Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 8, 2018

Colbert Confesses: He Likes Being White

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Stephen Colbert interviewed then candidate Trump in 2015. It was like a near nuclear explosion, prevented only by the basic politeness and humor we have come to expect from Colbert. But trust me on this: they hate each other

The latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine features a lengthy interview with Stephen Colbert.

In reflecting on his time doing The Colbert Report, Stephen explains that all it took to play the character of the conservative pundit was to confess or give in to the temptation to be the worst version of himself, and then portray that ironically. The most power-hungry version. The most self-absorbed. The most scared. The most quintessentially “make America great again”.

Except that The Don –and the people who put him there– are not confessing. They’re instead stoking the fires of fear, and celebrating those same values that Colbert was cautioning himself and all of us to be wary of. With those for whom their vote was a single-issue vote –be it abortion (the biggest wedge), or America First, or “drain the swamp” (whoever gave him that one was a brilliant tactician, honestly) —these well-intentioned citizens are quite understandably denying there’s anything wrong here, because if they admit it, then they must also confess:

  1. they were duped,
  2. they’re similarly selfish,
  3. they’re not even living up to the standard that Jesus stated clearly for us: to lay down one’s life (or priorities) for one’s friends.

Or, to state #3 another way: lose yourself. Lose your ego. Give away or burn everything you’re too attached to, anything which comes between you and God, or a loved one. Break the addiction to “Me”. In the form of denial most prevalent now, the way to hold onto what we are addicted to is to more narrowly redefine whom Jesus meant by our “friends”. (Or, in two parallel evasions, to ignore that whole “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” thing, and the “You cannot serve both God and Money” thing, acting as if Jesus never gave those radical and difficult commands.)

Here are the key lines (for me, another oldish white Christian American straight male) from the Colbert RS interview which seem like the most honest –and even brave– confession:

I’m passionately attached to some of the things that he [Bush] talked about. It was really important that you not know what those were. Because it just robbed the performance of the question mark. But really, the confession is a confession of the appetite to eat that meal. Meaning there’s an itch to scratch. I’m like, “Yeah, fuck yeah, me, me. Me, white male Christian, American, straight. Number one!” That is a dark feeling, because it is indulging in an appetite for yourself, it’s very possessive, it’s very consumptive, it’s pornographic, and so the confession is: Yes, I have these feelings as well. But the question is: Why are those feelings indulged in America?

To me, the bolded text above is a thinly veiled way that Stephen is getting into the theology behind all this political hubbub. One of the central messages of Jesus was “Lose Yourself” (though not exactly the way Eminem meant it, …more like how the Buddhists mean it– although Eminem is looking plenty smart and politically interesting lately, especially with his viral freestyle diss rap slamming Trump awhile back).

.    .    .

The temptation to focus on “me Me ME” is the essence of sin (and childishness, and perhaps our most animalistic, least “human” instincts). Stephen also uses words above like “appetite” (Gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly Sins), and “possessive” (see Greed), even “pornographic” (see Lust). It’s textbook contemplative Catholicism: look within, and root out the Enemy there first. That’s what makes Stephen’s approach to social justice so incisive, even ancient… and quietly radical.

Stephen’s probably got his hands tied a little bit now when it comes to getting this message on the air more consistently. Middle America (not to mention network television) is not known for being a confessing congregation, lest our shame catch up with us and we have to actually repent and change course.

Even old King David, the “liberal Jew” who “controlled the media” of his day (ha!), understood the power of confession and repentance to avoid the pitfalls of having our worst qualities overtake our lives

23Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.           (Psalm 139, NIV)

Nor do we put religion itself out on front street nowadays, especially in entertainment, but also in politics (and where is the line separating those two fields, by the way?). “Old time religion” is too boring. Or tacky. Keep religion (and God) compartmentalized and safe, off to the side. Steer clear of controversy. Keep it light! It’s the American Way. Therefore, never more shall we be treated to a late-night TV interview with the likes of Catholic intellectual Father James Martin, SJ, who appeared on The Colbert Report a number of times to re-connect the dots between public policy and private faith.

.   .   .

But on the plus side, Stephen is on a bigger stage now, has a bigger budget, probably more overall social influence… and yet he still has those confessional and ethical instincts. Plus plenty of the writers and creative team from the old show, who share his instinctive courage in blending humor and serious discussion about what an individual person ought to value, and what appetites we need to keep in check, and how our government should reflect that.


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