In Need of a New Tune: The Poisonous Effects of Satire and Irony on American Political Culture

“Irony is the song of a bird that has come to love its cage.”
~ extracted from David Foster Wallace’s 2003 interview

Jon Stewart is an unusual figure in American politics. No one, hard as he tries, has been quite able to figure him out. He classifies his primary role as that of a comedian and his secondary role as a political commentator. Yet, paradoxically enough, he made this affirmation most famously during a visit to CNN’s Crossfire, where his tone and message was more somber than those of its two tittering hosts. Perhaps, then, this was the real Jon Stewart, the Jon Stewart who styles himself as a comedian so that he can appear on CNN and Fox News in order to calmly deliver (much needed) criticism of the corporate media – the same kind of criticism he delivers on his show, which is “comedy” then, but “serious” when he says the same thing in another venue. Maybe then, he really is an aspiring commentator who uses his status as a comedian for cover and as a way to be invited onto talk shows as a special guest and deliver his usual critiques for a wider audience.

The whole debate is certainly confusing, and quite a serious indictment of our media-saturated, inauthentic culture. Which brings me to my own interpretation of what Jon Stewart’s actual role is, which is primarily neither comedian nor Spartacan speaker-of-truth-to-power. Instead, Jon Stewart (and those in his profession: Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, late night TV hosts, Saturday Night Live, The Onion, etc.) is poisoning American political culture by being mistaken for delivering news, by breeding cynicism and despair, and relatedly, by adopting an ironic posture and thus being a perfect vehicle for the very corporations he and other satirists feign to challenge.

While Jon Stewart denies that he is a political analyst or informer (i.e. he does not want to be like Chris Wallace), that is not how much of the country, let alone the world sees him. According to one Rasmussen survey, nearly one-third of Americans under 40 believe that political satire shows are replacing traditional news outlets, and nearly two-fifths of parents believe that these shows help their children stay informed. But let’s take a look at a random sample of some of the descriptions for four recent episodes of The Daily Show:

  • 12/16/2013: Black Santa & Megyn Kelly, The Knockout Game, China on the Moon, Haifaa al Mansour: Wadjda
  • 12/12/2013: War on Christmas, Black Santa and White Jesus, Lewis Black & Twerking Robots, Evangeline Lilly: The Hobbit and the Desolation of Smaug
  • 12/9/2013: The Truth about NSA Surveillance, Government Spying in World of Warcraft, Reaction to Nelson Mandela’s Death, Husain Haqqani: Magnificent Delusions
  • 11/21/2013: Senate Filibuster Nuclear Option, Racial Profiling of African American Shoppers, Jon’s Talking Turkey, Jennifer Lawrence: The Hunger Games

One problem with many of these routines is that they mock non-news stories, unnecessarily expanding public exposure to them. Another problem is the disproportionate volume of showtime dedicated to popular culture (The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, twerking robots?, talking turkey), showtime that, again, is considered by the viewing public as an ascending substitute for traditional news outlets and as genuinely informational. 

This is another problem: the unintended displacement of “real” news. The statistics indicate that the youth get their news less and less from TV and more and more from the Internet; however, youth also spend just 2.6% of their Internet time reading the news (or about 3 minutes for every 2 hours). In other words, shows like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report may be the single most significant source of news for the country’s youngest voters, as they may believe that they have done their civic duty after 30 minutes with Jon Stewart.

But perhaps the greatest problem with political satire today is its corrosive effect on our ability to trust our elected and non-elected officials. Let’s not forget what these shows often entail. Although the content varies each night, the themes are pretty constant: the media is sensationalistic; Republicans are wacky, Democrats are slightly less wacky; politicians lie; government is incompetent, etc. It’s just another day in the circus that is Washington, D.C. Night after night of learning about boozing congressmen, crooked gerrymanderers, mendacious campaign claims, and governmental blunders is likely to produce one single attitude: cynicism, which, like negative ads, leads – at best – to decreased voter turnout, and – at worst – to political withdrawal and apathy. Here is how one recent study describes the evolution of political attitudes among American ‘millennials,’ i.e. The Daily Show’s primary viewing audience:

The Harvard survey, of more than 3,100 voters under 30, found that faith in most major institutions — with the notable exception of the military — has declined over the past several years. Today, only 39 percent of young voters trust the president to do the right thing, as opposed to 44 percent in 2010. Just 18 percent of voters under 30 trust Congress, compared with 25 percent in February 2010.

