Tolerance for the dangerously absurd is the lifeblood of the two most popular comedy shows on cable television, Jon Stewart’s Daily Report, and Steve Colbert channeling a version of Bill O’Reilly on his show, The Colbert Report. The latter just won a Peabody Award, and Colbert was grateful:
I proudly accept this award and begrudgingly forgive the Peabody Committee for taking three years to recognize greatness. On a personal note, I’d like to say that I’ve long been a fan of Mr. Peabody, as well as his boy Sherman.
Well, maybe he wasn’t grateful. It’s hard to tell. He always stays in character. That makes things complicated. No one really ever knew how Randy Newman felt about short people after all – listen to that song – it’s either a scathing indictment of intolerance, or it isn’t. The idea is to keep you guessing – to make you uncomfortable while you laugh. The danger is that some people just don’t get it – they don’t sense the satirist is fed up, and playing with you, teasing you, hinting that you are so stuck where you are that you are passively accepting nonsense when you should be fed up.
And people do recognize that satire is important, thus the award for Colbert. Over at MSNBC, Olbermann’s rants on his show, Countdown, are powerful – here’s one – but finally, in their anger, less effective than his humor. He may be right, and righteous, but his “special comments” are for those already fed up. They express, concretely, the unease and intense discomfort many only feel in a vague, undifferentiated way. But they’re clearly preaching to the choir – those already uneasy and uncomfortable. They are a fine service for that crowd – what was oft thought (or at least felt), but ne’er so well expressed – but satire aims higher. It’s subversive. It slyly recruits more into the fold, those who should be fed up but haven’t yet figured things out. It’s not aimed at a particular market segment.
Of course every age says that, now, satire is impossible. Now, in our times, things aren’t like in the old days – this isn’t 1727 in London, that year Swift published Gulliver’s Travels, and Gay’s Beggars Opera premiered, and Pope’s Essay on Man appeared. Things now are too overtly absurd. They don’t even need pointing out. We’re beyond all that. No one told Stewart and Colbert, of course.
All we get now, other than with Stewart and Colbert, are lists – people set one thing against another and sigh. But sometimes that will do. Consider the following.
First, things are going well in Iraq:
A new classified intelligence assessment on Iraq says there has been significant progress in security since the last assessment was delivered in August, a senior military official said.
So there’s a new super-secret National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) – the Sunni tribes have solidified their resistance to al-Qaida-associated insurgents in Anbar and Diyala provinces, which has weakened the movement. Fine, we’re winning.
Or, as the New York Times reports, now things are even worse:
BAGHDAD – More than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen either refused to fight or simply abandoned their posts during the inconclusive assault against Shiite militias in Basra last week, a senior Iraqi government official said Thursday. Iraqi military officials said the group included dozens of officers, including at least two senior field commanders in the battle.
The desertions in the heat of a major battle cast fresh doubt on the effectiveness of the American-trained Iraqi security forces. The White House has conditioned further withdrawals of American troops on the readiness of the Iraqi military and police.
The crisis created by the desertions and other problems with the Basra operation was serious enough that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki hastily began funneling some 10,000 recruits from local Shiite tribes into his armed forces. That move has already generated anger among Sunni tribesmen whom Mr. Maliki has been much less eager to recruit despite their cooperation with the government in its fight against Sunni insurgents and criminal gangs.
But the man who could well be the next president, John McCain, says he’s fine with us being there for one hundred years – but to be fair, he is not saying that he wants to see this current war continue until 2108. He has this idea the whole business could be like Korea or Germany. We’ve been in both those places for ages, so many thousands of American troops “maintaining a presence” in Iraq for an hundred years, after some semblance of stability has been established, would be a good thing.
Over at Time Magazine, Joe Kline, sees some dangerous absurdity:
The problem with John McCain’s 100 years in Iraq formulation isn’t that he’s calling for 95 more years of combat – he isn’t – but that he thinks you can have a long-term basing arrangement in Iraq similar to those we have in Germany or Korea. That betrays a fairly acute lack of knowledge about both Iraq and Islam. It may well be possible to station U.S. troops in small, peripheral kingdoms like Dubai or Kuwait, but Iraq is – and has always been – volatile, tenuous, centrally-located and nearly as sensitive to the presence of infidels as Saudi Arabia. It is a terrible candidate for a long-term basing agreement.
