Stephen Colbert Continues to Betray his Viewers and Celebrate the Wrong People

Stephen Colbert Gets a Haircut from A U.S. General

Stephen Colbert gets a haircut from U.S. General Ray Odierno during his week-long infomercial for the military via Wikipedia.

Stephen Colbert, now of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, is a darling of liberals and progressives, much like his contemporaries Jon Stewart and John Oliver. His television show, The Colbert Report, was praised for its liberal satire, cultural relevance, and longevity before it ended in 2014, and served as a counterweight to the neoconservatism that dominated the presidency of George W. Bush.

Colbert gained popularity in large part due to his performance at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, where he used the stage to deliver a stinging critique of the Bush administration that greatly embarrassed Bush and other Washington figures. This rare moment in modern politics — a politician directly confronted with an obvious but rarely articulated assessment of his crimes by an outsider inside an establishment space — made Colbert a standard bearer of dissent from left of the center.

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Colbert’s Final Episode Celebrated the Wrong People

A screenshot from the final episode of The Colbert Report, aired December 18, 2014 via Wikipedia.

A screenshot from the final episode of The Colbert Report, aired December 18, 2014 via Wikipedia.

Note: I wrote this short piece after the final episode of The Colbert Report. It became relevant again when Hillary Clinton recently expressed admiration for Henry Kissinger in order to demonstrate that she should be trusted on foreign policy. Colbert’s benign attitude toward Kissinger and other reprehensible political figures is similarly disappointing, and at the core shows a lack of empathy for the victims of disastrous U.S. foreign and domestic policy choices. It’s been lightly edited.

The Colbert Report is over. I regularly watched the show (and The Daily Show) when it started, but I petered out and hadn’t watched an episode in a few years. I did not watch the final episode, although the episode was no different. It became a cultural moment and was covered widely in the media. Colbert stayed in character and ended the episode by singing a farewell song alongside dozens of “celebrities.” This stunt was generally well received by mainstream media sources.

From these reports, the final episode sounded like Colbert at his worst. The list of celebrities who appeared included Mike Huckabee, Thomas Friedman, Grover Norquist, Andrew Sullivan, Samantha Power, and Henry Kissinger. These are people who have terrible ideas, who are either war mongers or war apologists, and in the case of Kissinger, are responsible for enormous suffering and death. They should not be elevated or validated and their celebrity is grotesque. Colbert could have used this moment to highlight people who deserved respect, who courageously advocated for positions that aligned with his purported politics. Instead, he shared his stage with people who represent the worst of American foreign and domestic policy.

The scene also showed that the political establishment is very comfortable with Colbert. When Bill Clinton, Nicholas Kristof, Mike Huckabee, Arianna Huffington, Thomas Friedman, Cory Booker, Andrew Sullivan, Henry Kissinger, Paul Krugman, and General Odierno come together and celebrate a political satirist, it’s clear that Colbert’s tepid dissent did not threaten the status quo, at least any longer. Colbert had good moments, especially his performance at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner (where he used the stage he was given to embarrass President Bush and other Washington figures), but he  either didn’t try or couldn’t figure out how to keep his political subversiveness, and eventually he cashed out long after it was lost.

Thomas Eric Duncan, and Deconstructing the Ebola Crisis in the U.S.

Thomas Eric Duncan

Thomas Eric Duncan's death was characterized by institutional incompetence and racism, not Ebola. Photo by zennie62 (flickr).

In 2014, the Ebola virus devastated western Africa. That fall, the American public panicked over the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the United States. Americans stocked up on emergency supplies, avoided public spaces for fear of contracting the virus, and clamored for a vaccine. Though the episode and accompanying media spectacle had largely passed by November 2014, it exposed ongoing problems with the country’s response to disease and its obligations to the world. This is clear from the misplaced priorities of politicians and institutions—informed by racism and classism—and poor reporting from the media.

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East Baltimore Urban Renewal

Washington and Ashland Ave Batimore

The corner of Washington Ave. and Ashland Ave. in August 2011 (top) and September 2015 (bottom). Via Google Street View.

This was originally written in November 2014.

Johns Hopkins University Hospital sits directly next to a very poor East Baltimore community. The hospital campus faces inward with iron fences and private guards in kiosks surrounding the entrances. The subway system reaches the campus and goes no farther. In March 2014, The New York Times ran an article in the Arts & Design section about a redevelopment project in this neighborhood that included a new public school operated by Johns Hopkins University (JHU) and Morgan State University. Like most writing about poverty for an audience with no real interest in poverty, the article conveyed how difficult poverty is to solve, creating no expectations that what followed would solving anything, and served to bolster the reputation of a prestigious institution. JHU, described as a “great university,” was attempting a “grand urban experiment.”

The new K-8 school is one part of a greater redevelopment project and serves as the Arts & Design “hook,” since it contains supposedly innovative things like “a community center, library, auditorium, and gym” that are actually standard in properly funded public school facilities. Past these benefits (and buried in the article), is the price the community paid for this project:

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Strategic Pitfalls in Basic Income Advocacy

Telsa's manufacturing facility

Telsa's manufacturing facility. Photo by Jurvetson (flickr).

A recent piece made the point that a basic income could be good policy under certain conditions. To summarize, basic income advocacy today is usually predicated on the idea that automation and robots are taking our jobs now, and that the trend will lead to mass unemployment sooner or later. But the data show that robots and technology are not taking our jobs, and that technological advances usually increase employment. In short, the article concluded, even though fears of robots are unfounded, a government-managed universal basic income would be good if combined with other progressive polices.

In addition to the points raised in article, there are strategic considerations that those supporting a basic income should take into account.

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Limitations in Comparing Unemployment Rates Across Countries

Minimum Wages Do Not Correlate With Higher Total Unemployment

Minimum wages have a weak correlation between higher minimum wages and lower unemployment for OECD countries around the world. The result is not statistically significant, though.

A recent post from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) used unemployment rates from European countries to make a flawed argument against minimum wages. While it is clear from this data that minimum wages do not lead to lower or higher unemployment, there was a weak (i.e. not statistically significant) correlation between higher minimum wages (or equivalents) and lower unemployment in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. While this is an interesting result, there are limitations even in comparing harmonized unemployment rates between countries.

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The Shearing discusses exploitation and injustice across a range of social and economic issues. The writing argues for policy and action that support equality, equity, fairness, and accountability, as well as radical social and economic change.

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