One hot-button issue. Two opposing views. Three rounds of fiery debate updated in real time. This is Actually.
On Monday night, at the end of a 12-minute roast of President Donald Trump, Late Show host Stephen Colbert made an off-color joke about POTUS' relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"The only thing [Trump's] mouth is good for," Colbert said, "is being Vladimir Putin's cock-holster."
Though the studio audience erupted into raucous laughter, elsewhere, the backlash was fast and furious. An article for the LGBTQ section of the Huffington Post criticized the joke as the latest in a disturbing trend of liberals using homophobic imagery to mock Trump. The alt-right, which led the charge in getting the hashtag #FireColbert to become the top trend in the United States by Tuesday evening, criticized mainstream liberals for not leading the charge to hold Colbert accountable for making a homophobic joke.
Do Colbert's critics have a point here? Are liberals, who purport to stand with queer people against bigotry, giving Stephen Colbert too much of a bye here — or is this controversy much ado about nothing?
Mic asked two writers to argue the issue under tight constraints: three rounds, no more than 200 words per round.
Matt McDermott is an associate director at Whitman Insight Strategies. His work has been published in Salon, the Nation and Vox.
John Paul Brammer is a Chicano writer in New York City whose work has appeared in BuzzFeed and Vox.
McDermott won the coin toss and will deliver the opening argument. Each writer will have thirty minutes to respond. At the end, we'll include a poll so you, the reader, can vote for the winner of the debate.
Round One: Opening Arguments
McDermott: Hi all, pleased to join this chat! Let me first say that I never expected to be an arbiter for what is and isn’t funny. Truth be told, I’m really not a particularly funny guy! Though, I guess our chat really isn’t about Stephen Colbert’s joke (he already admitted the language he used was inartful), but rather the stunning hypocrisy among those on the right who have picked up the rallying cry of #FireColbert “on behalf” of LGBT Americans.
Let’s take a step back from the ledge and cool off from the hysteria. Because what else has the right done this week as they’ve hyperbolically chastised Colbert? They threatened to implement a sweeping anti-LGBT Executive Order meant to legalize and legitimize LGBT discrimination. They worked to pass TrumpCare through the House, stripping tens of millions of Americans—including LGBT Americans—of their fundamental right to health care. I mean, if the right had its way, being gay would probably be a pre-existing condition.
So yes, of course this is much ado about nothing. Of course Trump allies would rather us debate the merits of a harmless joke than focus on the damage being done to the very foundations of our democracy.
Brammer: Hello, hello! Happy to join this discussion. I would like to begin by echoing Matt's sentiments when it comes to the alt-right. I find it frankly disingenuous that the most vocal people in the #FireColbert camp are people who had no problem electing Trump (and Pence) into office considering their track records on women's rights and LGBT issues.
However, I also find it disingenuous to lump in all criticism of Colbert's joke into this camp. I don't think Colbert should be fired, nor do I consider him a homophobe. But that doesn't mean the joke wasn't homophobic. Not so long ago, the Late Show released a graphic of Trump and Putin caressing one another on a unicorn in front of a rainbow. What message does that send to closeted LTBQ people, particularly LGBTQ youth?
To widen the scope a little, because I do believe this is about more than this one silly joke, depictions of same-sex attraction have been historically used as a cudgel. I think many of us can remember watching a movie or a TV show when we were in the closet and seeing a "gay moment" played for laughs. One could argue that this case is different because it plays off of Trump or Putin's perceived insecurity of their masculinity. But that is still weaponizing the stigma of queer people to prove a point.
So, to me, the point is hypocrisy. There's no harm in being able to cop to something. If someone from the right were to make this kind of joke about Obama or about another high profile Democratic politician, it would rightfully be called out as homophobic. I don't see why progressives can't take in some of the queer voices saying this is an issue, say, "I hear you," and then we can all move on.
Round Two: Rebuttal
McDermott: Few points first, because I want to make sure we don’t bury the true hypocrisy here: members of the alt-right – the Trump fan club – who think political correctness is bad when it’s used to thwart racism, homophobia, and misogyny, but think it’s a perfectly fine cudgel to quell anti-Trump comedy. These are people who actually are racists, misogynists, and homophobes – who skillfully like to divert attention from themselves and their atrocious behavior.
So, excited we can debate, but let’s not lose sight of the signal within all this noise!
