Stephen Colbert on Social Inequality

As anyone fond of “truthiness,” humor, or television knows, long time Daily Show member Stephen Colbert has, since October 2005, had his own show: The Colbert Report.

Where Daily Show anchor John Stewart plays it in some ways more conservatively, holding to a tradition of fake news and riffing on the real news that’s been part of comedy for a long time, Colbert’s a bit further out there. He’s constructed an entire seamless persona, one he calls a “well-intentioned, poorly informed, high status idiot.” In other words, he’s only half a twist further along the spiral of self-parody from half a dozen talk show hosts who take themselves seriously (and don’t know they’re parodies of themselves).

On June 23, Colbert hosted Barbara Ehrenreich. You can watch the entire episode online here. (And if you just want the Ehrenreich segment, you could go here.)

Ehrenreich came on to promote her new book This Land is Their Land, an analysis of the extreme economic divide in America. Ehrenreich’s message is familiar to those who have read her work before. For years she has been advocating for greater social and economic equality, investigating circumstances that go underreported (often through living them), and analyzing the social forces at work.

Despite Ehrenreich’s practice skill and focus, it is Colbert’s willingness to play the fool during their exchange that exposes so many of the economic attitudes coursing through the American body politic. Most people express them in a shaded or hesitant form, coding them, or leaving them implied.

Colbert does not. He flatly asks what is wrong with a divided country, with massive inequality, and why the poor can’t work harder. He even suggests that the lottery be embraced as a way of tricking the poor into thinking they have a chance, so they’ll get back to work.

His bald satire is shocking. It made me wince. And yet, and yet, and yet…he’s only saying directly what a lot of other people are insinuating. He’s trotting out free market aphorisms at their most social Darwinist.

And, again, yet…for all that Ehrenreich was very clear about what she thought was wrong with the situation, the solutions she mentioned during this encounter were…dubious. Taxing the rich was the main one articulated, but that was suggested without much more context than Colbert’s satire.

Perhaps solutions are proposed in more detail in This Land is Their Land. Perhaps her sound bite solutions were the result of the sound bit situation. And perhaps the situation is so complex that identifying any working situation is simply very difficult.

6 comments to Stephen Colbert on Social Inequality

  • So, what do _you_ think? What _is_ wrong with a divided country?

  • Greg Beatty

    Annitah Patrick asked what’s wrong with a divided country.

    A great question. The answer is, nothing in the abstract/ if you don’t have to live there.

    If you do have to live in it, though, there’s a lot wrong with a sharply divided country.

    Please note the distinction: There’s nothing wrong with concentrations of specialties, with one group holding land and another focusing on industry, etc. There’s nothing wrong with one group dominating a specific activity, like a sport. The problem is with sharp and steep divisions that run through the country.

    The problems are practical, ethical, and emotional. As political scientists dating back to Aristotle have pointed out, if people have some form of ownership in a society, they become emotionally invested in the status quo—in sustaining the existing laws. If a lot of people have nothing, they clamor for change, and often any change. The ethical problems come from the manipulation of the law that is supposed to be fair by those on top of the pyramid. And emotionally, it tears me up when I see children eating garbage to survive.

    Greg

  • Well, you know what they say; One man’s trash …

    (Just kidding.)

  • Eherenreich’s solutions were necessarily dubious because she starts from fallacy at the core of her views. She is utterly confused as to the causes and effects. The poor people of free countries are many times better off than the poor, and even middle class people, to the extent that there are any, of not free countries. Take a look at the Index of Economic Freedom and the Economic Freedom of the World reports.

    The division in the United States comes about because political solutions are imposed from above rather than relying on voluntary cooperation. If the rights of every person were protected from the depredations of others and from the government itself, people would be held accountable for their own actions. Normal people would be able to accumulate wealth and there would be the proper incentives to be productive. That productivity is where development and progress comes from. Taking wealth from the productive people to give to the parasite class is the core of division and animosity. The fact is that people, especially Americans, have always been among the most charitable people on earth. When government takes their money away, it not only is not available for their own private charity, but it destroys the incentives toward productivity. When people have their money taken away for forced charity, they no longer feel compelled to do private charity. It is a vicious circle which all socialist countries eventually face. Even the socialist shining star, Sweden, is using up all of the capital accumulated before they wandered into the egalitarian morass.

    If powerful people abuse the markets and use force, coercion or fraud for gain, that is not free markets or free trade. It is violence and the absence of free markets and voluntary trade. It is necessarily the partnership of government with business forces to give an arbitrary and unfair advantage to a favored party. It is the mercantilism of old, which has nothing to do with free markets and everything to do with government grants of monopoly power.

    Colbert is a useful idiot to Ehrenreich and others who think they know what is best for 300 million people. The “free market aphorisms” that you talk about are merely straw man arguments that distract from the fact that we don’t have free markets and have not had for many decades. There is not a single market in this country, or any developed country for that matter that is not severely distorted by hundreds of strangling bureaucracies and thousands of pages of incomprehensible gibberish that passes for law. It is a pathetic distortion of the truth that is giving credence to a mountain of lies.

    Equality of conditions can be guaranteed by making everyone slaves, which is what strictly socialist countries do. Don’t you find it ironic that the most passionate advocates of egalitarianism and global socialism are fabulously wealthy and extremely influential? They don’t use their incredible wealth to help the poor, but rather use their influence to make everyone else equal. (Think Animal Farm.)

  • Emmanuel Tabones

    Excellent commentary, Dan! I could not have said it better, myself!

  • 1 unbiased tone of voice in Cnn inside the Tv show. He includes a actually difficult immigration law quote. This individual managed to graduate about the Harvard University. Currently he possesses the 1 Broadcast Show. He don’t just like the Us us president.

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