“What Is It?”
Actors and writers and directors have to understand human nature so that they may convey truths about it in their work. That forces them to often ask the question “What is it” about things which normal people don’t usually give a second thought to. What is it, they ask themselves, what is it really?
We’re going to take a look at patriotism this week and ask that question a couple of times.
Declaring Your Patriotism
A few weeks back, Bill Maher in his New Rules on Real Time, said: “You know, not to generalize, but the 29% of people who still support President Bush are the ones who love to pronounce themselves more patriotic than the rest of us. But just saying you're patriotic is like saying you have a big c**k. If you have to say it, chances are it's not true.”
Now, that’s funny, because it has a ring of truth to it. But is it really true? Are the people who are pronouncing their patriotism so loudly really the ones more likely to betray their country or to reveal secrets under torture faster than others? Probably not. There seem to be no indications that these people are either more likely or less likely to betray their country faster than anyone else who would be randomly chosen.
So the question is, since this behavior is everywhere, What is it? What is it really?
Imagine yourself arguing with a man who punctuates his argument with you with “I believe in the United States of America!”
What is that? That is a winning argument, because it has no counter-argument, and it puts the other side on the defensive, no matter what was being said. Notice that it is not a true argument, it is just a winning argument. It is not a fair argument, it is just a winning argument. A person who feels the need to resort to this sort of shtick, wants to win more than anything else. A person who resorts to this sort of argument wants to never be wrong.
And that’s the answer to the question. The people who resort to these arguments are people who want to feel safe in their rightness. They don’t want to think or to argue, they want to be considered right more than they want other things.
The Daily Show
The Daily Show: What is it?
What is it that The Daily Show actually does? Is it a left-wing mouthpiece or does it attack both sides equally and the Republicans simply happen to be in power? A revealing one-week ‘diary’ in Slate by Allison Silverman, one of The Daily Show’s writers, shows that The Daily Show’s writers look for the inherently illogical, for the absurd, and then they take that and make it more absurd and more illogical.
(Small detour: Note that she differentiates between jokes that get the audience laughing (which are funny) and jokes that get the audience clapping (which are not funny, the audience claps because it agrees). Now apply that to compare The Tonight Show to Letterman. Jay Leno gets a lot more laughs. Letterman gets a lot more claps. Letterman isn’t as funny as he was. People just want to feel that they’re included, that they ‘get it’, that they’re in the Letterman clique. Detour ends.)
So, taking an illogical argument or behavior and exaggerating it: What is that? It is in actuality an appeal for logic by showing that something is illogical.
When talking about the president’s refusing to have his aides testify under oath, Jon Stewart, interviewing correspondent John Oliver, says: “John, the president right now is suggesting that the only reason he’s doing this is to preserve his ability to get good council from his advisors.”
Oliver responds, “Look, Jon, if Karl Rove knew he’d one day be forced to testify under oath about advice he gave the president, he’d have to limit that advice to things that weren’t shameful, illegal, or spectacularly bone-headed.”
Do you see how they are making a logical point using humor?
Here’s another example:
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton went on The Daily Show. A day later, Stewart plays a bit of his tape back.
Bolton: “The president has a responsibility to be true to the people who voted for him and to put people in office who are sympathetic to his positions. Otherwise, what’s the point of having elections?”
Stewart: “Now, this is something I also didn’t realize about a democracy. The president is only the president of the people who voted for him.”
Stewart takes Bolton’s statement one step further, thus showing it as silly. He did not make it silly, he showed that it was already silly. He forces us to think better.
Moving on to the Gonzales scandal:
Stewart: “Meanwhile, returning to the Alberto Gonzales saga, he remains embroiled in the scandal over eight fired U.S. Attorneys, threatening to make him the first Hispanic Attorney General... to resign in disgrace. Of course, we know he’s not to blame.”
He then cuts to footage of Gonzales saying “... Was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That’s basically what I knew as the Attorney General.”
Back to Stewart: “Well, I guess Alberto Gonzales is the Attorney General kind of like the homeless guy is mayor of the park.”
Stewart took something unreasonable and exaggerated it to show how unreasonable it is. Stewart made a logical point.
However, it soon turns out that “Gonzales did, in fact, participate in a meeting concerning the firing of the attorneys, and signed off on them, according to statement released by the Justice Department. But I’m sure that he has an explanation for this rather enormous discrepancy.”
Cut to footage of Gonzales saying: “When I said on March 13th that I wasn’t involved, what I meant was that I have not been involved, was not involved in the deliberations. [...] I don’t recall being involved. Let me be more precise.”
Back to Stewart: “As the parent of a two-and-a-half-year-old, I routinely hear more convincing explanations of how feces got in my DVD player.”
The Daily Show not only takes on the absurd and makes us think, it also holds the politicians accountable for their lies (something that journalists should do and for some reason don’t). When Bush recently said that this new plan is working and what we should do is give it just a little more time, The Daily Show showed Bush a year before saying that the new plan is working and what we should do is give it just a little more time. Then it showed a video of Bush a year earlier saying the same thing, then another video from a year earlier, and so on, all the way back to the beginning of the war, where Bush says that the war has been won.
The Daily Show is holding the politicians accountable to their statements, thus protecting the people from those in power.
In the same way, when a politician makes a statement (something along the lines of “I never said” or “I never knew”) that contradicts an earlier statement, The Daily Show actually goes through the trouble of finding the conflicting statement and exposing the lie.
Is The Daily Show Patriotic?
Is what The Daily Show doing an act of sedition? If you act to improve, if you criticize to make things better, you act out of patriotism. History has shown that men in power who have not been held accountable for their mistakes tended to make bigger mistakes. So The Daily Show’s actions would seem to be a positive thing. Wanting this not to happen to your country would be a good thing.
On the other hand, if you use patriotism to stifle criticism, that brings us back to the original question: what you want to do is be understood to be right at the expense of everything else. It’s about you, not your country.
(When a government lies to the parents of a dead soldier, as the U.S. government did recently, trying to make his death more heroic, what is that? It is an act of a guilty conscience. It knows that it comes out looking badly, and so it would rather appear to be right at the expense of everything else like its soldiers or their honor.)
Exposing lies, exposing weaknesses of those in power, encouraging logical thinking, these are all acts of patriotism in a democratic country. Lying to the people, thinking that a power change would be a proof of weakness, thinking that thinking and/or changing one’s opinions is proof of weakness rather than intelligence, are all markers of the countries which the U.S. is fighting.
So let me ask you this: ‘Stay the course’, what is it?