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Stephen Colbert and Asian-Americans: The Standing to Be Satirical

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Stephen Colbert landed in hot water this week for a Tweet that read: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” The tweet soon started trending, leading some Asian-American rights activists to “#CancelColbert.”

The tweet was quickly deleted, and it was revealed that it originated from a Comedy Central account (which airs the Colbert Report), and that Colbert had no control over what was tweeted from the account. Additionally, it was pointed out that the quote was a reference to a satirical segment making fun of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for starting The Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Editorials, including one from Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post, have defended the Tweet and satirical segment, observing that the intent of the segment was to skewer Daniel Snyder for token gestures of sensitivity.

The problem with the rather rabid defense is that it’s not clear that Colbert or Rosenberg actually understand what passable satire is. The thing is, in order to pull off satire effectively, you have to actually be in a position to authentically make the satirical point in the first place. In this case, Colbert needs to actually be someone who can authentically claim that he gives a damn about Asian-Americans at all. Otherwise, he can’t convincingly use Asian-American stereotypes in portraying how Snyder is insensitive to Native Americans.

The proper comparison here is the now-classic Nerd PSA with its preening, bespectacled model proclaiming “I think I’m a nerd, you know?” What’s wrong with her statement? The problem is, she can’t make the statement in a non-offensive way unless she authentically partakes of nerd culture. She’s simply a poseur wearing the guise of nerd-dom in order to gain some benefit–in this case, an association with nerd-culture, which is rising in popularity in the mainstream. The offensive nature of her statement rises and falls with her authenticity. And so it goes with Colbert.  Colbert is essentially a poser putting on the guise of caring about Asian-American issues so that he can use the caricature as part of a satirical skit.

I’m willing to be convinced that Colbert actually gives a damn about Asian-American issues, but I’ve yet to actually see it. Sure, he cares generally about “minority issues” in just the way that any good liberal does. But broadly caring about “minority issues” doesn’t translate into caring about Asian-American issues. It turns out that issues of importance to the Asian-American community are different than those of the African-American and gay communities; it turns out that minorities are different from one another.

Rosenberg observes: “In the overall conversation, Colbert seems fairly strongly aligned on the side of everyone who finds Dan Snyder ridiculous.” It’s a rather presumptuous statement. Looking at the Nerd PSA, I imagine that’s exactly what the model thinks too. “I’m on your side! I’m a nerd just like you!” It’s an easy thing to say, but if you’re curious about whether she’s on the same side as the nerds, you should probably just ask the other nerds in the PSA. Likewise, if you want to find out if Colbert is on the same side as Asian-Americans, you probably shouldn’t be asking a bunch of white people like Rosenberg. I highly doubt Colbert is anti-Asian-American, but I bet he barely gives their issues much of a thought at all, and that’s a far cry from being on the same side.

The real question: If someone uses insensitivity towards Asian-Americans as part of a satirical skit, but they aren’t really authentically interested in Asian-American issues, is it really satire in the first place?

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About Fritz Chrysler

Fritz Chrysler is a classically trained concert violinist, with awards on the national and international level. He has a PhD in Philosophy and taught classes in Ethics and Philosophy of Art.
  • Really interesting food for thought Fritz.

  • FC

    Ah it’s interesting that the editorials (on both sides) are skipping over some pretty obvious points. No offense to Rosenberg (or Suey Park, or any of the editorials at WashPo or Slate for that matter), but they’re not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer – so the whole thing is devolving into a pretty idiotic exchange. Satire and politics and intent are difficult subjects to dissect, apparently.

  • Madame Suey

    Are you authentically interested in Asian American issues? Please provide proof and bona fides. There are millions of people who are Asian American. Is Ms. Suey or whatever the decider in chief? Are you? Are you an Original American perhaps or whatever………

  • Max Q

    “If someone uses insensitivity towards Asian-Americans as part of a satirical skit, but they aren’t really authentically interested in Asian-American issues, is it really satire in the first place?” Yes. Yes it is. Colbert – and his writing team, which is 90% responsible for creating the character – routinely satirizes issues which Stephen Colbert, the real person, doesn’t care about. If it can be ridiculed, if hypocrisy could be exposed, if it can make audiences laugh – it’s going on the show. The skit isn’t about insensitivity towards Asian-Americans, it’s about insensitivity towards any group of peoples, and as you correctly noted, Colbert exposes the ridiculousness of making fun of Native Americans by equally making fun of Asian Americans. Whether he authentically cares for them is his own business; the point of the skit is to expose the Redskins owner’s hypocrisy.

