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Making the World (or at least the President) Safe for Democratic Criticism

April 4, 2011

Last Wednesday brought us the new and improved, or at least renamed, Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner. The event was formerly known as the Radio-Television Correspondents’ Dinner—or as That One Time Stephen Colbert Really Skewered Bush. But that was 2006. How cutting would fellow Daily Show affiliate Larry Wilmore, who is Jon Stewart’s official Senior Black Correspondent, be in his capstone remarks?

Well, Wilmore seemed to play it safe in the criticism department. He didn’t criticize President Obama in any way that we haven’t heard before. Not consulting Congress before going into (the airspace of) Libya? Check. Being born in Africa? Check. But was it really criticism? Did Wilmore go after Obama the way Colbert went after Bush?

Wilmore’s remarks are chockfull of irony, the bread and butter of all of the hosts and correspondents on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Where Colbert offered ironic praise of Bush, Wilmore offers ironic criticism of Obama.

Irony is one of those fantastic uses of language that can be difficult to define. Like pornography was to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know irony when we see it. But Wayne Booth described and taxonomized irony, more or less usefully, in A Rhetoric of Irony in 1974. Here I’m working with Booth’s definition of “stable irony”—irony that is deliberate, covert (read: the surface meaning of the words is not the “actual” meaning of the words), and stable (read: there’s only one “actual” meaning, not many). So let’s take the first lengthy example from Wilmore’s remarks:

I wasn’t born in Africa like the President. I was born—hey, he’s not here, I can make that joke. It’s not like he wasn’t invited. It’s not like I didn’t tell my family and friends. He’s got a lot on his plate, Libya, right? I understand you know maybe he thought by coming to the Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner it might seem like he was consulting Congress on something.

Three checks on deliberate, covert, and stable for the Libya line. Wilmore’s a professional, so accidentally mixing in some irony is unlikely. And there’s a single covert meaning waiting for his sympathetic audience to unpack.

After a few cracks about what Africa makes him think of (e.g., “hot,” “things that might eat me,” “brothers speaking French, which I don’t think is in God’s plans”), Wilmore goes on:

It’s tough, man, being president. It’s gotta be tough. You know, everybody’s on Obama now. Both sides. Hurry up! Fix the economy! The economy’s the big issue now. What’s taking so long? Why can’t it go faster? Why can’t you fix the economy faster?Look, fast is not Obama’s style, right? They’re not known for their speed in Kenya, right? They’re long distance runners. He’s not here. That joke doesn’t go if he’s here.

Most of the time, a comedian isn’t funny when he’s labeling his jokes as jokes. But this is the half-step out of covert ironic criticism into out-in-the-open criticism. Wilmore’s making a statement not just about, but against the Birthers.

In fact, Wilmore quickly drops his ironic act entirely and begins criticizing Obama’s critics:

But then they [Obama’s critics, the Birthers, etc.] expect us to swallow the preposterous. Like, he’s a secret Muslim. A secret Muslim?! With all the pork in the budget, that’s impossible. Let alone a secret Muslim. How are you in the closet for Allah? He’s the President. He’s gonna sneak in praying five times a day? How does that work? Ooops, dropped my contact lens. [Generic chanting.]

What does this ironic criticism and non-ironic criticism of Obama’s critics add up to? (Other than some laughs, depending on how much you agree with Wilmore’s covert meaning.) Well, it shows that it’s possible to turn George Lakoff’s idea of framing on its head. Saying someone’s a witch doesn’t mean everyone will associate that someone with “witch.” If you’re speaking to an audience who understands that you’re creating an intended, covert, and stable irony, you’re golden. Much like Obama’s reputation throughout Wilmore’s remarks.

If you want to know more:

  • The OED defines irony as “a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used; usually taking the form of sarcasm or ridicule in which laudatory expressions are used to imply condemnation or contempt.”
  • You can watch the entire Congressional Correspondents Dinner. Wilmore’s segment begins at 1:20:30 and ends at 1:36:00.
  • You can watch or read Colbert’s appearance at the 2006 Radio-Television Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner.
  • We’ve drawn on George Lakoff’s idea of framing a lot in our posts, like Doug’s post on Nazi witches and my post on Roe v. Wade rhetoric.
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