If you told me twenty years ago that conservative commenters would one day compare everything to the historical struggles of Jews and African Americans, I would have laughed and gone back to hacky sack. But here we are in 2014, and those right-wing pundits who are not still beating the straw man of political correctness are casting themselves as an oppressed people. Case in point: Ben Shapiro’s argument that The Colbert Report is analogous to a minstrel show. I quote:
This routine, in which Colbert plays at conservatism in order to portray it as unendingly ugly, should be labeled for what it is: vile political blackface. When Colbert plays “Colbert,” it’s not mere mockery or satire or spoof. It’s something far nastier.
Vile, I say—vile! Also, Shapiro put an enormous picture of a white comedian in blackface at the top of his column, because he had to.
Having decried the use of straw men 100 words ago, I’m not going to argue that Shapiro’s analogy is wrong. Obviously it’s wrong. Pretending to be like the people paid to espouse conservatism on TV at 10pm is different from pretending to be like the people not paid to pick cotton in Mississippi in 1835. It’s different the way playing pool is different from shooting a gun, which is to say the interesting question is not whether these two acts differ, but how.
I think it’s a worthwhile question, because we’ve talked about satire, Colbert and racism intermittently and in various combinations lately, and it’s clear that context matters. No matter how you feel about Suey Park, a frame of reference is probably important to your assessment. It’s important if you think Colbert’s “Ching Chong Ding Dong” joke was not racist because it attacked the Washington Redskins for their racist name, and it’s important if you think that a white man saying “oriental” cannot be funny because white men said it while disenfranchising Asian-Americans for more than a century. Both of these are potentially valid viewpoints, and they both depend heavily on context.
Context matters particularly in satire and race, where a person who understands only the immediate conditions is likely to miss the point. For example, black people in whiteface are not nearly so offensive as white people in blackface, and calling a white person a cracker is not nearly so offensive as calling a black person the n-word. From a willfully narrow viewpoint, these are instances of bias against white people. In context, though—for example, in the socioeconomic context where white people are richer and more employed than black people—these differences make sense.
White people are winning, which is one reason why Colbert pretending to be a conservative pundit and Colbert hypothetically putting burnt cork on his face are two very different things. People like Bill O’Reilly and even Ben Shapiro are winning. Rachel Maddow is winning. We pay these people for the privilege of hearing their opinions, which is pretty much the opposite of the African-American experience. A pundit—even an entire class of pundits—is by definition enfranchised, and therefore he is fair game for satire.
Shapiro’s complaint is not that Colbert unfairly characterizes conservative TV commentators, though; it’s that he unfairly characterizes conservatives. “Colbert’s routine is designed to convince millions of Americans, especially young people, that the real fakery comes from genuine conservatives,” Shapiro writes, “who are all as morally ignorant and repulsive on the inside as Colbert’s character is on the surface.”
There is some truth to this argument. Colbert’s broad satire indicts all conservatives in the same way that Swift’s broad satire of Britain’s Irish policy indicted all English people. But the Colbert Report character is not a suburban moderate yelling at his TV. He’s a megalomaniac bloviating on TV, and both his views and his commitment to them are exaggerated to the point of absurdity. He is no more an attack on rank-and-file conservatives than Mr. Burns is an attack on people with savings accounts.
This brings us to the final reason why The Colbert Report differs from blackface. He’s satirizing behavior, not people. If the blackface comedians of the late 19th century had wiped off their makeup and done routines about cunning layabouts avoiding work, they wouldn’t have been offensive. They just would have been late vaudeville. It’s funny to satirize lazy people, or ambitious people or morally indignant people, because they can change. Satire is good when directed toward ideas and behaviors and bad when directed toward races or identities, because ideas and behaviors can change.
You choose to espouse conservative ideas, and if that choice makes you sound similar to a comedian who claims to oppose child labor laws, perhaps satire has pointed out the foibles in your behavior. Shapiro seems to presuppose that “conservative” is an identity like “black” or “Jewish.” Maybe that’s the whole problem with his worldview. Like the buffoon on The Colbert Robert, you can kind of predict how he’ll feel about anything, based on who he thinks he is.