Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Daily Grind

Satire is a double-edged sword. It can be a weapon of the oppressed against the status quo but, it has the potential to fall into cynicism when it finds its efforts at reform unrealized and unrealizable. This is the trap into which American liberalism appears to have fallen, and it is nowhere better exemplified than in the overwhelmingly popular The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

What does it signal when the most trusted newsman in the country is in reality an entertainer? Beyond the obvious irony, it reflects poorly upon the more traditional news outlets which have apparently failed their audiences.

While I submit that it is an obvious good that at least one honest face may be found speaking truths, rather than the typical manufactured news we are meant to imbibe. It is also a daily televised tragedy highlighting the left's regression into a public discourse of canned laughter, a discourse that has abandoned hard thinking and sober analysis for mere entertainment.

A similar argument was made in Russell L. Peterson's book Strange Bedfellows, published in 2008 by Rutgers University Press. However, in that book Peterson defends Stewart, and others in his mold, as upholding the true principles of satire. At first glance, this seems wonderfully sound. Stewart, though attacking the sources of power, nevertheless has a genuine respect for the institutions from which that power originates. Yet, with respect comes disappointment when those institutions fail to deliver on their promises.

This is demonstrated in Stewart's support of Barack Obama. Shortly after his inauguration, Stewart was, like most of the country, hopeful of great changes. It was not long before that hope became ridicule as Obama made concession after concession to Republicans. If cynicism does not enter grandly through the front door it will often creep in through the back.

Indeed, however positive Stewart's intentions, things cannot help but end on a sour note. In his desire to be fair Stewart wants to give the right its due. A noble sentiment, but one that is misplaced with fanatics. The far right, who dominate the Republican party, suffer from the True Believer mentality. Theirs is a holy cause they stand by without reflection. In contrast, the left have become so dispirited by the relativism of “fairness”, they no longer know what to believe. Programs like Stewart's then reinforce this apathy.

Such is the example of the The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. A rally with no message or agenda. Thousands gathered to hear the same shtick they hear nightly on their televisions, reinforcing the absurdity of the entire political process.

In this way too, such programs provide for the left a safety-valve for indignation in a fashion which mirrors Aristotle's characterization of tragedy as a comedic catharsis. If the Washington fat-cats are skewered on the Daily Show, they feel a semblance of justice, and rage that could have been more productively harnessed for political activism is instead dissipated by sarcasm.

Such a position will no doubt lead to accusations of a liberal dogmatism every bit as pernicious as that of the right, and some will say I am simply missing the point, that this is the nature of comedy not to praise sacred cows. Whatever the conclusion, I think it better to err on the side of the humorless crank then to too quickly abandon sound reason for cheap laughs.

Finally, what many of Stewart and company's defenders fail to understand, is the corrupting and de-legitimizing influence of capital upon social commentary.  With a yearly salary estimated at around fourteen million dollars, Stewart is a well-compensated member of the power structure he satirizes. This perfectly captures the modern liberal dilemma, that before one can even obtain the influence to be taken seriously and one's criticisms have any effect, one must first become a part of that very establishment. To gain the king's ear one must first become a courtier.

Satire should still serve an important role in political discourse, but when the voice of the class clown is the only one that's heard, the more important lesson at the front of the room is often neglected. Satire has always been at its best shouting from the back, not serving as the guide who leads the way.

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