The longer I follow the Stephen Colbert situation, the more disheartening it seems. I'll get my opinion out of the way: Colbert's character is an oblivious right-wing jerk who thinks he's reasonable and charming, and I feel Colbert sustains that conceit brilliantly most of the time, and successfully skewers people who have a good skewer coming. But it can a delicate task playing an offensive boor without saying offensive things in a way that gives them the power they'd have if you actually believed them -- when I was growing up, I watched Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker on All in the Family get loud ovations for lines that were seemingly meant to offend, and it began to seem as if he'd evolved into the show's hero. But I don't see Colbert having jumped the shark that way.
The bit that's got people upset is, I suppose, close to the line:
... On Wednesday night Stephen Colbert made sport of Washington football team owner Dan Snyder and his plan to undercut criticism of the team name by founding an organization for the uplift of "original Americans." Colbert ran though all the reasons why this was funny, then called back to a skit from one of the show's first episodes, way back from the fall of 2005—a joke about the host being caught on a "live feed" playing a racist Asian stereotype (Ching Chong Ding Dong, from Guanduong), then not understanding why it was racist. Colbert would make amends with his new "Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." ...To me, it's not over the line -- it's an oblivious-about racism character mocking a real-life racist. But I'm a white guy. To Suey Park, who's Korean-American, it was over the line, hence the #CancelColbert Twitter storm. I simply don't know how this feels to her, or to other people it offended.
Most of a day later, the official Twitter account of The Colbert Report tweeted a short version of the joke: "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." Bad move....
But I also think it's indisputable that Colbert was trying to drop the joke on the right side of the line. I think a campaign that calls for cancellation doesn't take his intentions into account, here and throughout the years he's done this character.
So I disagree with Park -- and I find this all exasperating, because the real person named Stephen Colbert is trying to be on the right side and American society is full of so damn many dangerous, malevolent, destructive bastards that this campaign seems wildly misdirected.
And yet the backlash to Park actually does reek of condescension. Here's Josh Zepps of Huffington Post, in the interview embedded below:
"No one's minimalizing your experiences. No one's minimalizing your right to have an opinion. It's just a stupid opinion.”
Zepps's bemused incredulity when facing off with Park, who's basically a human umbrage machine, almost makes this entire stupid "controversy"” worth it.I think Park misses the point when she says in the Zepps interview, "I really don't think that we're going to end racism by joking about it" -- I think humor actually does have a role to play in undermining bigotry -- but Park doesn't come off as someone who deserves smirky, condescending dismissal. Zepps not only calls her opinion "stupid," he talks over her, and mocks her for using the word "Orientalism" -- a real word used for decades to describe the exotification of Asia, a word she's familiar with and he isn't. She and I come down on didfferent sides of this, but she tries to hold to some dignity in this interview, and I respect that.
... And while it can be argued that Zepps was indeed somewhat condescending to Park during her interview, it wasn't because she’s a woman, or Asian, or even an activist -- it was because her #CancelColbert crusade is fucking stupid and doesn't deserve to be taken the least bit seriously.
A couple of months ago, Park started another hashtag tend with #NotYourAsianSidekick -- which struck me as a worthwhile bit of consciousness-raising. She told a Washington Post interviewer this:
Even from the start of kindergarten, I was quickly racialized and made to understand that I was different based on what my mom packed for me in my lunch bag. On the playground other kids would pull their eyelids to their side and run around and chase me. I always thought to myself that someone must have taught them that. What kid would know to put their hands on their eyelids and make their eyes slanted? It’s not like they would look at an Asian girl for the first time if they never heard of Asians and do that. So it really proved to me that racism is taught.Park is 23 years old. I'm 55, and part of the reason I'm amused by the Colbert joke is that he seems to be mocking not just racism but a dated style of racism, clung to by aging throwbacks. (The bit originated as an attack on some anti-Asian mockery by Rush Limbaugh, who's a decade older than I am, but whose cultural touchstones seem even older.) The eyelid pulling seems like something that should have gone out with Laugh-In's Polish jokes half a century ago. It's depressing that it continued into the childhood of someone who's only 23 now.
So I think Colbert should acknowledge the criticism, and I think he should get back to work. I absolutely don't want him off the air. But I also don't want Suey Park off the Internet. Chances are I'll agree with her next time.