Steve Benen offers more:
The point seems to have been largely forgotten, but back in November, after months of insisting that Korea could be a model for a long-term troop presence in Iraq, McCain abandoned this position, saying he doesn’t want to use Korea as a model, and adding that the “nature of the society in Iraq” and the “religious aspects” of the country make withdrawal inevitable.
Soon after, McCain went back to his original position again, saying that a Korean model is entirely appropriate. So, for those keeping score at home, McCain 1) endorsed a multi-decade presence in Iraq; 2) denounced a multi-decade presence in Iraq; 3) re-embraced his first point; and 4) blasted those who agreed with his second point as being incompetent.
At the risk of sounding impolite, this guy is starting to make Bush look like he’s engaged and knowledgeable.
You can bump all those things together, but you cannot easily make it come out as satire. Stewart probably will. He’s good. But it’s not easy. It’s just dispiriting.
And as for the current president seeming engaged and knowledgeable, via Think Progress, there is an odd report on Bush in Europe for those NATO meetings. It seems that President Bush tried to prematurely cut off a joint press conference in Romania with the country’s president Traian Basescu – a great name for any satire, of course – even though “as a matter of courtesy and protocol, the host decides when such an event is over.”
The Washington Post’s Peter Baker reports that Bush also left a NATO summit meeting early:
Enough is enough, it seems. With the NATO summit meetings consistently running two hours over schedule most of the day, President Bush abruptly got up and left the last formal session of the day, not bothering to wait for an official summit photograph of all the leaders.
Bush is no fan of windy meetings and evidently had had his fill. He left behind Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to represent him for the rest of the session, which concerned NATO operations in Afghanistan, but his departure was so sudden and unexpected that he left some of his motorcade behind, including his press pool, when he got into his car and headed back to his hotel.
How do you satirize that? It’s a joke in and of itself – if a petulant child with far too much power is funny. Stewart and Colbert could, perhaps, make it funny. It is absurd.
But this is the man who is all hot to defeat our main enemy, al Qaeda, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, and maybe in Pakistan – but that last place is tricky. They don’t want us operating in their country, and they’re an important ally, the exception to that you’re-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists rule. He might have stayed for the meeting. Perhaps he was worried about Iran, and wanted to get back to thinking about that place – all these bad guys out to get us.
But that got complicated too. Over at Danger Room, Noah Shachtman finds that in a new online session, Ayman al-Zawahiri – al Qaeda’s number two leader – clearly states al Qaeda wants Iran to fail in Iraq:
The dispute between America and Iran is a real dispute based on the struggle over areas of influence, and the possibility of America striking Iran is a real possibility. As for what might happen in the region, I can only say that major changes will occur in the region, and the situation will be in the interest of the Mujahideen if the war saps both of them. If, however, one of them emerges victorious, its influence will intensify and fierce battles will begin between it and the Mujahideen, except that the Jihadi awakening currently under way and the degeneration state of affairs of the invaders in Afghanistan and Iraq will make it impossible for Iran or America to become the sole decision-maker in the region.
If you unpack that, you see al Qaeda hates Iran as much as Bush does, hates that Iran has so much influence in Iraq, and would just as soon attack Iran. Perhaps Bush went back to the hotel to take a nap. You can’t make this stuff up, as they say. It may be too absurd for satire.
But what went wrong with recent events in Iraq, particularly in Basra? The New York Times reports on why Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s offensive in Basra just didn’t work out:
Interviews with a wide range of American and military officials…suggest that Mr. Maliki overestimated his military’s abilities and underestimated the scale of the resistance. The Iraqi prime minister also displayed an impulsive leadership style that did not give his forces or that of his most powerful allies, the American and British military, time to prepare.
“He went in with a stick and he poked a hornet’s nest, and the resistance he got was a little bit more than he bargained for,” said one official in the multinational force in Baghdad who requested anonymity. “They went in with 70 percent of a plan. Sometimes that’s enough. This time it wasn’t.”
That sounds familiar. It’s also fodder for satire.
You do need someone to cut through the absurd, as a public service. It doesn’t have to be satire. Next week, David Petraeus, our top military commander in Iraq, testifies to Congress, again, on how things are going. David Corn, at Mother Jones, in the Washington Dispatch section, asks twelve national security experts, what questions Congress should ask. It’s long, and wonky, but has it’s moments.
Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University:
Many credit the “surge” with reducing the level of violence in Iraq. Yet violence continues and over the past several months has leveled out. How will you reduce violence to levels that are acceptable? What is the definition of “acceptable” in this context?
Jon Stewart should ask the question and Colbert answer it. The result would be the same.
Juan Cole, professor of history at University of Michigan:
General Petraeus, you have done what you can do militarily. It’s unclear that more can be done on that front, and yet there is still a fair amount of violence. The question is, what now? This is not facetious.
You see, Cole even had to keep things straight. Satire and reality have become far too close.
Sam Gardiner, retired Air Force colonel and expert on military strategy:
Why did Iran help broker the cease-fire with the Mahdi Army?
Yep, this is absurd. It’s just not funny.
Finally, you might want to review Dahlia Lithwick in Slate discussing the recently revealed John Yoo memos – the one saying no laws applied to the president in ordering torture, and the other apparently saying the fourth amendment could be bypassed if the president wanted. It reads like a satire, as does its title – Yoo Talkin’ to Me?
Much of it is about the paralyzing effect of something called “lawfare.” Lawfare was described by Air Force Brigadier General Charles Dunlap as “the strategy of using or misusing law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective.” It’s depressing – but it comes down to winning by twisting the law so you cannot be charged with any war crimes – and then you win. The law is as much your enemy as anything else. That is what the book The Terror Presidency by Jack Goldsmith is about – everyone in the administration hobbled by worry about the law.
Here are some gems:
It sounds awful, and it’s almost possible to see John Yoo as the brave individual willing to green-light aggressive interrogation amid all that paralysis. But in hindsight, Yoo has proven himself to be a one-man argument for the wisdom of “lawfare.” Those same forces that constrain the executive from acting boldly in a crisis may also keep it from behaving in ways that later shock the conscience. If it’s a choice between sober legal reflection and unhinged prisoner abuse, sober reflection also has its advantages.
But that choice also assumes lawyers engaged in sober reflection, and that may be assuming too much. Indeed, if anything, Goldsmith and others may have understated the dangers of “lawfare” – if the lawyers tasked with working around the web of international laws begin from the premise that laws are just obstacles. As we are beginning to learn, the growing tendency to conduct wars in the courtroom hasn’t actually constrained anyone at all over the past seven years. The expanded role of all these laws and lawyers in the war on terror has had the opposite effect: The Bush administration has proven time and again that the Rule of Law is only as definitive as its most inventive lawyers.
In short, the Bush solution to the paralysis of lawfare seems to be to hire lawyers who don’t believe in the law.
Swift could write a book about this.
Lithwick just offers observations on why messing with the law like this is dangerous, like this one:
The dangerous presumption that there are two legitimate sides to every question, including settled ones: This is a peculiar hallmark of Bush administration’s existentialist thinking. Witness Michael Mukasey, whose ability to turn settled legal questions (“water-boarding = torture”) into exercises in 1st Officer Spockian Deep Thought (“water-boarding might be torture. Or it might not. Fascinating problem. Hmmm”). The Yoo memo is what Orin Kerr rightly characterizes as “lawyerly.” It looks like a memo. Notes Kerr, “It cites tons of authority, hedges arguments, discusses counterarguments, and generally reads like a careful lawyer’s work.” That’s because in law school, they teach you to take out the bits that say, “Stick ’em in the eye with the shrimp fork!” But as Kerr also concedes, you can be lawyerly and also poorly reasoned. There are good arguments to be made for many stupid legal ideas, but that doesn’t make them legal. We need to stop revering open-mindedness when it comes to settled law. It suggests that contrarian, dangerous, bad ideas have equal weight to settled, prudent, careful ideas, so long as there are citations and footnotes to support them.
But our news media have long said there are two sides to every argument, dutifully reporting that some say the earth is flat – equal time and all. Absurd? Of course.
She concludes with this:
A lot of folks are inclined to write off the news of the torture memo today because: (i) we already knew this; (ii) it’s no longer the law; and (iii) David Addington won’t be allowed to listen in on their phone calls in seven months. I respectfully dissent. We should be thinking long and hard about how this memo came to be our interrogation policy, even for a few months. Now is the time to question the wisdom of trusting the policing of the boundaries in the war on terror to a swarm of anonymous midlevel lawyers whose minds may just be too open for our own good. We need to get away from the wrongheaded notion that a war on terror is the same thing as a war against the law.
It may be too late for that. And it may be too late for satire. There are just the lists.