Category Archives: Television

Christine O’Donnell Displays a Disturbing Arrogance Towards Normal Politics

Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell has run a new ad responding to joking about a strange appearance on Politically Incorrect years ago, where she admitted to having “dabbled in witchcraft” when she was young.  (The occult appears to have a stronger attraction for Evangelical Christians than it does for the general population, a strange but understandable irony.)  In any case, a further round of jokes inevitably followed her opening insistence, tongue obviously in cheek, that she is not a witch.  The Liberal Ironist doesn’t object to the way the ad starts, but to everything that follows:

“…I’m you.  None of us are perfect, but none of us can be happy with what we see all around us: Politicians who think that spending, trading favors and backroom deals are the ways to stay in office.  I’ll go to Washington, and do what you’d do…” (Emphasis in original.)

“Politicians who think spending, trading favors and backroom deals are the ways to stay in office,” is almost a redundancy.

And that makes sense. Soldiers have to be able to kill, firefighters have to run towards flames, and assistant principals have to oversee in-school detention. Politicians compromise on principled positions, on principle.  O’Donnell was doing fine until she got to the point. The Liberal Ironist doesn’t exactly want an elected official who would do what a normal person would do in office. A normal person can’t filibuster Congressional legislation, doesn’t ratify treaties and doesn’t approve Presidential appointments.  Those things are extraordinary, big-enough to change a person.

People who think a political compromise is a moral compromise are unethically uncompromising, clamoring for either political paralysis or political violence. I for one don’t want someone running for a seat in one of the most-exclusive legislative chambers in the World to pretend that she’s like me.  That’s patronizing.  What I do want is a candidate for the Senate who would do what she would do when in office–and who says so.  If she exhibited that kind of honesty, I’d be equipped with some idea more-rational than her recent ingratiation when weighing my vote.  That way I might have a positive reason to vote for her and not the other guy…or my roommate…or you.

This reminds me why I tend to like a capable administrator who people “can’t connect with,” like George Bush Sr.  When you can’t connect with a politician, at least you have an authentic lack of connection.

I’m the Liberal Ironist, and I approved this message…and I’m not you, because if I were, you would have lost your right to be yourself.

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Huh. I *Thought* It Was an Act…

Joaquin Phoenix is not crazy.  The day of his first David Letterman appearance since the notorious 11-minutes of uncomfortable near-silence seems like a good time to reminisce for those familiar with the story, and the right time for an introduction to a strange episode of celebrity oblige for those who aren’t.  A friend showed me Phoenix’s bizarre February 11, 2009 appearance on the Late Show.  I asked both of my fellow-viewers if they thought what they were seeing was an act; both of them shook their heads and said “I don’t think that’s an act” with gravity.  They believed Joaquin Phoenix had been in that netherworld between genius and insanity, and that the scales had suddenly tipped, probably owing to whatever he was supposed to be high on.

Interestingly, Gwyneth Paltrow, who had been Phoenix’s co-star in Two Lovers, would be among the first to disagree with them, innocently and offhandedly suspecting in an interview that Phoenix was pulling off an elaborate piece of performance art.

Phoenix was fairly-well lampooned by Ben Stiller at the 2009 Academy Awards, an event which implied either a lot of actors who could recognize an act, a certain mean-spiritedness on the part of the Academy, or perhaps some bad real blood between Hollywood and Phoenix.  But no less a Hollywood veteran than Roger Ebert was completely sold on the authenticity of brother-in-law Casey Affleck’s documentary (well, mockumentary) I’m Not Here.  After Affleck revealed the hoax, Ebert gracefully did what public figures frequently and inexplicably are unable to do: He admitted an error and took stock of how it came about.  He categorized critics he knew who had watched I’m Not Here by whether they got the joke (and in some cases what they thought of it).

While this post may be taking the aspect of a gossip column, the Liberal Ironist has a very-particular editorial appeal in mind with regard to this case of mistaken sincerity.  Some have referred to Phoenix’s act as performance art (which is the way I think of it), others have likened it to a kind of fraud.  That isn’t just harsh, it fundamentally misses the merits of the Borat-style mockumentary, and the lively and at times near-criminal (yet not really criminal) public appearances that often go with it.

