Hasan Minhaj’s Damage to the Progressive Agenda
What is stand-up comedy if not the telling of stories—embellished, exaggerated, and even fictional? Take that away from comedians and there is not much they can offer. When a comedian throws his or her spouse under the bus in a performance, we laugh, knowing fully well that what was said on the stage need not have any bearing on the reality of their marriage. When Gabriel Iglesias talks about cops and doughnuts, we know not to believe a word of it. And yet, not only do we not mind the tall tales but actually regale in them. There is something therapeutic about having humankind’s collective dysfunctionality reflected back to us—all blown up and in our face.
But the very fiction and fantasy that makes stand-up comedy click could be the undoing of satirical news shows such as The Daily Show or social commentary shows such as Hasan Minhaj’s The Patriot Act and his Netflix special, The King’s Jester. It is true that satirical humor is the style of such programs, yet they don’t belong so much to the genre of stand-up comedy as they do the genre of commentary—political, social, or otherwise.
While caricatures, parodies, and exaggerations are the norm in such shows, outright fabrications would be their kryptonite, because, what, other than the insistence on truth, can be of paramount importance for programs that position themselves as moral arbitrators on the national conversations of our times? No wonder Minhaj himself had made it a point in the past to highlight the “rigorous” fact-checking that went into The Patriot Act. The message, which he obviously forgot or ignored, as we now find out, is that truth matters when one is in the business of exposing untruths. The only credible way of speaking out against social ills, crooked politicians, and corporate greed, is to have the virtue of truth squarely on your side.
Minhaj’s Peabody Award was “for offering an important new take on politics and popular culture and giving voice to politically engaged young people in a diverse American polity.” Through his body of work, whether he likes it or not, Minhaj had become a mascot of the woke, the reformers, and the activists. This is a turf where integrity and credibility are of utmost importance; otherwise, how are you any different than those whom you are trying to expose?
Minhaj’s narration of an incident in The King’s Jester about white powder from a mail envelope spilling onto his little daughter while she was in a stroller had massive resonance—but only until it was believed to be something that had actually happened. Now that we find out it was completely made up, it utterly deflates the story’s impact. And worse—it tanks Minhaj’s credibility as a social commentator, his chief claim to fame.
You can’t jerk around with your audiences’ emotions like that, and when called out on your fabrications, say something akin to, “Nothing like this happened. But hey, because things like these are plausible, what I am saying is ‘emotionally true!’” Why does that sound so much like Trump’s “alternative facts”?
Lying to promote yourself as someone who is wronged or in danger undermines those who are actually wronged or in danger. “Lying about racism does a huge disservice to racial and ethnic minorities, and it will likely only buttress white supremacy, an apparatus designed to belittle and deny racism as it is. Having a high-profile brown person build his career in part around fabricated experiences with racism will only feed into this narrative,” writes Noor Noman, a columnist at MSNBC.
The struggles faced by people of color, Muslim Americans, and other minorities in the U.S. are real and debilitating. Where Minhaj could have been a forceful representative of these minority voices, his fibbing reduces him to a snake oil salesman for progressive causes. When a nationally prominent representative of such communities feels the need to fabricate narratives of racism and oppression, it fortifies right-wing arguments that “woke” social activists are all Don Quixotes tilting at windmills. And that doesn’t bode well for the progressive movement in the U.S.
Parthiv N. Parekh is the Editor-in-Chief of Khabar magazine.
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