  • FC

    Hey Madame, and Max Q. Thanks for joining the convo.

    Madame – you are pointing to what they call an epistemic difficulty, not a metaphysical one. You are asking “how do we KNOW if someone is friendly to the Asian-American community?” That’s technically consistent with it also being true that some people are not friendly. And – I acknowledge your point – as I note in the article, if it becomes evident that he’s always been understanding and supportive of Asian-Am issues, then i’m happy to take back the allegation.

    Max – you’re essentially pointing to the mantra: “It’s their business! Therefore it’s justified”. That’s a pretty bad justification. We all know how the show operates. Pointing to the way in which Rush Limbaugh’s show operates doesn’t justify any of the things he says either. In any case, no doubt that he does satire. I’m just pointing out a logically necessary component of successfully pulling satire off.

    • Elaine Guillermin

      Asian Americans were not the target of the satire. Snyder was. He exposed the absurdity of Snyder’s position by exemplifying equivalent absurdity: that of Asian-American stereotype as seen through the fictional mind of the racist Colbert. How you raise the question of whether his satire is legitimate loses me. He could have used any other example of racism — he simply chose Asian-American, probably because for whatever reason he decided it fit the situation and the spoof/story line was already developed.

      • FC

        As the first paragraph observes, yes his target was Dan Snyder. Yes, he could have used any other example of racism – he just chose one that he doesn’t actually seem to understand or talk about at all. Just like he isn’t particularly suited to make jokes about trans persons as part of a satire about Rush Limbaugh, for the same reason. You get to use the stereotypes when you actually understand the group well enough.

        He’s much more obviously pro-gay – could have used a hilarious gay joke, and the gay community would have taken it a lot better. He probably knows the african-american community somewhat – but even an n-word joke wouldn’t fly on the show.

        • Elaine Guillermin

          ” Just like he isn’t particularly suited to make jokes about trans persons as part of a satire about Rush Limbaugh, for the same reason. You get to use the stereotypes when you actually understand the group well enough”
          I think what you miss here is this: he was not making a joke about an Asian. He was making a joke about a white person who construed Asians as flat, one-dimensional characters. He is drawing attention to what the white person thinks — not Asians themselves. The fact that the depiction is so cartoonish is evidence of the absurdity. Its not about knowing the minority community — its about knowing the impoverished mindset of the white person at which he is poking fun. His job is to know the mindset of the white person. And that he did.

          And, knowing Colbert ( assuming you do), do you honestly think that he is not pro Asian-American?

          • Matt Cumings

            Claiming to be a non-racist doesn’t make one the pan-spokesperson for all oppressed people. Only by engagement and relationship with a community does one even begin to gain a foundation from which one can speak.

          • Elaine Guillermin

            How do you know what relationships he has?

          • FC

            I was pretty careful in the article about distinguishing between “anti-As-Am” and “pro-As-Am”. My claim is that he doesn’t get to use stereotypes unless he actually demonstrates some positive support for a group (like the LGB) crowd. You should keep these distinctions in mind – this is actually a complicated topic. The fact that nobody can remember much that he’s done in support of As-Am on his many years on TV does in fact demonstrate that he’s NOT pro-As-Am. (Though – as I say in the article – I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, if someone shows those clips).

            I think you should find it telling that nobody’s been able to produce any clips of him championing the As-Am community in his many years. Not just telling, you should find it a little sad. Then again – maybe you can find some clips. I think it would be great if someone did, and then I’d change my mind!

        • Nathan Hart

          But you’re leaping to his morals based on his prior skits. Saying he is more obviously pro-gay based on the fact that he has satires gay rights issues on his show.there had to have been a first time for that. Would that have been equally offensive due to lack of prior skits? How would he gain appropriate cred to talk about Asian plight without talking about Asians. Obviously this skit is a blanket racism satire, but I’m curious where you think he gained acceptance to talk about gays and Blacks from?

