Mark Twain once remarked, "Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place."
No dose of humor could leave us feeling sunny about a slimy Republican campaign that's awash in unprecedented cash, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has rendered the process farcical. But Twain rightfully suggests it's mentally healthy to laugh at life's idiocies, that humor can tamp down irritations if we view them through the prism of farce.
Which is why Stephen Colbert, a latter-day Twain and mock presidential candidate, is so valuable these days. Absurdism may be the only effective way to expose the absurdities of campaign finance laws. The laws have become so ludicrous that they require a satirist to unpack them in the pursuit of truth (or, as he calls it, "truthiness").
Colbert owes the existence of his Super PAC - which is actually not his; it's called The Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super PAC - to the 2010 high court decision that licensed the flood of endless (and often anonymous) big money into presidential campaigns. The court said the money could be pumped unchecked into "independent" groups - Super PACs - as long as they don't coordinate with candidates. The court insisted that Super PAC donations "do not give rise to corruption, or the appearance of corruption."
How naive. For months, the airwaves in early primary states have been corrupted by tens of millions of dollars worth of lies, in 30-second salvos, by groups such as Restore Our Future (a pro-Romney PAC) and Winning Our Future (a pro-Gingrich PAC). Winning is airing a Florida ad calling Romney "the inventor of government-run health care," which is nuts, because the Massachusetts plan is not government-run.
Winning is run by close Gingrich allies, just as Restore is run by close Romney allies. They don't need to "coordinate," because they know what the candidates want. Indeed, Gingrich's candidacy might well be on fumes today if not for Winning. And Winning would be on fumes if not for one Vegas mogul (Newt pal Sheldon Adelson) who's racking up record profits from his Macao casino. The satire writes itself.
Colbert wants to obey the law. He originally christened his PAC with the name Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but after receiving deadpan on-air advice from a real federal elections expert, attorney Trevor Potter, he changed the PAC name and brought his buddy John Stewart to run it and non-coordinate it. After the ceremonial transfer, Stewart's group actually aired an ad in South Carolina, going negative on Romney in the new Super PAC tradition. To wit: Since Romney believes corporations are people, and since Bain Capital has killed corporations, doesn't that make Romney a serial killer?
When Colbert was questioned on ABC News about the ad, he deadpanned: "I don't want any untrue ads on the air that could in any way be traced to me. I don't know if Mitt Romney is a serial killer. That's a question he's going to have to answer."
Satirists start with a nucleus of truth and build on it. But Colbert, on ABC News, barely needed to exaggerate. His first sentence captured the gist of the current shell game. And the latter two sentences bring to mind a true story about Lyndon B. Johnson running for office in Texas. He told an aide to spread the rumor that his opponent enjoyed carnal relations with animals. The aide said the charge wasn't true. LBJ said, "I know that. But let's make the SOB deny it."
Colbert is fortunate to be plying his craft in a culture soaked in postmodern irony, but he's part of a tradition that dates back at least to Jonathan Swift. Three centuries ago, Swift was lauded and reviled in England as a satirical enfant terrible, particularly when he skewered British policy toward Ireland. Mimicking the earnest political tracts of his era, Swift in 1729 offered his "modest proposal" that the Irish solve their hunger and poverty by eating their own children.
Colbert's deadpan delivery is reminiscent of Swift's deadpan prose: "I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a young, healthy child, well-nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled."
Many Brits didn't get the joke, and not all Americans appreciate Colbert. Leslie Marshall, a radio talk-show host, complained the other day that Colbert is "choosing to make a mockery of both our voting process and the seriousness of an individual running for office. . . . The matter of running this country, keeping us safe, working to create jobs, health care, etc., is no laughing matter."
Actually, our leaders have long made a mockery of the process without any help from Colbert. His performance art is welcome proof that humor can spotlight absurdity, on the bumpy road to truthiness.