Whether in the form of the Letterman appearance or a concert that turned out a complete mess, or the documentary that Roger Ebert thought to be a disturbing record of a fine actor frittering his life away, Phoenix’s Andy Kaufman-style, Marlon Brando-imitation rouse was another fine example of a work of fiction walking about under the light of day.  There is a legitimate and important difference between a hoax that is done to demonstrate that it can be done, and mere mischief or fraud.  Recall Alan Sokal’s 1994 submission to the sociological journal Social Text, in which he asserted that mathematics and physics were culturally-biased; almost immediately upon publication of the article Sokal admitted that the postmodern deconstruction of natural science that he had written was “liberally salted with nonsense,” thus opening the journal’s editors to the charge that it was they who were biased–and defending their authority over others.  Hollywood personalities who would take exception at Phoenix’s drug-addled hip-hop persona owe him much more than that; while many in Hollywood preach both self-discovery and social awareness, he has used these values as fodder for his own story.  It is interesting that some sneered; it is interesting that some, like Roger Ebert, were charitable and thoughtful both before and after they were brought in on the gag.  It is interesting that some of us always thought Phoenix was putting on a show, and it is interesting that some thought it didn’t really make a difference whether the actor’s seeming mental collapse was performance art at all, because there had to be at least a kernel of truth to it.  We should be grateful for the opportunity to see a work of art that is also a real-time event, out in the World (though there will be one or two more of those late next month).  We should also admire such craft where we find it, and as good liberal ironists be able to laugh at ourselves (assuming, of course, that we didn’t get the joke in the first place).

Stewart and Colbert: Breaking the 4th Wall, Coming Through, and Bricking It Up Again

In a recent blog post for The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder characterized Stewart’s and Colbert’s decision to hold opposed rallies in Washington, DC as “breaking the fourth wall and inserting themselves directly into the political debate,” but what they’re doing here isn’t precisely what the term “breaking the fourth wall” is meant to convey.  Stewart and Colbert are certainly partly-motivated not just by the fact of Glenn Beck’s massive Tea Party rally at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th, but by the allegory he was employing: As many of you know this was the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

As a “fake news” anchor, Stewart has long reacted to events in a way that made him an actual part of the national conversation; the day after Chris Matthews interviewed Georgia Senator Zell Miller about his speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, Stewart had him on the show to talk about Miller’s uncontrolled hostility.  But Stewart’s lack of actual credentials ironically gave him greater latitude to express his moral indignation; when Matthews returned to the show years later to plug his new book Life is a Campaign in which he argued all aspects of life are political and opportunistic, Stewart panned it, earning him Matthews’ hostility.

Colbert has already long-since immortalized himself with his hurtful but justified use of irony.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert may be the most-exemplary liberal ironists among our public figures.  This underscores the freedom their playful approach to politics affords them, because Stewart is ironically self-aware while Colbert is ironically-unselfconscious.  With Stewart, what you see is what you get; he is always himself, asking what he’d like to know, objecting when something is objectionable, crying when he is overwhelmed.  Colbert is mysterious–not because his real opinions are actually hidden, but because he is always in character; it’s hard to imagine the “real” Stephen Colbert simply because he seems so comfortable setting his true self aside.

Stewart and Colbert are perfect protagonists for our “post-postmodern” (heretofore and eternally Pseudo-modern) popular culture.  When Ambinder refers to Stewart and Colbert as “breaking the fourth wall,” he correctly identifies that weird interaction of the imaginary with the real, but the ironically self-aware character from all those stupid throwaway jokes was just pointing out that the world he inhabited was false, televised; Stewart and Colbert–especially Colbert–are TV characters that become real, and then leave the TV studio and influence events in the “real world” to leave no room for doubt.

Of course, as we go forward with this campaign season, those of us who haven’t already done so might feel a certain chill if they should happen to watch Glenn Beck.  Bill O’Reilly may have been Colbert’s model for his persona, but he would volunteer his centrist or liberal political positions to make his case that he really thought about the issues and not just a party hack.  He challenged George W. Bush for calling Jesus his favorite political philosopher while strongly-supporting the death penalty.  Beck pretty-much goes to the right, but not because he’s a party hack; worse than that, he is truly in it for himself.  Stephen Colbert’s role in his upcoming rally is doing is drawing an exact likeness of himself with Beck, to insinuate through imitation what more people should have recognized (or at least said) already, that Beck is an actor and that he really is just manipulating his conservative audience for money and influence.

Playing a “live” role the way Colbert does all the time must take great endurance, but don’t assume Stewart’s job is easy.  He is very real all the time. Comedian though he is, you may notice something interesting if you pretend he isn’t when you read the invitation to his event.  Jon Stewart may be the public protagonist of the past decade.