  • gkubrick

    is this a serious post or an attempt at satire. It’s hard to tell because it doesn’t make much sense.

    “The thing is, in order to pull off
    satire effectively, you have to actually be in a position to
    authentically make the satirical point in the first place.”

    Setting aside the fact that the satire was effective for quite a number of people, who made that rule?

    Also, the not-yet-classic Nerd PSA is not a proper comparison. They are fictional people complaining that’s not offensive.

    • FC

      He employs a character that makes fun of Asian-Americans, to draw out prima facie disapproval of such behavior. Because the character’s behavior is analogous to Dan Snyder’s behavior, it’s supposed to serve as a commentary (hence “satire”) of Dan Snyder’s behavior as similarly objectionable.

      For this particular brand of satire that employs analogical reasoning, he has to authentically be viewed as disapproving of such behavior towards Asian-Americans in order for the analogy to serve as commentary on Dan Snyder. Do you see how authentically disapproving of the former is a logical pre-requisite?

      • Elainebasz

        Authentically fictional?
        This controversy raises only old questions. Nothing new here.
        Is an artist (an artist that must use words as his paintbrush) allowed to use a derogatory construct to make a larger point that supports the derided group? If the derided group is tired of seeing the construct, that is one matter and perhaps should be dealt with. But to call the artist a racist is a lie.

        • FC

          Well for starters, he’s hardly an artist – and a moderate satirist at best. Satirists are judged on their ability to make illuminating commentary, not on getting a laugh. (That’s why he’s a pretty good comedian, but not a great satirist). Concerning his commentary, he’s literally as informative as the hundreds of talking heads on national TV. He added nothing to the debate about Snyder, literally.

          It’s important to note that his character didn’t actually provide any new commentary on the Snyder’s behavior. Nobody was like “oh yeah – I see now how it’s wrong” after the skit was complete. If you only realized that Snyder was racist after the Asian character bit… well that’s pretty sad. I think that’s probably the biggest tell – the skit didn’t actually have satirical value, it had comedic value. So…. yeah. It’s good to keep those things separate.

  • Doc

    You have a very narrow definition of “acceptable satire”. If your guidelines were taken seriously some of the most important satirists in history would never have been able to employ their craft. Lucky for us, satire and comedy are not in your hands.

    • FC

      Uh… no. Everything you’re saying is false on the history point. And – I’ll refer you to the below discussion on the difference between satire and comedy. He’s a mediocre satirist and a good comedian. He literally could have made the same satirical point by using a different group – one that he more clearly has cared about in his vast repertoire of episodes (the gays for instance). Don’t pretend that satire is suffering because of political correctness – it’s that he wants to get a laugh.

      Alternatively – he could have done more in his vast repertoire of satirical points to discuss discrimination against Asian-Americans. I’ve talked to dozens of people and nobody can actually remember a time when he’s done that. And – like I say above – if they can show me, then I think we’ll all be more inclined to think its okay. But – you’re suggesting that this is soooo difficult. Tiny violins.

  • Nathan Hart

    Colbert ran a gay correspondent skit for the entirety of the Soche Olympics, and has equally little personal vestment in gay rights. And yet no outrage. I get the point you are making, but by your rule, he couldn’t talk about racism ever, unless specifically talking about whites. Does that mean any commedian or satirist can only address their own classification? Blacks can only talk about blacks and whites about whites?obviously his intent was good, and I agree the delivery took a little for granted. It was a poorly targeted satire. But pretending he can’t talk about a race unless he is that race?


    • FC

      He actually covers pro-gay issues on a very regular basis. And I know for a fact (because of this) many in the gay community are just fine with him doing skits involving gay stereotypes.

      And – your transitional claim “can only address their own classification…” – that’s called Straw Man. So… i don’t really need to address it at all, because it’s straw man. You’re right – the straw man argument is BS. Too bad I don’t actually endorse it.

