What’s So Funny ’bout Bush, Lies and Torture Memos?

When an ACLU email directs you to a Stephen Colbert take on torture, you know it’s time to reassess the news-as-entertainment phenomenon. 

Colbert was riffing on the Justice Department memo advising the CIA that its agents could legally use waterboarding and other so-called harsh interrogation techniques if they had an “honest belief” that their actions did not cause severe pain—even if that belief was “unreasonable.”  Colbert has a gift for spinning conscience-shockers like this into satiric gold.  But is that a good thing?

At the level of our media saturated group-mind, political jibes, by their very ubiquity, make familiar the unacceptable. The more familiar a circumstance, the more likely it is to become entrenched, and the harder it is to change.  From this perspective, might the pervasiveness of political satire unwittingly serve to normalize the very practices it would condemn?

This line of inquiry started to gel a few years ago as I listened to my savvy ten-year-old nephew gleefully recount a scene from Scary Movie II.   The protagonist, prowling through a dark, creepy basement, comes upon a pile of ashes:  It’s the Florida ballots!  The presidency and entire course of history turned on this monstrous act of fraud and it’s reduced to a sight gag in a kid’s movie.

It’s all very clubby when everyone’s in on the joke.  But if it’s a joke, how can we take it seriously?  And if we don’t, why would the man behind the curtain?

Indeed, in our culture of extreme irony, President Bush felt secure enough to parody his own fallacious excuse for invading Iraq. Recall the 2004 White House Correspondents Dinner slideshow of Bush searching the Oval Office—under furniture, behind curtains—for weapons of mass destruction. “Nope,” he shrugs,  “no weapons over there…. Maybe under here.”  Wait—was he poking fun at an innocent boo-boo or a war crime?  Iraq decimated, thousands dead and maimed—now upwards of a million—our national coffers being sucked dry and our moral authority on the world stage trashed.  All this oh so amusing to the man who led the charge. 

Consider all that ails our nation—from a teetering economy and war without end to global warming, peak oil and the end of civil liberties as we’ve known and loved them. The very fact that we can routinely joke about these issues before national audiences helps to create a false sense of security.  We convince ourselves that if we can ridicule the President we must have freedom of speech; that fenced-in “Demonstration Zones” insure our right to peaceably assemble; and people like Nancy Pelosi and Antonin Scalia provide all the checks and balance we need to keep a President from becoming King.

Guys like Colbert and Jon Stewart use humor to bring much needed attention to issues that many in corporate media ignore or at best downplay. But even the most daring comedic expose has little value beyond mere entertainment if viewers are so sated by its wit that they feel no urge to assume any responsibility for the information they’ve been handed.

After chortling over the lawyerly parsing of torture, for example, how many of Colbert’s 1.2 million fans took a moment to call their congressperson to demand hearings, corrective legislation—something?  Precious few, judging by how fast the story vanished.  We didn’t even make enough noise to generate the attention slathered on something as trifling as John Edwards’ affair.

Life without humor would be its own form of torture; no one wants that.  Laughter makes us feel good.  It lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, and triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, producing a general sense of well-being. But like anything else that gives us pleasure, it can be abused if we indulge in it so much that we neglect the unglamorous, in-the-trenches work that makes up so much of life. How much easier it is to crack wise about the latest wound Bush inflicts on the body politic than to organize a campaign to impeach him.

On a deeper and more ominous level, the principles of neuroplasticity suggest that the more time we spend laughing at things like the tortured logic of torture memos, the more we come to associate such insanity with positive feelings.  Even as we hate the content of the news we’re hearing, we love the comic delivery; it makes us feel good.

These neural linkages are created below the level of conscious awareness, whether we like it or not. And, night after night, we program ourselves—just as methodically as Pavlov trained his dogs—to salivate in anticipation of the next blistering critique from Comedy Central . . . and the physiological relief it will bring.  Because a spoonful of humor does help the injustice go down.  But indiscriminately applied it belittles the truth and robs atrocity of its full weight by making it a source of amusement. 

We would do well to remember that it wasn’t always thus.

During the Vietnam War era, we had Walter Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley.  They served the news straight up, and it burned going down. When reports came of a US military officer declaring that “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,”  I don’t remember anyone trying to find a way to make that funny.  Because it wasn’t funny.  We didn’t laugh. We were outraged.  We wept.  We howled.  We demonstrated.  And we ended a war.

Now, isn’t it about time we all get serious?


This essay originally appeared on CounterPunch.org on August 16, 2008