would point out that the diners (those who put on the Correspondant's dinner) regularly order roast! (And not roast as in "roast beef"). Surely even roasters can go too far, but the line is fuzzy.

Given that this was a roast, and given that Colbert's speech was typical of his well known show, and given that he was invited to be there, I don't think it's clear he violated the rules of conduct for this event.

However, I argued and still maintain that even if Colbert's speech did breach the rules of the dinner, it was justified. The president is very insulated. Many of his policies are immoral and also dangerous. The press has not done its job of shining a light on the transgressions of the president. One needn't be an avowed liberal to see these things. Colbert had a rare and very public opportunity to condemn both the president and the press in their presence and he took advantage of it.

Just Ken said...

What Colbert said was right on the money, and it was given in the correct venue: the White House Correspondents' Dinner with GWB & wife in attendance.

The White House Correspondents have been media whores for the Bush administration for too long, and Colbert's "Pox on Both Your Houses" was quite the correct tone to make.

Colbert was simply providing a populist, outsider's view for both groups to experience, and it was great!

Would that both groups hear more satire like this, constantly and unending, until they are both replace, one by the voters, and the other, by the journal publishers!

The truce ended when the media stopped listening to those of us who call the present administration, "Imperialist swine!"

Michael Bains said...

if the skit had been presented as an act of civil disobedience -- characterized by a statement recognizing that a rule was being violated, that it was deemed necessary to violate the rule to call attention to an important issue,

It wouldn't even get to an explanation of non-violence. After they heard the issue, and they would here the issue before deciding, he would not have been allowed to perform his act of Civil Disobedience. The Rule Makers are those who are being indicted by the performance.

He had to do it as he did.

Thanks for making me think about that irksome, human, angle. It does certainly explain the discomfort one felt when heeding the crowd's responses.

Michael Bains said...

hear the issue...


Alonzo Fyfe said...


As I wrote in another posting, civil disobedience does need to fit the situation. In this case, I think the best option would have been a statement at the end of the skit -- an acknowledgement that he was hired to entertain and was sorry that an issue if, in answering his own conscience, others did not find his comments as humerous as they otherwise might have.

I am certainly not displeased that Colbert delivered the message he did to those he delivered it to. Yet, this does not change the fact that, as a matter of ethics, he did have certain obligations that he either had to meet or explain why he did not.