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Comedians as Sycophants: Samantha Bee, John Oliver and the Democrats

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RT covered the real story behind a recent Samantha Bee “Full Frontal” piece in which Bee claims to expose the existence of a pair of Russian social media users who claim they’re using their computers to steer the American presidential election. Bee traveled to Russia, interviewed the pair, and published a piece that turns out not to be true: the Russians played a hoax on Bee and her Democratic Party-driven evidenceless claim of Russian involvement in the recent American election. RT did the research Bee’s crew apparently didn’t do “and learned that they were just hoaxers who led the host into her own trap”.

I came across a different Samantha Bee “Full Frontal” clip apparently shot while Bee was in Russia called “Russia’s Own Trump” about Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Zhirinovsky is an obviously sexist, racist, and easily-baited buffoon who is friends with Putin and a Parliament member.

Bee spends most of the segment establishing how objectionable Zhirinovsky is via background info, clips of him getting riled, and an interview with Zhirinovsky where he raises racist suspicions (followed by her mock surprise at his bigotry). About the only break in Zhirinovsky’s bigotry comes when he says “He [Trump] will not escalate things in a way that Hillary Clinton might.” which receives no response from Bee. Zhirinovsky also notes “She [Clinton] is dangerous.”. Then he returns to bigotry with “and it is psychologically hard for a woman to make the right decisions.”. Zhirinovsky falls for Bee’s sexist bait “What if she’s got her finger on that red button and her boobs get in the way or something?” by confirming it with “Ah, yes, you understand that she will have the right to press the red button.” and saying the trigger words of referring to Clinton as a “nasty woman” seemingly eliciting another stage reaction from Bee (one can’t be sure what was edited, but I’m willing to trust the conversation went roughly as Bee presents it).

I think the most interesting part of Bee’s piece appears around 3m20s—a clip of Zhirinovsky in a news conference which Bee describes as “call[ing] for the rape of a pregnant journalist”. Zhirinovsky said “When I give the word you run over and start violently raping her.”

The most interesting thing about this clip isn’t what Bee said or what Zhirinovsky said, it’s the reaction of the three women in the clip who appear to be about two arms length away from Zhirinovsky.

None of the women are taking Zhirinovsky seriously.

Two of the women are grinning, one of the women (perhaps the journalist being threatened with rape) chokes back a laugh while looking at one of the other women, and one woman is looking at Zhirinovsky. When he issues the instruction to “run over and start violently raping her”, nobody approaches any of the women in any way. The women do not appear scared or threatened. And given the ugly nature of what he just said, isn’t that the outcome you’d rather these women have—they’re apparently secure enough in themselves that they know to identify a bigot, read the room, and prioritize what he said accordingly? Sure, in a better world that language would not have been uttered thus avoiding putting anyone in such a situation. But in the real world we all have to tolerate speech we don’t like, no matter how many of us agree we don’t like that particular speech. These women appear to have thicker skins and realize when danger is actually present. I’m guessing that if there were any suspicion Zhirinovsky raped any of these women, Bee would have brought that up since that would play to her fear-based piece.

Could it be that Samantha Bee is now defending her projected interests of these women? Women who are ostensibly more in harms way than Bee ever was (yet whose reaction Bee makes no mention of), women who apparently don’t need Bee’s help at all? Why was it relevant that one of the journalists was pregnant? Is that fact meant to convey I should be extra sympathetic to her or extend to her extra permission to be offended?

Clinton supporters made a big deal out of Trump’s sexism and multiple allegations from around a dozen women of repeated inappropriate touching. But there seems to be little mention of Clinton’s Syrian “no-fly zone” which she secretly told her bankster friends at Goldman Sachs will “kill a lot of Syrians“. This killing will naturally include Syrian women and girls, and Clinton’s support for continuing the Bush and Obama wars (including the pernicious drone war) will kill more women and girls including women and girls who happen to be in the vicinity of those who are extrajudicially targeted for assassination. Sexist commentary is harsh to hear and unfairly targets girls and women; the large number of women accusing Trump ought to be taken seriously. But harsh language and inappropriate touching aren’t murder or assassination and we ought not conflate them. It did Democratic Party supporters no favors to publicize an example of women with a mature and properly prioritized reaction such as these Russian women appeared to have. Perhaps not every woman facing this ugly language needs to view it as an existential threat, but can choose to see anyone saying it as inappropriate, bigoted, and derisively laughable as these Russian women appeared to have done.

