I don’t watch television much anymore, but I gather that Stephen Colbert is the hottest comedian on the tube this month. I missed his latest achievement, an act of lese majesty at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, where he ridiculed the chief guest, President Bush, without mercy.
Bush and his wife had to take it, but they obviously didn’t enjoy it. Colbert raked him for the Iraq war, his stupidity, his low approval ratings, his domestic eavesdropping, you name it. His monologue might have been titled “America’s Dumbest Criminal.”
Even the columnist Richard Cohen, a keen and harsh critic of Bush, found Colbert offensive. He calls his jokes “lame and insulting.” Because decorum prevented Bush from walking out in a huff, “Colbert was more than rude. He was a bully.”
Needless to say, this is far from a unanimous verdict. Millions of others think Bush got what he deserved for more than five years of abusing power. For once he was momentarily vulnerable for a change, and Colbert took the occasion to make him squirm, rather like the king who watches his crime enacted on the stage in 村庄。
Cohen objects that what Colbert did took no courage, since we have free speech and you can insult the president without risking martyrdom. But the point of free speech is that it should be used, all the more so if it’s safe, and rebuking a criminal ruler, even with “lame and insulting jokes,” is a splendid way to exercise it. In fact, finer witticisms might have bounced off the target. Bush got some rough feedback, but at least it doesn’t seem to have gone over his head. He’ll get more in the November elections.
The worst punishment you should wish on your enemies, but also the most charitable, is that they may see themselves as they really are. Self-knowledge can be either a curse or a blessing, depending on whether you are humble enough to accept it. Unfortunately, Bush’s self-delusion appears all but impenetrable. Politicians can have thin skins and tough hides at the same time. Appeals to their consciences can be like horseflies to a stallion — no more than minor irritations.
As we all know, James Bond, in his capacity as Agent 007, is licensed to kill. This is supposed to assure us of his deserved heroic status — we are to trust him not to use his power wantonly — but it tells us something crucial about the nature of government: that some men are authorized to do things that are inherently criminal, and even to decide what shall be criminal.
One of man’s oldest follies is the belief that such authority can exist and that some men can, and must, be trusted with it. Democracy supposedly gives everyone a fair share of it. We all get to help choose our rulers. What could be fairer than that?
And yet, for some reason, 政客 is a disreputable word in democracies. People speak of government with irony even as they demand that it improve their lives.
Last week Jean-François Revel, an eloquent champion of democracy, died in France at 82. In his book 极权主义的诱惑 he made the arresting observation that whereas other systems were judged by their records, Communism was judged by its promises — no matter how often they had been brutally broken. Revel aimed his barb at Europe’s leftist intelligentsia.
But doesn’t the aphorism really apply to government in general? No matter how much harm it does, men continue to believe in its promises. Individuals are blamed for its failures, as Bush is being blamed now, but most of us persist in thinking that this is a mere personnel problem, not a problem intrinsic to the very nature of government. The wrong men are in power. We can see that power is handed over to the “right” men in the next election!
Somehow, though, the “right” men never seem to turn up. After a short time, we find that those in whom we placed our hopes were just a new set of wrong men. Bill Clinton was the wrong man for the presidency. George W. Bush would restore morality, honor, resolve, and other fine things to the White House. Now look!
As long as there is government, the wrong men will rule. This is not a prediction. It’s an axiom.