      • Nathan Hart

        I will let slide the “know for a fact” comment about the gay community’s feelings being the subject of colbert’s satire, and dive into our (mine and your) blanket stereotyping of the asian community’s thoughts on this new outrage. Colbert’s comment, while satire, may have been too heavy handed in its wording for many who are still targetted by the harsh historical slurs that were used to convey his point. That is really the issue here. He isn’t a racist, he isn’t anti-asian. He isn’t ignoring the Asian community or insensitive to their plight. Your argument is that he doesn’t have the vested interest, as exemplified by his prior skits, in Asian plight that he has with gays or Black’s, and thus cannot rightfully get away with using a satirical comment that uses them as the topic. I would argue that you build this vested interest by tackling racism anywhere it occurs. Satire based on racism that uses a black person as the example doesn’t only apply to racism faced by blacks. That is my argument. That is where my “proposed straw man argument” came from. You are saying he only has A pass to comment on races where he has history of support. But I am saying that keeps him from addressing those races because he can’t comment. And my greater argument is that commentary on stereotyping and racism doesn’t have to be bound in whatever particular race is being used in the satirical example. So don’t straw man me. That’s just an easy way to bail on a debate.

  • Carole Di Tosti

    I went to the Monday night Colbert show and heard out of the horse’s mouth what happened. By now, everyone who saw the show understands. I thought the show was a brilliant affirmation of who and what Colbert is and stands for and with good will dispelled the incorrect attributions with logical sense…and humor. Before the show, he spoke to us as Mr. Colbert…not as his “character.” He answered questions that were personal, fun and some of his responses were humorous. One example of a question someone asked was to the effect…does he ever portray his “character” in front of his family? He mentioned that he was driving home practicing/acting in “character” and he carried it into the house. His wife ran upside his head when he was acting his “character” to her; she said something like…knock it off or get out. The man I married is not you and you’re not welcome here.

    Off camera before the taping, he talked to us, the audience, and asked if we were following what happened. (He couldn’t respond until Monday…hence the 3 day ban…like Jesus’ blackout in hell…funny joke if you saw the show.) During the show, he indicated that first, the tweet was taken completely out of context and more importantly, it was on a Twitter feed masking as his, but was not his. Talk about getting it wrong…and carrying it to the extreme in stupidity…sorry, but the twitter feed was not looked into to see if it was legitimately his Twitter account. With Twitter founder, Stone, who was on…they blew up that fraudulent feed (believe it or not, if you saw the show…you heard the explosion. Well, the first time Stone pressed down the faux charger, the sound cue was screwed up and there was no sound…only silence. Stone looked confused. And Colbert was like laughing and saying…where’s the explosion sound? They had to do it again and the second time Stone plunged down the charger, they got it right and you heard the explosion, so the tape corrected it.) So funny.

    The complete irony is that the media ran with the entire story…hence Colbert’s joke about how the media is desperate for news so they go to the internet…twitter, reddit, etc. and covered the false twitter feed as true, and the reaction with the cancelling Colbert hashtag, etc. The media added to the fire and continued the mistakes. What does that say about investigative research? Did no one see the tweet was out of context? Did no one see that was not his Twitter Feed? What does that say about media desperation to get people to watch their news? It says a lot and frankly, I think that is frightening. This is not a life or death matter; but what if it were? I shudder to think of the mess that could be created. If reminds me of the Philip Seymour Hoffman libel about him and a friend that was printed by one of the “lesser” papers…(was it The Enquirer? I forget) They ended up having to pay a big chunk of change for getting the story they misheard completely wrong.

    This incident also says that individuals are looking to find any way possible to bring promotional clout to their causes. Lots of free publicity in other words. Well, the publicity didn’t hurt Colbert or Stone or the Asian American cause or the news media…in the long run. However, the event does show something we already know…how quickly something can escalate because people do not investigate…they jump to conclusions, they take things out of context TO EXPLOIT THE SITUATION FOR THEMSELVES…or find grist for their issues. We need to read carefully…and not just look for what we want to see. Many people already do read and are careful. Bravo to them. I’ll leave it at that.

  • cindy

    When I looked at twitter during this event. I saw mostly white liberal Americans criticizing Colbert. I saw a few Asian Americans critical. The vast majority of Asians I saw were supporting Colbert’s satire. I also saw other minority voices supporting Colbert. Some people are too dense to comprehend nuanced communication or they are just reactionary antithinkers. Either way, who cares what they think, if you can call what they do thinking.