That view doesn’t get brought up in the piece because it totally undermines Bee’s thesis—Trump is bad by 2-level association: Trump’s “friend” Putin gets along with Zhirinovsky who is a bigot. It’s clear this piece was shot and edited long before we knew the outcome of the election. But even at the time one could safely conclude Samantha Bee was making fun of Trump by proxy. Trump was able to keep up with Clinton in the polls. Anytime Clinton got a small lead on Trump, her (never commanding) lead would vanish for reasons people like Bee didn’t examine. So Bee, and by extension all of the Democratic Party-supporting media who take a similar tack, are (perhaps unintentionally) highlighting what an apparently incompetent campaign Clinton was running.

Bee never made clear why we should care what Zhirinovsky says about American politics because he’s not in the US, he has no apparent influence in the US, and he has no apparent control over anything the US depends on.

I got the impression Bee and her crew traveled to Russia based on poor research—this piece and the piece where Bee was hoisted by her own petard both make her look bad. Perhaps future episodes can feature a principled critique of Trump’s presidency or compare it to Clinton’s campaign instead of punching down to bigots. After all, it looks bad for a losing campaign booster to make juvenile jabs at a campaign that apparently properly strategized their efforts to win the presidency. There’s got to be plenty of poignant humor in repeatedly recognizing that the Democrats don’t deserve votes when they follow the same strategies that got them to where they are: pro-war, anti-universalizing Medicare (which should be interesting for a Canadian-American to talk about), anti-bank prosecution, anti-Glass-Steagall-barrier restoration, pro-Saudi funding (there’s that anti-feminism angle again), pro-TPP, pro-fracking (anti-environment), and generally pro-corporate rule.

***

John Oliver’s final 2016 episode highlighted how he too defended Hillary Clinton’s campaign largely by making jokes aimed against Donald Trump without getting into details on just how serious Clinton’s problems were. But the theme is a bit different—Oliver fails to acknowledge how President Trump will gain his horrible new powers (assuming the electoral voters don’t go against the expressed will of the electorate).

John Oliver played a clip from Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent, when she listed things Trump has discussed having the US military do:

They have seen Donald Trump’s statements on the campaign trail—talking about waterboarding, talking about bombing with little regard to civilian casualties, talking about taking the oil in Iraq—all of these things very serious violations of international law, violations of the Geneva Convention.

Oliver didn’t remind us that the CIA in President Obama’s time also tortures or that President Obama kept the occupation of Iraq going alongside other wars. Oliver could have pointed to his own piece on the drone war here, highlighting that President Obama ignored due process for Americans (including children, such as 16-year old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki in a drone strike 2 weeks after his father Anwar al-Awlaki was also killed by drone) in his drone war.

While it was nice of Oliver to criticize US military actions, it will be the previous administration’s fault for handing Trump these powers even if the powers allow behavior in violation of international law and the Geneva Convention (which the US apparently didn’t care about violating before). Oliver’s respect for international law and adherence to treaties is remarkably selective. Hillary Clinton’s proposed Syrian “no-fly zone” or her secret admission of its lethality didn’t get coverage on Oliver’s show, but pointing out what she was willing to tell bankers could have made Oliver seem not quite so sycophantically pro-Democratic Party.