To speak to your other point, I guess I’d disagree that a portrayal of Trump and Putin as intimate is homophobic (inartful as it was). Sure, I think there are those who are homophobic for thinking such a portrayal is comedic because “they’re acting gay” – but that reflects poorly on the end-consumer of the joke, not Colbert. I think there is powerful artistry in exaggerating the “coziness” between Trump and Putin. I’m reminded of the My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love graffiti painting on the remnants of the Berlin wall.
[Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker] are both men, so showing a “cozy” relationship may well be perceived as gay, but I don't think it's meant to be homophobic.
Ultimately, I trust Colbert is motivated by satirizing Trump's fetish with machismo than mocking affection between two men.
Brammer: The subject at hand is whether or not liberals are giving the joke a pass, which is what I aim to discuss. We can continue to bring up the alt-right, but that is not what I was asked to debate.
I am also troubled by the train of thought that there are "actual racists and homophobes" and then there are "the good folks." I think good folks, or people with good intentions, often contribute to systems of oppression without meaning to. The purpose of this discussion, to me, is not to figure out if Colbert is a homophobe or a bad person. That's pretty immaterial to me. It's about why this kind of rhetoric is fine when it's coming from the left and homophobic when it's coming from the right.
It seems to me that it's indicative of a larger problem among Democrats, particularly white ones, straight ones, and cisgender ones. They think that because they are the allies, they can do no wrong. They're not the "real" threat. They're on our side, so how could they possibly have said something racist or homophobic? There's a really good movie about this: Get Out.
I'm fully prepared to accept that the LGBT community will be divided on how they feel about this particular instance. I don't expect consensus on that. What I would hope for, and what I continue to hope for, is for our allies to approach critical feedback from the marginalized groups they claim to represent with more open ears as opposed to defensiveness.
Round Three: Closing Arguments
McDermott: To be fair, the only reason we’ve having a conversation about this is because alt-right trolls got a #FireColbert hashtag trending earlier this week. So while I appreciate your reasons for ignoring their rhetoric, they are the very reason we’re on the platform talking about this topic.
Leaving that aside, I wholeheartedly share your hope that our allies continue to approach critical feedback from the LGBT community with more open ears. In this instance, it appears that is exactly what happened. Colbert recognized his language was inartful and expressed exactly that on air. So I think we’re making progress on the front!
On the other hand, I won’t go so far as to say it’s indicative of a “larger problem among Democrats.” Though I’m not myself a white, straight cisgender one, so I wouldn’t want to speak on their behalf! But we very clearly have a president who is infatuated with his masculinity. It’s intrinsic to his very being – he talks about it all the time. I think it’s safe to say the intent of Colbert’s routine was to satirize that very machismo which permeates everything Trump says and does.
And frankly, I think that comedic perspective is important! We have a president who acts like the world can still only be run by big-handed, burly white men. That’s absurd, and we should embrace people who make light of that antiquated mindset.
Brammer: I have to reject your characterization of my response as ignoring the alt-right. I believe their impact was the first thing we agreed upon in our initial responses. I also believe that it serves your interests and the interests of people defending Colbert's joke to keep the alt-right in this discussion because it makes it easier to dismiss critical voices, many of whom are LGBTQ people who would never associate themselves with the alt-right.
But to your next point, I was also pleased to see Colbert address his joke as inartful on his show, and I think it's a good example of how little most of us are asking for when we point out homophobia or racism in rhetoric. A simple nod to the fact that we were heard doesn't hurt. Also, if this constitutes Colbert acknowledging that some of what he said didn't come out right, then why is that something Colbert is able to admit while many who enjoy "Trump and Putin are secretly gay lovers" memes cannot?
And I have to adamantly disagree that issues like homophobia and racism aren't pervasive problems among Democrats, if for no other reason than we live in a world where these systems of oppression are so pervasive and their influences nearly inevitable. But I'm looking for consistency. If you are going to call out homophobia on the right, call it out in your own ranks when you see it. Admit when you messed up and commit to do better. There are many progressives who do that. There are also many who say, "What do you mean? I'm on your side, here!"
I'll end with a point of agreement. I also believe comedic voices are important and, I'll add to that, I think Colbert is an important comedian in this day and age. But just because the stakes are high does not give us carte blanche to be incurious and uncritical. Words matter. Insisting that words matter, I think, is a stronger repudiation of Trump than a meme showing him making out with a Russian leader who has made life a living hell for LGBT people.