Franklin, Colbert, and the Power of Truthiness Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Franklin, Colbert, and the Power of Truthiness

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Now I bethought my self in my Sleep...on the extream Folly of those Parents, who, blind to their Childrens Dulness, and insensible of the Solidity of their Skulls, because they think their Purses can afford it, will needs send them to the Temple of Learning, where, for want of a suitable Genius, they learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as well be acquir'd at a Dancing-School,) and from whence they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.
While I was in the midst of these unpleasant Reflections, Clericus (who with a Book in his Hand was walking under the Trees) accidentally awak'd me; to him I related my Dream...assuring me, That it was a lively Representation of Harvard College...

– 'Silence Dogood' [aka Ben Franklin], New England Courant, 14 May, 1722.
A NASA mission patch for a piece of exercise equipment on the ISS. NASA named it for Colbert.
I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.
– 'Stephen Colbert' [aka Stephen Colbert], commencement address at Knox College, 3 June, 2006.

Satire has a long history in the US, beginning even before the nation's existence as a political entity. In 1722, the Boston editors of the New England Courant were delighted to print the letters of Silence Dogood, widow, which were slipped under their office door at night. Ms Dogood was full of wit, wisdom, and charm. She had a lot of fans in Boston – and a few marriage proposals. The Franklins, who published the Courant, were not pleased when they discovered the truth behind the persona. The letters had all been written by their baby brother, Ben. Eventually, Ben ignored his own contract of indenture to his older brother and migrated illegally to Philadelphia, where he became known as a sage. He didn't give up satire though. Even in later years, he was known to perpetrate hoax letters in his own newspapers. You might say Franklin invented the faux persona for political purposes.

Skip ahead a couple of centuries, give or take. Instead of reading newspapers, most people watch television or its equivalent, the news online. On a nightly programme called The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert, a 'well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot'1, holds forth on the merits of right-wing conservatism while analysing the events of the day. Colbert insists that his name be pronounced in French – 'cole-BEAR', while freely admitting that his ancestors came from Ireland2. As with Silence Dogood, Mr Colbert is a sham. However, everyone knows this – the real Stephen Colbert, a humorist from South Carolina, is there in the flesh for all to see.

Silence Dogood told Bostonians a lot of truth in the form of humour. But Silence never got to stand, as Colbert did, eight feet away from the head of her government, and tell him what she thought of him. The night in 2006 when Stephen Colbert did this, the roomful of prominent journalists and political figures sat in mostly uneasy silence – but the world outside rejoiced. Colbert's brand of 'truthiness' had reached the corridors of power.

Ben Franklin might have been proud.

'Truthiness' in Action

Reality has a liberal bias.
– Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert's commentator character defines 'truthiness' as 'the gut feeling that something is true.' Modern cognitive researchers have experimentally determined that Colbert has science on his side. We usually include a picture, preferably a photograph, with our online text. Research indicates that readers are more likely to believe that our words are true if they are accompanied by an image – even if that image has nothing to do with proving the veracity of our claims.

When interviewing a creationist member of the Texas School Board, Colbert ironically remarked that he believed in deciding reality by majority vote. 'Truthiness' contributes to the process of democratising reality – putting reality up to 'majority vote', as Colbert often praises Wikipedia for doing3.

'Truthiness' was a major topic of Colbert's famous 2006 speech at the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA) Dinner, 1 May, 2006. Mark Smith, the outgoing president of the WHCA, had invited Colbert, with whose work he was vaguely familiar, to give the keynote address at the annual event, attended by the President of the United States, numerous dignitaries, and distinguished members of the national press. Traditionally, the festivities are marked by good-natured banter. A professional comedian, such as impressionist Rich Little, is often invited to provide lightly-barbed jokes at the expense of those in power – much in the vein of a German Carnival speech.

What they got that night was a bit more than Mark Smith had bargained for. Colbert's 24-minute presentation, which included a speech and film clip, left the audience visibly uncomfortable. The video - originally aired live on C-SPAN4 - went viral. Colbert's bold move made him wildly popular with critics of the Bush administration.

'We're Not Brainiacs on the Nerd Patrol'

Colbert's persona derives its satirical power from its disarming nature. As a commentator, Stephen Colbert is an enthusiastic proponent of all attitudes right-wing: if Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly is for something, so is Colbert – only more so. The problem with the right-wingers, according to Colbert, is that they don't go far enough. He proceeds to do so himself, in an often hilarious reductio ad absurdam that leaves the right-winger angry, but powerless to intervene, being unable to pinpoint the exact moment at which he's been disagreed with5.

In discussing school textbooks, for instance, Colbert has been heard to chide conservatives on their continued approval of Thomas Jefferson, a man who 'took a pair of scissors to the Bible'. There is not a lot they can say to that, because the Jefferson Bible is a matter of record. Similarly, in his 2006 speech, Colbert pretended awe at standing so close to the President, a man for whom he professed only the profoundest admiration. Colbert identified with Mr Bush on the grounds of 'truthiness', the idea that their wisdom was not learnt from books. 'We're not so different, he and I. We get it. We're not brainiacs on the nerd patrol,' he claimed. Bush's expression on the tape is unreadable at this point, although news sources later quoted a White House aide as saying that it was the one the President wore when he was 'about to explode'.