With regard to the election process, Oliver reminded us that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and then he chastised the existence of the electoral college, “And look, look: Trump won this election. By which I mean he won the electoral college, which for reasons I will never understand, no matter how many times it’s explained to me, is how things are done.”. Oliver said this without calling attention to the fact that the Democrats agreed to the electoral college; the Democrats knew the president could win the electoral college vote (as determined by voters, before the electors actually voted) and lose the popular vote. In fact the Democratic Party saw this happen in 2000, making George W. Bush and not Al Gore, president-elect. Yet the Democrats apparently spent the subsequent 16 years not proposing a better system and mobilizing the country to get that better system passed into law. So Oliver’s passive-aggressive attempt at delegitimizing Trump’s presidential win, by reminding voters there sometimes are differences between the popular vote and the electoral vote, runs contrary to the apparent desires of the party he’s white-knighting for.

Oliver reminded us that “Many people are happy to see him [Donald Trump] in office.”, so perhaps Oliver would be better off trying to understand why people voted for Trump without mocking them either directly by dismissing them as bigots, or by proxy, say, by going along with Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” insult. If Oliver was seriously asking “How the fuck did we get here and what the fuck do we do now?”, he could recognize that the Democratic Party is in bad shape now. They don’t have a majority in either the House or Senate, and they just lost the presidency to Donald Trump. Trump was one of the people on a short list of Republican presidential candidates the Clinton team hopedClinton would run against because they thought she’d be able to win against him. Clinton’s “flaws” are worth far more than a summary that she “failed to appeal to white, rural, and working-class voters, and, and this is worth repeating: deep racism and/or indifference to it.”. There are principled reasons for rejecting Clinton as a viable way out of the recent past in which the poor (in particular) have suffered. Oliver’s mild and quickly-issued summary of Clinton doesn’t do the topic justice.

On healthcare, Oliver quoted Trump’s “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl wherein Trump said he’d keep some parts of Obamacare—ignoring pre-existing conditions and keeping “children living with their parents” on the parent’s coverage. Oliver mocks this instructing viewers to “get ready for a barely-changed version of Obamacare called ‘Trumpcare’.”. This objection makes very little sense because if Oliver is angling for Obamacare to continue as-is, a plan that is “barely-changed” should be a good thing for people who depend on it. If Oliver’s joke name ‘Trumpcare’ were really all that changed about the plan, so what? People who depend on ‘Obamacare’ would rightly tell Oliver that learning a new colloquial name is a small price to pay for keeping the majority of the plan they want to keep.

On who will be in Trump’s cabinet, Oliver rightly concluded Trump probably won’t make good on his claim to “drain the swamp” of corruption pointing out cabinet candidates which included Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie, Rudy Guiliani, and Reince Priebus. But we never got comparable analysis about Clinton’s claim opposing TPP or supporting the environment. Hillary Clinton picked a TPP and fracking advocate to set up her White House and a vice presidential candidate “who voted to authorize fast-track powers for the TPP and praised the agreement just two days before he was chosen”. Clinton herself spent time promoting fracking when she was Secretary of State (another tidbit she revealed to her bankster friends, but rarely to the US public, which show up in as-yet-unpublished-transcripts of bank speeches). Perhaps poor voters who have bad memories of what NAFTA did to their job, or the flammable water, increased chance of earthquakes, and ruined aquifers brought by fracking didn’t feel comfortable supporting the Clinton candidacy.

On media coverage of Trump, Oliver said the media failed to catch “a serial liar [Trump]” and “waited far too long to take him seriously, giving him billions of dollars in free media”. But what stands out is what Oliver didn’t mention: Bernie Sanders. Not only did polls say Sanders would have an easier fight against Trump than Clinton had against anyone, Sanders was eliminated from the Democratic primary with dirty tricks (as revealed in later in leaks) favoring Clinton, and Sanders was virtually ignored by the mainstream media. At one point three networks showed an empty Trump podium longer than, and instead of, covering Sanders’ speech that same night. Perhaps Clinton voters were turned off to her campaign after learning about how Sanders was mistreated. Some Bernie Sanders supporters seemed quite angry about the situation at the Democratic Party convention.