[…]

Mr. Grayson, the Harvard institute director, said that experts there worry that the lasting effect on this generation of voters will be that their cynicism about government and politics will turn into “a negative attachment that may be hard to overcome.”


Of course, I am making a few interpretative leaps here. First, it is also true that today’s youth are quite politically aware and unusually active in recent elections (though I suspect that may be uniquely attributable to President Obama’s campaign, since the study also found that the Republican Party “appears to be taking the brunt of millennials’ dissatisfaction”). Second, it may be true that millennials are directly offended by the political gridlock and acrimony and that the media, much less Jon Stewart and his ilk, are not responsible for hyping or exacerbating that sentiment.

Nevertheless, good evidence and rational intuition lead one to believe that while satire, cynicism, and irony may be tolerable or even necessary means to undermine, say, Athenian imperialism, Soviet communism, Chinese or Egyptian authoritarianism, and so forth, automatic distrust of major political institutions and figures is not a healthy political attitude to have in a democratic republic. Here is the late author David Foster Wallace’s take on the effect of irony on culture and politics (a distinction that contemporary political satire blurs):

Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.

Which brings me to my final point – that Jon Stewart, whether he is aware of it or not, is a flunky for the corporate interests he claims to mock. When he is being his most sincere, he is still, first and foremost, trying to be funny. You’ll probably noticed that he has developed a keen sixth sense that detects when his audience, after 40 seconds or so since the last joke, is feeling that the mood has gotten too solemn and is in need of a hurried and soothing quip.

For instance, what is our reaction when we listen to his satirical take on America’s mediocre international test (PISA) scores? We laugh. What do we do when we hear the self-serving justifications of the people who draw the gerrymandered districts that erode our electoral power? We laugh. What do we do when we learn that JP MorganChase was fined $13 billion for quote-unquote fraudulent activity and that no one goes to jail because there was no legal confession of guilt (even though we are often told that corporations are people)? We laugh at that, too. If I held some senior position at the NSA or one of these criminal banking institutions, I would probably think that Jon Stewart is worth something like two conference rooms full of Burson-Marsteller public relations gurus. What better way to defuse social tension than to get its citizens laughing at the incompetence of its government and most powerful corporations?

Cynicism, indifference, withdrawal – these are the attitudes and behaviors that allow corporations to bypass the greatest check on their power: an informed and impassioned and active citizenry.

If one needed any further proof that Jon Stewart and his fellow satirists are convenient jesters, just look at who pays these people. Jon Stewart runs on Comedy Central, a TV-station owned by the world’s fourth largest media conglomerate, Viacom. Saturday Night Live and Jay Leno appear on NBC, which is owned by the mega-conglomerate Comcast Corporation. Take a look next time you watch one of these shows and pay attention to the commercials that air between the segments. Taco Bell, Google, Verizon: these are the companies that benefit from your viewing of political satire. It all reminds me of WalMart’s recent decision to sell a Banksy canvas that says “Destroy Capitalism.” These companies, with their hidden battalion of professional marketers and airbrushed poseurs (Jimmy Fallon also springs to mind) have mastered the language of irony and – as confirmation of Slavoj Zizek’s thesis that cynicism is late capitalism’s governing ideology – are commodifying and profiting from our own dissatisfaction with America’s decadent political economy. And we laugh?

banksy walmart

So what is the alternative? First, we need to be aware of the thin yet crucial distinction between cynicism and skepticism: cynicism assumes that everyone is a self-interested liar; skepticism waits for the evidence. A democratic citizenry should practice the latter, not the former. Second, there needs to be a move toward non-corporate journalism. National Public Radio, despite its occasional slip-ups and bias, broadcasts some excellent programs that provide a platform for true experts (rather than a cast of political strategists that pollute corporate programming) and dispassionate arguments. More importantly, they make a point of airing neglected topics and giving citizens a voice to tell their stories and perspectives, a vast improvement over Fox’s and CNN’s pitiful approximation, which involves watching spin artists like Frank Luntz directing his focus groups to give their moment-by-moment emotional impressions of political ads and debates.

Whatever the outlet, the tone of the media we choose to consume needs to change. If the youth – our next generation – are to become the responsible inheritors of the most powerful country on Earth and a fragile democracy where cynicism breeds civic disengagement, then there needs to be a resurgence of authenticity, sincerity, and seriousness. We need a new tune.

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About Andrew Gripp

Andrew Gripp received a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Delaware and an M.A. from Georgetown University, specializing in Democracy and Governance. His interests include U.S. and international politics, moral and political philosophy, science and religion, and literature. You can find him on Twitter @andrewgripp.
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