There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote that came into vogue around the time Donald Trump was elected President:
“During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”
Provided you haven’t been living with the uncontacted Sentinelese people for the past few years, you already know how that applies to the era of Trump. No matter how furiously the wider media – the tastemakers, the talking heads, the late-night comedians – give their opinion, it can’t do all that much to influence the real world. Thus Trump ascended to leadership of the free world, and Hillary Clinton – who the mainstream media had all but ordained – bowed out of frontline politics altogether.
And yet, this week, Georgia state representative Jason Spencer has formally announced his resignation after a truly shambolic appearance on Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America?, in which Mr Spencer – convinced he was taking part in a counter-terrorism self-defence class – imitated a Chinese tourist, dropped trou and charged at Mr Cohen buttocks-first, and repeatedly screamed the word ‘nigger’.
That last point is the one that made the headlines, not least because Mr Spencer had attracted controversy last year for suggesting that former state representative LaDawn Jones might ‘go missing in the Okefenokee (swamp)’. (Appropriately enough, this took place in a Facebook comments section.) Spencer claimed – and, for the record, Mrs Jones agreed – that this was not a threat, merely a warning that his constituents wouldn’t take kindly to her attempts to remove statues of, and memorials to, leading Confederates.
The media, of course, looked at the essential facts and saw a porky hick-town political boss threatening a black woman with an unmarked grave in the wilderness – as did the vast majority of their audience. And it should be said, the man’s subsequent willingness to bust out pretty much the worst racial slur available will only have vindicated this view. Yes, Cohen walked him right up to the line, claiming that it was important to know how to attract attention if you’re attacked in a public place, and that “in America there’s one forbidden word, the n-word” – you see where this is going – but as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him spew race hate.
(Even if you’re inclined to clemency for that one, there’s no excuse for Spencer’s portrayal of a Chinese tourist, in which he chirped out what was presumably every word related to East Asia he knew – including ‘Ho Chi Minh city’.)
Spencer puts it all down to his own fear – prompted, apparently, by death threats he and his family had received when he proposed a law banning women from wearing burqas in public. While the issuing of death threats over political matters is contemptible at best, as an excuse this is incredibly weak tea. Most people who are scared do not respond by baring their nethers on camera. Frankly, Spencer would have had better luck claiming he was acting in loving tribute to the late, great, Richard Pryor.
After my reaction to the announcement of the series, and the first impressions following the broadcast of the first episode, I had intended to leave Who Is America? alone for a bit, and to check back in at the end to tot up which US politician Cohen had made the biggest fool of – but, as you can see, the news had other plans. While Mr Spencer is – or by the time you read this, was – merely a state representative, the kind of person news articles describe as a ‘lawmaker’ to make their misdeeds sound serious, a work of comedy prompting a public figure to resign from their position is still a big deal. And, needless to say, a big scalp for Cohen.
Even that great work of satire Brass Eye – which I maintain Who Is America? is, understandably, aping – never actually lost anyone their job. While it attracted a firestorm of publicity, particularly with the Paedogeddon special, the worst (or, depending on how you see it, best) it ever managed was to get MP David Amess, MP, to raise a motion in Parliament to ban the ‘made-up drug’ cake.
Far from facing a backlash, Amess continued as an MP and was knighted in 2015.
Nevertheless, the possibility can’t have been far from the mind of creator Chris Morris. His earlier radio work On The Hour had a sketch in which a (fictional) government minister, confronted regarding their policy of taking children out of care homes and placing them with private company ‘Securicare’, was induced to resign live on air – to which Morris’s demonic news anchor responded with a guttural, supremely satisfied ‘yeees’. There was a similar section on that show’s direct descendant Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge, when another (again fictional) minister resigned following revelations about her relationship with two 17-year-old rent boys.
Yet Cohen has actually bagged a live one. And it’s presumably something of a shock to him, too. Even though he’ll have known what Spencer did for a while now, he’s been in the business of duping public figures for nearly twenty years, he’s met a lot of them and got a lot of them to say profoundly stupid things. As Ali G, he once got former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to declare ‘I am Boutros Boutros-Ghali, put down your guns and listen to Bob Marley’ – although in fairness that’s a generally wholesome sentiment.
By comparison to some of his interviewees, Spencer is a relatively small fish. The same episode that features Spencer’s segment also saw Cohen interview former Vice-President Dick Cheney, who was only too pleased to autograph a ‘waterboarding kit’. And, if we are to weigh these things up against each, there’s an argument to be made that Spencer’s frantic racism, while hugely offensive, did far less actual harm than Cheney’s policy of torturing people – or, as he still describes it, ‘enhanced interrogation’ – as part of a war of aggression.
But then, politics is a curious game. While Cheney suffered incredibly low approval ratings, he still left office on a high note – leaving the mess of the still-smoldering War on Terror for literally anyone else to clean up, and likely with a fat check in his fist from his old pals at oilfield service company Halliburton, for whom he had been CEO. That last point isn’t a cheap shot, it’s directly relevant. In a democracy, political power ultimately comes down to popularity – not necessarily the popularity of a Kardashian, but popularity all the same, literally having friends and allies in one’s corner.
A comment on weird politics/pharmacology/kabbalah blog Slate Star Codex from Dan Simon put it better than I ever could:
There is a common misunderstanding that politicians get embroiled in “scandals” when they say or do embarrassing or appalling things, which result in “political damage”, or even their “political demise”. In reality, the cause-and-effect relationship is the opposite: a politician’s opponents are constantly trying to characterize what he or she says or does as embarrassing or appalling, and the politician’s friends and allies are constantly dismissing these accusations as minor and irrelevant…Note that the actual nature of the allegedly embarrassing or appalling words or deeds is scarcely relevant–a politician with sufficiently numerous and powerful friends and allies can, say, drive a woman off a bridge to her death and flee the scene without reporting it, without significantly damaging his career, while a sufficiently embattled politician can be utterly destroyed by, say, repeating a sentence too many times in succession during a debate.
Now granted, Spencer’s exact deeds – and words – are certainly more relevant than most. If he had screamed out ‘help!’ he might still have a job today – Cohen had a point when he described the slur as America’s ‘one forbidden word’. Even Spencer’s old pal LaDawn Jones was hardly likely to defend him after that. But therein lies the key – what it comes down to is that nobody was willing to go to the mat for Jason Spencer. And why would they? After all, he’s a porky hick-town political boss – and boss is probably stretching it.
The absolute best defence anyone could have offered – were they willing, which they weren’t – is that Spencer was misled. To which the obvious answer is ‘yeah, that’s the joke’.
With five episodes left to go of Who Is America?, the joke will be on plenty more people before Cohen’s through. And, with this precedent in place, Showtime was perhaps right to call it ‘possibly the most dangerous show in the history of television’ – although now we know that specifically, it’s dangerous to backwoods politicians with poor judgement. Small wonder Sarah Palin got quite so annoyed, even though it was the first press she’d had in years.
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