De gustibus non disputandum est

Kant is famous for inverting the claim that “there is no disputing taste.” Despite the fact that most people cannot imagine an argument for the pleasure or displeasure of flavors and foods, he supplies us a perspective from which we might establish a “common sense.” Namely, that each of us, in tasting or experiencing, might imagine this experience through another’s eyes, in another’s mouth, on another’s tongue. Yet this is an imaginative activity that is difficult to accomplish in everyday life: I do not regularly chastise my friend Steve for his distaste for leafy greens, but merely file this information away. On food, we share little common ground. Our friendship stands on our shared sense of pleasure in other experiences, primarily intellectual.

The same must be said for humor. Many of us literally cannot stomach jokes that take ethnic or sexual minorities as their target. Others fail to see the humor in sarcastically taking the national press to task. The argument for doing so, and feeling disappointed in the press for not laughing along, has to do with a simple assumption: these people are hamstrung by public opinion and the business model of political journalism. In other words, they share our tastes, but are unable to indulge their cravings for truth because they cannot afford the price of that meal.

That is, we have all assumed that journalists know, in their guts, that an antagonistic press is better for the country than lapdog co-propagandists. I’ve made the case in other forums that their bosses and employers, the editors, producers, and owners of the media, simply enforce the narrow relaying of presidential addresses and claims. The hope many progressives share is that it is simply economic issues that have hamstrung investigative and critical reporting. We assume that news agencies no longer have the budgets to rebut and investigate the absurd pandering and boldfaced manipulations of politicians, so they are forced to hope that other institutions will take up the slack. Thus, we put our faith in watchdog groups, in Comedy Central, and in the internet punditry: Salon, the blogs, etc.

Yet the Colbert performance was an opportunity for subversion, a moment when those reporters might have come out against the institutions that have turned them into little more than a presidential typing pool. Instead, they seem to have missed the joke. What that means, more than anything, is that we no longer share a “common sense.” We cannot imagine what will be funny to each other, what will smell right, what will be stomachable or nauseating. The press, in their [mis]-apprehension of the funny, have shown themselves to be radically alien to our community. Perhaps we might agree on the pleasures of a good salad… but whatever would we talk about? We seem to live in very different worlds.

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