Colbert proceeded to praise the administration's achievements in glowing terms, while mentioning – as if he simply lacked the subtlety to realise it – many sensitive topics which most of those present might prefer to leave unmentioned.

I believe the government that governs best is the government that governs least. And by these standards, we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq.

Colbert concluded his remarks with a seven-minute video he had filmed with the help of Helen Thomas, the then 86-year-old gadfly White House correspondent whose probing questions were feared by all. In the video, billed as Colbert's 'audition tape' for the job of Press Secretary, Colbert attempts to flee from the relentless Ms Thomas in a parody of a horror-film scenario.

Obviously, many of the attendees were not amused by Colbert's remarks, especially when he seemed to be accusing the press in general of sycophancy, a charge they all denied. Newspaper and television reports of the event stressed that the highlight of the evening had been the President's clever routine with a double, barely mentioning Colbert's appearance. C-SPAN, which had aired the entire event live, repeated its coverage, minus Colbert. Independent online sources, however, picked up the story, and soon, the video footage went viral. Websites such as Editor and Publisher and Salon ran coverage of Colbert's speech – and enjoyed record numbers of mouseclicks. The audio version became the Number One album on iTunes, outselling pop records.

Colbert joked about his performance, remarking that the approximately 2,600 audience members had received it in 'respectful silence', and claiming that they were so impressed they had tried to carry him out on their shoulders, 'even though I wasn't ready to leave yet.'

The Huffington Post wondered aloud whether Colbert wasn't the last person to realise what he had achieved. Several approving columnists merely remarked that Colbert had 'spoken truthiness to power'.

Satire Gives Testimony

Appearing before Congressional committees is a time-honoured US tradition. Various House committees have the task of collecting information, and the power to subpoena witnesses, if necessary6, but more often, citizens who have a story to tell are more than willing to appear with prepared statements. Famously, Fred Rogers, the children's programmer and advocate, once gave a moving testimony to the power of public broadcasting before a Senate subcommittee. In 2010, Stephen Colbert had his chance, when he gave testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security, on the subject of immigrant farm workers.

What distinguished Colbert's remarks from Mister Rogers' was that Stephen Colbert gave his testimony in character. Colbert's heartfelt plea for an improvement in conditions for immigrant farm workers was based on his personal research, he said, spending an entire day picking vegetables. As a result, Colbert insisted, 'I break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar.' As usual, the bystanders maintained their decorum, hardly cracking a smile. The room broke into open laughter, however, when Colbert concluded:

I trust that following my testimony, both sides will work together on this issue in the best interest of America, as you always do.

When asked by a Congressman during questioning why he had offered to testify, Colbert did something uncharacteristic: he dropped character. This was part of his reply:

You know, 'whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,' and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now.

Colbert's answer provides a clue to the motivation that underlies satire – the desire to improve things. Benjamin Franklin's Silence Dogood was trying to make Boston a better place. It seems that Stephen Colbert is trying to make the United States a better place. Without this underlying compassionate motivation, what passes for constructive criticism may be nothing more than cynicism. This is what Stephen Colbert says about cynicism:

Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.

As we can see, the Colbert Report is part of a long and ongoing tradition of using satire to expose errors in government, of 'speaking truthiness to power'. Long may it continue.

For Personal Research

Would you like to explore the satirical world of Stephen Colbert further?

You can read a transcript of Colbert's speech at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.

You can view the entire evening's events on the original C-SPAN coverage, and compare President Bush's performance to Colbert's. Or start at 50 minutes in, when Colbert is introduced by an unsuspecting Mark Smith.

Depending on your location, you may be able to view Colbert's typically immodest reaction to being asked to speak.

You can enjoy Stephen Colbert's appearance before the US House of Representatives on the subject of immigrant agricultural labourers.

Image courtesy of NASA. The image depicts NASA mission patch for a piece of exercise equipment on the ISS. NASA named it for Colbert.
1This description comes from Mr Colbert's creator, Mr Colbert.2During Congressional testimony, he quipped that '...my great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants. He did it because he killed a man back in Ireland. That's the rumor; I don't know if that's true, I'd like to have that stricken from the record.'3Colbert coined the word 'Wikiality' to describe 'the reality we can all agree on'. Colbert's pranks on Wikipedia are notorious. He once caused his audience members to change Wikipedia entries to say that African elephant populations had tripled within three months. During the 2012 US Presidential campaign, Wikipedia locked certain entries down to prevent Colbert-inspired 'information' from finding its way into entries relating to candidate Mitt Romney.4C-SPAN is a US cable channel which airs Congressional debates and government-related events. It is not noted for being either exciting or amusing.5Mark Smith later pointed out that during Colbert's speech, there was no one moment where he felt obliged to 'step in'.6This power to compel testimony was first established by the Supreme Court during the Teapot Dome Scandal.

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