WASHINGTON -- True words are often said in jest, it has long been said. But a harsher idiom has been taking shape in recent years: Jest is becoming the only way to express truth.
It is the columnist’s curse to entertain such thoughts about disparate events that seemingly share only coincidental timing -- President Obama’s comedic speech at Saturday’s black-tie White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and the growing unrest in Baltimore 40 miles away.
Both reveal, in their own way, our increasing powerlessness to express what is real and true before the intimidating power of political correctness. We can’t call a fool a fool because we might need his vote. We remain mum in the face of horror or incompetence lest we offend someone and enter that particular digital hell where internet mobs rule.
Comedians are fast becoming the only people who can lampoon the emperor or call out the idiot without tempting the guillotine.
Obama’s performance, riotously funny, bordered on parable as his so-called anger translator “Luther” (portrayed by comedian Keegan-Michael Key) acted out what was really in the president’s head as Obama expressed banal pleasantries about the media and politics.
“Awwwww yeah. She’s [Hillary Clinton’s] gonna get that money,” Luther shouted just inches from Obama’s ear. “She gonna get all the money.”
The crowd laughed so hard because it was so true. Obama the impenetrable surely has such thoughts dancing in his head even as he remains virtually expressionless. In jest, he was also able to speak for himself without Luther: “Some people still say I’m arrogant, aloof, condescending. Some people are so dumb.” No one thinks he was kidding.
There was nothing funny going on in Baltimore, yet the protests which later became riots exposed both what happens when people feel marginalized -- and the absence of other voices which should be heard during such events.
Where is the outrage beyond the African-American community about police brutality and the deaths of young black males? Where are members of Congress other than those belonging to the Black Caucus?
My God, the list of those killed is staggering, yet this is not a new phenomenon. Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who suffered spinal injuries and died while in police custody, is but the most recent. Yet you see only the usual black activists speaking up.
My guess? Whites are too uncertain of the proper way to express their anxiety and would rather not risk the potential backlash. Trip lines are everywhere. Even this paragraph feels risky.
On the other side of the coin, we all want to call the criminals who have been looting, burning and targeting Baltimore police officers “thugs,” but only African-Americans -- President Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake -- would dare to say it.
At the same time people avoid too-sensitive subjects, they seem to fear stating the obvious lest their thoughts be interpreted as an act of betrayal to “the group.” Politicians are the most risk-averse of all.
Few are the Democratic women who will find (or express) fault with Hillary Clinton. It is the rare African-American who finds fault with Obama. When Rawlings-Blake also said she “gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well,” her Democratic colleagues spoke only of her “poor choice of words.” Not poor thinking? Not lousy leadership?
Republicans don’t get a pass. Heaven forbid they should call out someone who wants to inject biblical end-times into political debate. Obama the jester didn’t hesitate. Poking fun at Michele Bachmann’s recent remark he would bring about the end of days, Obama quipped, “Now that’s a legacy!”
With a joke, Obama exposed the absurdity of such thinking. But the joke would have been far funnier and provided a greater sense of relief had a Republican said it.
Alas, this will never happen -- and not because Bachmann is no longer in office. She still speaks to and for a large swath of Republican voters, which means the GOP party is doomed to pretend 2,000-year-old prophesies are perfectly relevant to today’s geopolitical debate.
That’s a lot of turf to cover in a column, but the unifying theme is we are slowly becoming a nation which pays greater heed to sensitivity than truth, and prefers the comfort of committee-crafted thoughts that neither offend nor enlighten.
In time, we may mourn even the jesters.