Though the comedian had plenty of jokes about Herman Cain, who rallied with him in South Carolina, his critique of campaign finance is no laughing matter.
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- It is not every day on the campaign trail that one gets to see a onetime Republican presidential frontrunner recite the lyrics to a children's cartoon theme, then burst into song, then submit himself and his party to vicious mockery by a liberal satirist.
"I came here to praise one man -- one Her-man," Stephen Colbert told an enthralled crowd here on Friday. He added, "A her-man is not the same thing is a she-male. I don't want to frighten off any Santorum supporters."
The her-man was, of course, Herman Cain, the out-of-work former candidate who was so unjustly ejected from the 2012 race by the "Democrat machine" that he accused of somehow causing numerous women to accuse him of a history of infidelity and sexual harassment.
"Herman Cain is an outsider," Colbert said. "In fact, he is such an outsider, he is not even running for president anymore. He is a man with ideas; a man with convictions; a man with a bus with his face on it."
He whipped the crowd into a roar as he called Cain to the stage: "The Her-man with a plan, the plan so fine they named it nine-nine-nine! The Mad Max of the flat tax! The Indiana Jones of opportunity zones! The Her-man, the Her-myth! My brother from another mother -- Mr. Herman Cain!"
That ovation, before he opened his mouth, was the biggest cheer Cain would get from the youthful crowd of thousands, packed under trees draped with Spanish moss in an elegant 18th-century college courtyard.
The applause for his vague exhortation to take Washington back was tepid and disapproving. When he praised the Tea Party, there were boos and a shout of "Occupy Herman Cain!" When he told them not to take Colbert's advice and vote for his defunct candidacy -- "I don't want you to waste your vote," he said -- it was pretty clear whose side of the issue the crowd was on.
And then there was "the Pokemon thing": Apparently prompted by an audience member, Cain, who had quoted the theme from Pokemon: The Movie 2000 as the words of "a poet" on the campaign trail, intoned the lines in his rumbling bass, then sang:
Life can be a challenge.
Life can be impossible.
It's never easy when there's so much on the line.
But you and I can make a difference.
There's a mission just for you and me.
Cain was the court jester of the 2012 field, the man who reliably brought the house down at campaign events and debates with his shtick about "fixing the problem" -- itself a near-parody of politicians' fatuous odes to common sense. But next to Colbert, he wasn't very funny. He was a laughingstock, and he didn't seem to be totally in on the joke.
All of Colbert's jokes, though, couldn't disguise the earnestness of his own plea. He has become a campaign-finance activist, forming a "super PAC" with the help of a real campaign-finance lawyer who once worked for John McCain in order to satirize the shambles of the regulatory regime. In the latest twist, he's handed the super PAC over to his Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart so that he can explore running for the presidency in South Carolina, his home state.
"The pundits have asked, is this all some joke?" Colbert said. "And I say, if they are calling being allowed to form a super PAC and collecting unlimited, untraceable amounts of money from individuals, unions, and corporations, and spending that money on political ads and for personal enrichment, and then surrendering that super PAC to one of my closest friends while I explore a run for office -- if that is a joke, then they are saying our entire campaign finance system is a joke!"
About this point, Colbert appears to be completely serious. He roundly mocked the idea of corporate personhood, one of the underpinnings of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, calling himself "the Martin Luther King of corporate civil rights -- the Lockheed Martin Luther Burger King, if you will." He called out the "unelected justices of the Supreme Court" who ruled in that 5-4 majority: "Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, the other Scalia and the tall guy, I want to say Gary something." (He was looking for Kennedy.)
In the wake of the Citizens United decision, liberals are now nearly as furious at the judiciary as conservatives, who invented the modern court-bashing franchise. And Colbert, who embarked on this venture too late to get on the South Carolina ballot, is urging his fans in the state to vote for Cain instead (over Cain's objections). The idea, beyond the joy of an old-fashioned prank, seems to be to send a message about corporate influence in politics, though it's a rather convoluted way to go about it.
There is a real, bipartisan backlash brewing against super PACs, which have had a major impact on the race for the GOP nomination already. Newt Gingrich complained bitterly about their attacks (Colbert: "I am not going to answer the gotcha question about whether I am interested in an open marriage, although I am flattered that Newt Gingrich asked me"). Mitt Romney has claimed to loathe them even as they do much of his campaign's dirty work (Colbert: "The only difference between a statue and Mitt Romney is that a statue never changes its position"). Republican voters on the campaign trail in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina routinely grumble about their clogging of the airwaves.
But while Colbert cloaked his serious point in sarcasm, Cain seemed a bit pained by the way the comedian was proposing to make a mockery of the electoral system, as evidenced by his plea not to be voted for. Seen through the lens of an earnest would-be participant in that system, Colbert's stunt seemed less clever than cynical, less irreverence than sabotage.
In a half-hour or so of canvassing the Colbert audience, nary a Republican voter could be found. Most were Democrats or liberal-leaning independents, relieved to have a campaign event of their own to attend amid all the Republican campaigning in their state.
Naylor Brownell and Nick Shalosky, a gay couple in their 20s who attended Colbert's speech, said they planned to follow his instructions and vote for Cain. South Carolina does not have registration by party, so any voter can cast a ballot in Saturday's Republican primary.
"The best part was when Herman Cain told us all to stay informed, when he's not informed at all," said Shalosky, a law student who says he is South Carolina's first openly gay elected official -- he sits on a local school board.
"I thought, 'Maybe you should stay informed about, for example, Syria,'" said Brownell, a medical resident.
Both commended Colbert for exposing the ridiculousness of the campaign finance system. And Brownell had this to say about the actual Republican candidates: "They're more of a joke than Stephen Colbert is."
