Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
November 24, 2014
Humor is a powerful tool in search of the truth. American philosopher Kenneth Burke describes the power of what he labeled the “comic frame.” He explains that humor can help us to look at our own contradictions by breaking through our usual defense mechanisms. The parts of ourselves that are too painful to acknowledge directly can often be more easy looked at through the lens of humor.
Burke’s insights came to mind as I watched the corporate elite scrambling to respond to “The Daily Show.” In a segment entitled “Water Hoarding” Jessica Williams reviewed the story most Detroiters know too well. During the bankruptcy process, under Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, thousands of residents were aggressively shut off for unpaid water bills. This callous decision sparked massive protests and international outrage. Through a series of interviews and images viewers learn that while people are having their water shut off for relatively small amounts of money, major corporations are racking up massive bills. All of these atrocities are continuing today.
One especially amusing interchange is between Jessica Williams and Detroit News writert Nolan Finley. Williams pushes Finley on his claim that people want free water. Finley tells views that sure there are some people who pay their bills and some who can’t, but there are a lot of others who are “freeloaders.”
The scene jumps to Attorney Alice Jennings, one of the lawyers working to stop shut offs. Jennings says in no uncertain terms, “No one has ever asked for free water. What the plaintiffs have asked for is an affordable payment plan.”
Viewers are taken back to Finley, who picks up his free water line. “Why should Detroit be the only place that has to pass out free water?” Williams challenges him, “But who have you literally heard ask for free water? She gets a non-answer, and pushes Finley further. She asks, “Is it possible the people not paying their bills don’t want free water, they want a payment plan adjusted to their income?” Astonishingly, in a moment of intellectual honesty, Finley agrees, “Absolutely its possible.”
Williams follows up, “So I have a question for you, is it possible that by framing it as saying that people want free water, which no one has actually said, are you somewhat misleading this argument right now?” Finley, gets a blast of canned laughter as he tries to retreat from what he has just said.
As the segment was aired, M Live tried to shift attention away from the heart of the story with a misleading and inaccurate headline “Here’s why ‘The Daily Show’ got it wrong on Detroit water shutoffs.” Their claim is that the show used “some outdated information.” Curtrise Garner, a Detroit Water and Sewerage department spokeswoman wanted to be sure we all knew stadiums and golf courses are paying their bills, or had different bills, or were disputing their bills.
No one argues that when the Daily show segment was filmed, all of these bills were outstanding. And let’s remember this show is on Comedy Central, not MSNBC.
M Live, got it wrong. As the Golf Net News reported this week, the Vargo Golf Company owes even more money. “The bill has only piled up more in the ensuing months. The account cited in the WDIV-TV (in April) report now owes $563,538 to DWS. And it doesn’t stop there. Another DWS account, labeled the second account for golf course irrigation, owes $157,683. All told, the courses owe $721,221 in unpaid water bills.
M Live and Finley got it wrong. They missed the point. Jon Stewart tried to make it clear. He said, “When it comes to laying siege to a city we all have a favorite method, you may be a starving out guy, I’m a catapult guy. You know what? There’s a lot of ways to make a city unlivable.”
This truth, delivered in the comic frame, cannot be denied.