If we are indeed suffering from a “microtargeted” media, as Oliver said, the so-called ‘debates’ has to be a serious problem. The Commission on Public Debates (which sounds like a government office but is actually a private organization run by the heads of the RNC and DNC) sets up arbitrary rules founded in and aimed at excluding competition. A candidate should be allowed into these well-publicized events so long as that candidate is on enough ballots in enough states with enough electoral votes to theoretically win the election, just like Hillary Clinton was. Relative to appearing in these events, blaming social media for its popularity with voters comes off as sour grapes. Oliver’s own coverage of Jill Stein’s campaign, for instance, was highly suspect. In his segment on third parties he reviews spoilerism in 2000 without mentioning all the registered Democrats in Florida who were apparently allowed to vote Republican without being scorned by Democrats. Oliver said Stein “has a lot going for her” with a “broadly appealing pitch from environmental issues, to expanding LGBT rights, to reducing income inequality” but Oliver dismissed her entire campaign because he disagreed with Stein primarily on one issue—her call to cancel student debt (which is about $1.26 trillion). It’s not clear that Oliver’s take on this is correct but right or wrong, this is simply not a big enough issue (either in quantifiable scale or life-or-death consequences when compared with war) upon which to decide the entirety of Stein’s campaign.

Oliver claimed that the more you look at Gary Johnson and Jill Stein’s respective campaigns, “the lack of coverage they complain about so much might have genuinely benefited them. Because their key proposals start to crumble under the slightest scrutiny”, scrutiny to which he never subjected Clinton’s campaign because had he done so he would have found support for every war the US is currently in, and lots of corporate backing including backing from big banks (just like Obama received) which should have been prosecuted. These are all things Stein brought up in her campaign. Oliver then gave a comparison against perfection, “And look, I would love for there to be a perfect third-party candidate, I even understand the argument that a third-party candidate can put a new issue or a new solution on the table, but it is hard to make the case that that is what is happening here.”. Comparisons to perfection are a scam; they exist to eliminate alternatives without putting forth a reasonable argument. The problem isn’t that “there is no perfect candidate in this race” as Oliver says, the problem is that all theoretical winners deserve to be heard from in their own voice debating each other but can’t be easily heard because the establishment (whom Oliver defends) locks them out of one of the most widely-viewed forums for no good reason. As for Oliver’s claim that 2016’s third-party candidates didn’t put a new issue or new solution on the table, this is simultaneously a lie of omission and the fault of the corporate duopoly. Issues of importance were addressed by third parties in the past (including abolition of slavery, establishing the women’s right to vote, child labor laws, progressive taxation, and reducing working hours) and now: pointed critiques of war and reallocation of war funding, setting up large-scale jobs programs, seriously addressing climate change, and eliminating student debt, to name a few. But due to the circular dependency problem of not being able to get on the CPD-run debates until one is sufficiently popular, these issues won’t be raised for the corporate duopoly in a format where they simply must respond. This irony ought to be worth one of Oliver’s apoplectic fits but since he stumps for one arm of the corporate duopoly, it’s unlikely he’ll get over his elitist taste for keeping out candidates who threaten the Democrats by running to their left.

Oliver’s take on lie detection isn’t to be trusted. Consider Oliver’s review of Trump’s take on the Khan family, “[…] the man who disparaged a Gold Star family will now be able to comfort the families of fallen soldiers”. Not only were the Khans stumping in support of the one candidate that helped get their son killed, as Ted Rall keenly points out, “[T]he Khan controversy is yet another spectacular example of the media distracting us with a relatively minor point in order to make a much bigger issue go away.”

Finally, both Bee and Oliver have rarely missed an opportunity to make appearance-based jokes at Trump’s expense. Not only does that legitimize looksism (something you’d think the Left would be more sensitive to), it eats up the time one could spend on far more insightful and clever principled jokes about important policy issues. There are vast areas of agreement between the two corporate parties on big money and high power issues such as their mutual love for war. Voters deserve to hear candidates and the media debate these issues. But coming off the heels of a major loss, it’s simply reality-ignoring arrogance to see Democratic Party supporters continue in they way they do. Bee, Oliver, and other sycophantic Democratic Party supporters would be wise to remember that when they make fun of Trump in such unprincipled ways as they do, they’re actually reminding us what a poor candidate Hillary Clinton was.

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