You Have to Laugh

It’s often hard to report on U.S. politics and government with a straight face. It’s even harder to report on the usual reporting on U.S. politics and government with a straight face. So much of it is beyond the reach of parody. Yet it also opens up opportunities to shock people with basic facts.

The stock market going up is not a good thing. Wars don’t expand human rights. Loony newfangled schemes to give everyone healthcare and education have been tried for many decades in many countries, making them more reliable and old-fashioned than getting to keep your beloved health insurance company and student debt. Muslim terrorists are not in the top 1,000 threats to your health. Russian Facebook accounts are not in the top 10,000 corrupting influences on U.S. elections. The amount of money the Pentagon spends every year is $100,000 times $100,000 times $100 plus more than you can truly comprehend. Michael Bloomberg is not an impressive serious person.

Lee Camp’s new book, Bullet Points and Punch Lines, takes on the outrages of the day with humor and outrage. It’s highly informative as well as entertaining, but of course what one most hopes is that its approach is able to reach a different audience from those that already have some general notion of what planet they are living on.

Lee Camp is the head writer and host of the TV show “Redacted Tonight with Lee Camp” on RT America. Why RT America? You’ll have to ask Lee, but it’s possibly relevant that opposing war is not allowed on U.S. television networks. I mean, yes, it’s wonderfully disorientating to see Krystal Ball’s online videos supporting rather than attacking Bernie Sanders, but (1) the internet is not a television network, and (2) talking up Bernie is not the same thing as having a peace activist on a program (it may be better or worse, but it’s not actually the same thing).

Lee Camp often takes a story from the news, usually a story that no late-night talk-show comedian would ever touch, and uses the story to educate — and does so with what I think of as simply appropriate annoyance and mockery but what most people would call satire, sarcasm, and similar dirty words. For example, Camp reviews various frightening warnings about artificial intelligence taking over and eliminating humanity. In a simulation, a computer discovered that it could get a perfect score on landing an airplane safely by crashing it.

“So now, dear reader,” writes Camp, “you may be thinking, ‘That’s terrifying — the AI was given an objective and basically just did anything to get there.’ However, is that so different from humans? In our society, we are given the objective of ‘accumulate wealth and power,’ and now we have people like weapons contractors and big oil magnates achieving the objective by promoting and fostering war and death around the world.”

While Camp throws in lines like this one, “It kind of reminds me of the time I stopped my younger brother from beating me in The Legend of Zelda by throwing our television in a creek,” it’s often the bits that are the furthest thing from humor that I most hope will grab people by the lapels and shake them, bits like this:

“We live in a state of perpetual war, and we never feel it. While you get your gelato at the hip place where they put those cute little mint leaves on the side, someone is being bombed in your name. While you argue with the 17-year-old at the movie theater who gave you a small popcorn when you paid for a large, someone is being obliterated in your name. While we sleep and eat and make love and shield our eyes on a sunny day, someone’s home, family, life, and body are being blown into a thousand pieces — in our names.”

That’s from a chapter called “Trump’s Military Drops a Bomb Every 12 Minutes, and No One Is Talking About It.”

Another chapter is called “American Society Would Collapse If It Weren’t For These Eight Myths.” It’s true. It would. Read the book to see what the myths are.

I’m old enough to remember comedians like Jon Stewart who would interview war criminals and oligarchs on TV with questions like “How did you get to be so awesome?” and then excuse themselves with the line “I’m just a comedian” or with the apparently serious claim to be taking a stand against ever taking any stands. Lee Camp’s form of comedy is different. He takes a stand for everything. Calling it comedy doesn’t give him a license to wimp out. Rather, it gives him a license to exaggerate to make a point more powerfully, as in this prescription for addressing climate collapse:

“Plastic action figures for kids should have one arm melted off to symbolize the effects of climate change. Your server at a nice restaurant should sprinkle sand in your soup du jour to remind you of the disappearance of fresh water. Ice cream should be exclusively served melted to symbolize rising temperatures. Hamburgers should cost 200 dollars to compensate for the global emissions of factory farming. And every time you go ice skating, someone should punch you in the face and yell, ‘Enjoy it while it lasts!'”

It’s unfortunate that the very first chapter in this book gets facts wrong. The main point it makes is right: the amount of money the Pentagon deals with is incomprehensibly huge. But $21 trillion (or more recently $35 trillion) is not simply an amount being spent; rather it’s a total of fraudulent additions and subtractions from a fictional budget. That AOC caught flack for saying what Lee Camp says on this is not merely because the corporate media consists of a bunch of unscrupulous vultures, but also because she allowed herself to be in that position. The Pentagon spends an unfathomable amount of money on hideous practices and has never passed an audit. That’s an indisputable set of facts in no need of augmentation.

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