“How did our politics get so poisonous?”: Colbert, Chomsky, and Hicks

On November 8th, Colbert’s live show aired after most of the results of the electoral votes had been released. He starts off by saying, “I don’t think I could sit down right now.” At that point the popular vote was still being tallied, but the electoral votes were already confirmed as far as most of the country was concerned. Of course, as we now know, the popular vote has shown far in favor of opposition. Nonetheless, something in Colbert’s response should raise alarm, especially considering how subtle, and seemingly well intentioned it is.
He says, “I think we can agree that this has been an exhausting, bruising election for everyone.” It goes without saying, exhaustion is always part of the process, as maybe it should be. Perhaps the fatigue of the campaign trail, having to constantly address constituent concerns, and having to endlessly defend one’s position is systematic method to expose a candidate’s policies and moral character. That same exhaustion is also detrimentally weaponized against the true interests of the populous. Elections are now, clearly, wars of attrition, for the question is always how long will it take for the public to buy in to the narrative they’re sold, and, as it turns out, not long at all– only about a year in this case. By the time the people are handed a ballot, they are bruised beyond self-recognition, and seek a quick end to the atrocious perversions of their government.

Colbert goes on to quote a Washington Post article highlighting a PEW statistic which indicates four in ten voters think “the other party’s policies are so misguided that they pose a threat to the nation,” and later “More than half of democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them ‘afraid,’ while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party.”
“But you know what?” Colbert responds, “Everybody feels that way.” The key word, here, is “everybody.” That is, it’s a catchy phrase, invokes a sense of healing, sympathy and empathy, starts us down the path to reconciliation, the aim being, most importantly, unity.
I’ll admit, when I first watched the segment, my bitterness was hard to quell, yet “everybody feels that way” stood out to me for every bit of the healing that I, and millions of Americans sought. However, as Colbert continues, my skepticism grows, I return to his notion of unity, and realize that “everybody” is not, indeed, the case. “Four in ten voters” is clearly not “everybody.”
Since that night, and over this past week, the zeitgeist of bitterness has been unbound, “Not my President” demonstrations have been held in major cities, including here in Santa Ana. The protests have been denigrated, condemned all over social media as “stupid,” the protesters themselves being dismissed as “whinny.” Even high school students who’ve staged walk-outs are savagely attacked for their protests even though it is they who stand to lose the most, and whose futures have been condemned by the election of a climate-change denying plutocrat.
“They designed an election that was meant to confuse us,” Colbert argues. The confusion has led to all kinds of internal conflict among the public. “Get over it,” is the general sentiment from those on the right and the centrists, those who have no sympathy for what is clearly the mourning process happening on a national scale. I even saw one particularly thoughtless meme that read, “Wanting Trump to fail is like wanting the pilot to crash the plane that we are ALL on.” However, after eighteen months of a campaign that flagrantly established its platform of division through the demonization of minority groups, it’s abundantly clear that the burden of proof lies with the right and the centrists, not the protestors. What “unity” is the Trump administration asking for? What does “coming together” look like when the rhetoric which has defined the campaign is filled with phrases like “they’re rapists,” “crooked Hilary,” “crazy Bernie,” “grab her by the pussy,” “this is a nasty, nasty woman,” “I’d like to punch him in the face,” “young and beautiful piece of ass,” and so on.

“How did our politics get so poisonous?” Colbert asks.

Quite some time ago Chomsky answered this question. He has long argued that the “masters of mankind,” to quote Adam Smith, do not want solidarity among the population. There are entire facets of industry and policy that ensure the population dedicates it’s resources– intellectual, financial, psychological, social resources–to fighting among itself, ensuring the disenfranchisement of whole swaths of the people, that they act against their own interests, and vote against solidarity. Thus we have the joke–

A banker, factory worker, and a beggar are seated at a table, two cookies in front of each of them. The banker takes his own two, both of the factory worker’s, and one of the beggar’s cookies, then says to the factory worker, “You had better stop the beggar, he just took your cookie.”

One can only imagine the horror of the beggar. The concerns of the beggar, of course, are no concern of the other two. Yet, as Chomsky suggests, we all play the part of the beggar, and we are all made the punchline. The point is, that basic empathy for the fellow man has to be ideologically “beaten out of people.” In this case ideology is put in the form of capital (the commodified cookies). The interests of both the worker and the beggar are immediately perverted and marginalized.

