On the November 13, 2013 episode of The Colbert Report, there was a segment about the Colorado man on a quixotic crusade to institute a “drone bounty” in his town of Deer Trail, CO. Philip Steele, the “brains” behind the proposed ordinance, is an easy target for ridicule. He shows up to a town council meeting in a cowboy hat and duster, demanding that Ennio Morricone play as he entered. As the segment’s straight-person, Colbert has on MIT professor Missy Cummings. While Steele prints up drone-hunting permits from his desktop printer and makes racist comments about Obama’s ancestry, Cummings paints a rosy picture in which domestic UAVs do everything but tuck our kids in at night. To demonstrate Steele’s unfounded paranoia, the show quotes him saying:
There are many reasons to conduct surveillance. Let’s take smokers, how many people have smoke breaks, okay, fly a drone. ‘Oh, did you check nonsmoker on your health insurance form? Oh I’m sorry, we’re going to have to penalize you now.’”
The audience laughs at this, but isn’t it obvious that this is exactly the sort of thing that domestic drones will be used for in the future? Steele sounds like an eccentric reactionary for most of the interview, so consequently the young, liberal audience is laughing even as he says something plausible, if not likely. This is the problem with the tepid liberalism at the core of The Daily Show and Colbert, and how both shows filter everything into the insipid “Democrat vs. Republican” partisan framework. By choosing a right-wing drone opponent, Colbert primes its audience to laugh at what he’s saying, even when it’s realistic; and trust his opposite, even when they’re a shill for the military industry.
Steele’s foil, Professor Cummings, is the segment’s voice of reason. If the professor looks familiar, it’s because she is the media’s most reliable representative for the domestic drone advocacy lobby. Cummings was a talking head on PBS’s NOVA special “Rise of the Drones,” which was partially funded by David Koch and Lockheed Martin. Journalist Kevin Gosztola called the broadcast “an infomercial for the military defense industry.” The night the NOVA special premiered, Cummings appeared on The Daily Show as part of the military-industrial complex’s public relations campaign to remove the stigma attached to drones. Cummings sold a credulous Jon Stewart and his young audience a utopian vision in which drones are used for spraying crops, delivering medicine, or entertainment. Stewart was so taken with Cummings that he gave her extra time.
Industry flacks like Cummings dismiss as patently absurd the idea that drones would ever be used to infringe on the rights or civil liberties of the American public. What other message would Cummings deliver, as a “Boeing Associate Professor” at MIT? On their website, Boeing says that they collaborate with universities “on research that benefits the long-term needs of our businesses.” Boeing, one of the largest defense contractors in the world, funds whatever they think will be most profitable in the long-term. With Cummings being presented by both Comedy Central and PBS as a disinterested expert, it looks like Boeing is getting a big return on their investment.
Steele is a character who invites ridicule, so it makes sense that Colbert would wring a segment out of him. But opposition to surveillance is a transpartisan issue, and segments like this one make it look like civil liberties are the provenance of right-wing nutcases. Alameda County, California, held a hearing on banning drones in the county limits, which would make it the first US county to do so. Alameda is represented by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the sole vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that began the War on Terror and one of the few Left-wing voices in Congress. Oakland, which is located in Alameda county, has a long history of political radicalism, from the Black Panthers to Occupy. It’s movements that challenge the powerful that are the victims of government surveillance, harassment and brutality and should thus be most resistant to tools that make these abuses easier.
Ultimately drones aren’t good or evil, they are tools. Drones are a tool that happens to make violating the privacy and liberties of Americans easier. It’s axiomatic that the government will ask for tools to make exercising force easier, and once it has them, it uses them. Drone supporters argue that if the police have helicopters, what’s the harm in them using drones? A helicopter flight involves several crew members, costs at least $50,000, and is limited in its surveillance capabilities. It’s precisely because drones are so much cheaper and easier to deploy and control that their use is incentivized.
The private insurance industry literally makes money by denying treatment to sick children, is there anything they won’t do for profit? Drones getting smaller and cheaper is inevitable, which means domestic UAVs threaten to become more intrusive and ubiquitous. Resistance to this state of affairs is hobbled when industry spokespeople like Professor Cummings are presented as supposedly impartial experts, and racist, right-wing crackpots are the only people on TV talking about defending privacy. After Steele makes his point about drones catching smokers, Colbert makes a quip and then cuts to footage of a missile blasting a target. The joke is that how could anyone complain about getting surveilled, when it’s better than being incinerated? The audience laughs, the piece continues, and Cummings keeps up her hard-sell on domestic UAVs. The giants of military industrial complex are the ones laughing after the credits roll, though, because they’re getting TV’s most popular satirists to pass their propaganda in the guise of sensible expertise.