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
This is the third in a series. Readers are invited to send their own responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will post their strongest critiques of the book and the accompanied reviews. (The first batch is here.) To further encourage civil and substantive responses via email, we are closing the comments section. You can follow the whole series on Twitter at #BTWAM and read all of the responses to the book from Atlantic readers and contributors.
Several years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates took his son, not yet 5, to see a movie on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As his son made his way off the escalator, a white woman pushed him and said, “Come on!” Chaos ensued. There was a black parent’s rage and a white man’s threat to have the black parent arrested. Coates narrates the incident in cool, steady prose. Ultimately, he writes of the regret he carries: “In seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.”
Readers discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates's bestseller. Is it too bleak? Does it convey any hope for race relations? Is that even the point?
Thus far, The Atlantic has posted three essays on Between the World and Me, from Michael Eric Dyson, James Forman Jr., and Tressie McMillan Cottom, all of them uncritical. Among the reader responses so far, the strongest critique comes from Melvin Rogers, a professor of African American Studies and Political Science at U.C.L.A. Rogers emailed an eloquent seven-page review, but below is a shorter edited version, posted with permission:
Between The World and Me is an exquisite book, overflowing with insights about the embodied state of blackness and the logic of white supremacy. Coates’s prose is capable of challenging our understanding of the United States even as it captures our hearts. I plan to teach the book for two of my courses this academic year.
But for all of the beauty and power of the book, it is also profoundly troubling. The wound of racism is too fresh; the sharpness of the pain captures Coates’s senses and arrests his imagination. The worry is that if we follow along, we, too, shall be captured.
The book initially seems like it will reveal the illusion of the Dream and then open up the possibility for imagining the United States anew. But Coates does not move in that direction. He rejects the American mythos but also embraces the certainty of white supremacy and its inescapable constraints. For him, white supremacy is not merely a historically emergent feature of the United States; it is an ontology. White supremacy, in other words, does not structure reality; it is reality.
There’s a danger there. When one conceptualizes white supremacy at the level of ontology, there is little room for one’s imagination to soar, and one’s sense of agency is inescapably constrained. Action is tied fundamentally to what we imagine is possible for us, but there can be no affirmative politics when race functions as a wounded attachment.
What about all those young men and women in the streets of Ferguson, Chicago, New York, and Charleston—how should we read their efforts? Coates’s answer seems to appear in one of the pivotal and tragic moments of the book—the murder of a college friend, Prince Jones, at the hands of the police:
[N]o one would be brought to account for this destruction... The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of Prince Jones back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.
But if we are all just helpless agents of physical laws, the question again emerges: What does one do? Coates recommends interrogation and struggle. His love for books and his journey to Howard University—“Mecca,” as he calls it—serve to question the world around him. But interrogation and struggle to what end?
“It is truly horrible,” Coates writes in one of the most disturbing sentences of the book, “to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.” Herein lies the danger: Forget telling his son it will be okay; Coates cannot even tell him it may be okay. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he tells his son, “because it is the only portion of this world under your control.” What a strange form of control. Black folks may control their place in the battle, but never with the possibility that they, and in turn their country, may win.
Releasing the book at this moment—given all that is going on with black lives under public assault—seems the oddest thing to do. For all of the channeling of James Baldwin, Coates seems to have forgotten that black folks “can’t afford despair”:
The reason why you can’t say there isn’t hope is not because you are living in a dream or selling a fantasy, but because there can be no certain knowledge of the future. Humility, borne of our ignorance of the future, justifies hope.
Much has been made of the comparison between Baldwin and Coates, owing to how the book is structured and because of Toni Morrison’s endorsement. But what this connection means escapes many commentators. In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin reflects on the wounds that white supremacy left on his father:
When he died, I had been away from home for a little over a year. In that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father's bitter warnings, had discovered the secret of his proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage: I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.
Similar to Coates, Baldwin’s father was wounded and so was Baldwin. Yet Baldwin knew that wounded attachment would destroy not the plunderers of black life but the ones who were plundered. “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” Baldwin’s father, as he understood him, was destroyed by hatred.
So Coates is less like Baldwin in this respect and, perhaps, more like Baldwin’s father. “I am wounded,” writes Coates. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” The chains reach out to imprison not only his son, but you and me as well.
Lastly, given the power of the book and its blockbuster success, Coates seems unable to linger on the conditions that gave life to the Ta-Nehisi Coates who now occupies the public stage. His own engagement with the world—his very agency—received social support. Throughout his book he recounts the rich diversity of black beauty and empowerment, especially at Howard. His father, William Paul Coates, is the founder of Black Classic Press, which focuses on the richness of black life. His mother, Cheryl Waters, financially support the family and provided young Coates with direction, especially with writing at an early age. And yet the adult Coates seems to stand at a distance from the condition of possibility suggested by those examples.
Black life in America is at once informed by, but not reducible to, the pain exacted on our bodies by this country. This eludes Coates. The wound is so intense he cannot direct his senses beyond the pain.
The former secretary of defense lobbied for the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and has now ended the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scoutmasters.
Eagle Scout. Young Republican. CIA recruit. Air Force officer. CIA director. Secretary of defense.
It’s not the resume of a radical civil-rights campaigner, but Robert Gates has now integrated two of the great bastions of macho American traditional morality—first the U.S. armed forces, and now the Boy Scouts of America. In both cases, Gates pursued a careful, gradual strategy, one that wasn't fast enough for activists. In both cases, he was careful to take the temperature of constituents. And in both cases, once he was ready to act, he did so decisively. In the end what seemed to matter most was not Gates’s personal feelings but his determination to safeguard institutions he cared about and his deft skills as a bureaucratic operator.