Over the years Chomsky has directly addressed the notion of marginalization of the population. Speaking sarcastically, as though from the point of view of the “masters of mankind,” and during a lecture at MIT in 1999, he said,

so we want to get rid of government interference in the economy, like public schools which have all sorts of bad features, like they cultivate a sense of solidarity, or of care for other people. If there’s a public school system that’s an expression of the fact that you care whether the kid down the street gets an education, and that’s a very bad thing because, you know, you get this message from infancy on through the television set and everything else that the only value of a human life is to maximize what the advertising industry calls ‘invented wants.’ So they’re supposed to invent wants for you, and you’re supposed to maximize them, and that’s the only thing you’re supposed to care about, and not care about anybody else, you know, not care about control of your life and work, that’s out of the door, but maximize you’re own fabricated wants.

More recently he summarized this notion in an interview for the film Requiem for the American Dream:

One of the leading political scientists, Mark Gilins, came out with a study of the relation between public attitudes and public policy. What he shows is that about 70% of the public population has no way of influencing policy. They might as well be in some other country. And the population knows it…What it’s led to is a population that’s angry, frustrated, hates institutions, it’s not acting constructively to try to respond to this. There is popular mobilization and activism, but in very self-destructive directions. It’s taking the form of unfocused anger, attacks on one another, and on vulnerable targets. That’s what happens in cases like this. It is corrosive of social relations, but that’s the point. The point is to make people hate, and fear each other, and look out only for themselves, and don’t do anything for anyone else.

Of course, as the streaming videos have begun to show up on social media of protests in the streets, followed by lengthy indignant comment threads, I wonder if there could be any more poignant image of the “unfocused anger,” the “corrosive” element that Chomsky mentions which has disintegrated a true understanding of solidarity. I can’t help but wonder still, what is the substance of this corrosion? What does it look like now? Where maybe ten years ago it seemed to take on the facade of morality, the morality that the right claimed to assume and the left easily dismantled as hypocrisy, it is not so clear any longer, but it is certainly visible. That is, we stare at it every day, are isolated by it, even from people we are sitting right next to, this thing meant to bring us together.
This brings me to the point in Colbert’s speech from election night that I think is quite alarming.

“So, whether your side won or lost, we don’t have to do this shit for a while,” he continues, “You can put away your ‘I voted’ stickers, and you can get back to your life.” And already, whatever “unity” I might have entertained starts to feel uneasy. “I’d like to try to end this election season by voting unanimously on a few things that all bring us together.” He continues with a list of things that all Americans supposedly agree upon. “No matter where you stand on Hillary’s private server, everyone agrees work emails sucks.” The studio audience shouts out, “Yes!” “Also, no matter what your age, race, or political party, every American can agree that Kit-Kats should be eaten in segments not bitten into like a normal candy bar, you animal!” The audience cheers. “And every red-blooded American knows that if you’re ordering a bunch of pizzas there’s no reason to get a veggie one, no one’s gonna eat it, for christ sake, plain cheese is veggie…and if you make a living pranking people on YouTube, all Americans ask that you walk slowly into the ocean then put that on Snapchat…Deep down, Americans know that Alex Trebek will never die and if he does it will not count because it was not in the form of a question…we stand united in the knowledge that the biggest selling point of CoolWhip isn’t the taste but the fact that it’s free Tupperware…I don’t care, the election is over, you survived…”
To be fair, Colbert acknowledges that some of the points on his list are “silly,” and I think he is unquestionably sincere. However, I’m also quite certain that the marketing staffs of Kit-Kat, Dominos, Youtube, Snapchat, CBS, CoolWhip, Tupperware, and their parent companies were all mightily satisfied by this list. Here’s your sense of unity, America, brought to you by Kraft, Hersheys, Viacom, Facebook, and Google. I mean, this is the sort of thing that is lifted directly from a Bill Hicks routine, “Go back to bed, America…here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this. Shut up. Go back to bed, America…Here is American Gladiators. Here’s fifty six channels of it. Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go America. You are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do as we tell you!”

Hicks was a fan of Chomsky as well, and once said of him, “He’ll squeegee your third eye for you.” I feel as though someone, in their indignation, has poured salt into my own third eye. Whether or not I could’ve ever seen clearly anyway is anyone’s guess. I do know that we are a nation of the blind leading the blind, marred in our struggle to keep up with technology, obstructed by archaic notions of platonic morality, bogged down in and ever misunderstanding of the very language we use to define ourselves. And so, we have a demagogue that will soon take lead of the country and has the full support of a government now completely in the hands of a conservative party that “has become the most dangerous organization in world history.”

To the right, beware, as Nick Hanauer warns, the pitchforks are coming. To the centrists, I quote Zinn, “you cannot stay neutral on a moving train.”