The Asymmetry of Waterboarding Jokes

My understanding of the White House Correspondents Association dinner concept, insofar as I grasp it, is that the host comedian is supposed to make jokes at the president’s expense. Thus, insofar as Wanda Sykes seems to have primarily been making jokes at the expense of the president’s political adversaries I think there’s ample grounds for complaint. But I don’t think this from Brendan Nyhan can stand unchallenged:

The hypocrisy here is staggering (especially in the Media Matters case). Imagine that a conservative comedian had accused Keith Olbermann of treason at the WHCA dinner back in 2004 and said he should be waterboarded. Would liberals have minimized the comments as “jokes” and catalogued all the offensive things Olbermann has said on his show? I don’t think so.

But these aren’t symmetrical cases. Jokes advocating that conservative proponents of waterboarding should be subjected to waterboarding make a real political point, namely that this practice the right dismisses as “dunking” is, in fact, horrifying torture. The point of the joke is that this would be clear enough to Limbaugh if it was done to him. A comparable case, I guess, is if a conservative comedian were to say “if Keith Olbermann likes higher taxes on the wealthy so much, then he should have to pay higher income taxes, too!” But I don’t think Olbermann or his fans would find that particularly stinging since I take it he already understands the basic implications of Obama’s tax policies.

To circle back around, the WHCA thing is an appalling farce and honestly I don’t think anyone should participate in it on any level. But it’s one redeeming feature is that it holds out the prospect of someone making fun of the President of the United States, to his face, surrounded by a big audience of people. It can be a little bit of a rare truth to power moment. As a host, if you’re not going to do that there’s really no point.



In an updated version of the post, Nyhan focuses his ire on the accusing Limbaugh of treason point. Fair enough — people shouldn’t accuse Limbaugh of treason. That’s not much of a joke. Likewise for the terrorist business.