Culture: The fun in dysfunction

Illustration by Dave Cutler

From the September 2015 issue of The Rotarian

Last month, as virtually anyone with a television knows, Jon Stewart retired after 16 years as host of “The Daily Show.” Stewart was technically a comedian. But he was also, in the judgment of the New York Times and about half the country, “the most trusted man in America.”

I spent many years watching Stewart and his evil twin Stephen Colbert, who played a conservative pundit so convincingly that it was hard to believe he wouldn’t have had a shot at the GOP presidential nomination. Like many Americans distressed by the corruption of our political and media classes, I took great comfort in their remarkable ability to convert my anguish into laughter. Both men functioned as cultural critics of the highest order, inheritors of a comic legacy that dates back to Will Rogers and Mark Twain.

But a few years ago, I began to question my allegiance to Stewart and Colbert. To be clear, this had nothing to do with how much I enjoyed their programs. It had to do with my own sense that watching them made me complicit in a rather cynical arrangement. Simply put, I was choosing to laugh at our broken institutions rather than working to fix them.

The craziest thing is that whenever I watch Stewart and Colbert make mincemeat out of some hypocritical politician or pundit, I honestly feel a sense of righteousness, as if I’m taking some kind of action. But I’m not. I’m sitting on my couch, giggling away. I’m treating civic dysfunction as a form of entertainment.

A majority of our citizens share a haunting suspicion: that we are adrift in a fog of frantic material distraction that has led us astray from lives of deeper civic engagement.

This is not to suggest that comedy cannot serve as a powerful agent of social change. After all, Twain’s most famous book, “Huckleberry Finn,” was a comedy that sought to address the atrocity of slavery. The two most powerful novels to emerge from World War II – “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” – were both uproarious. Comedians from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor to Louis C.K. have compelled us to confront ugly truths about ourselves and the world in which we live. And Stewart and Colbert (along with disciples such as John Oliver, host of HBO’s popular “Last Week Tonight”) have used their “fake news” programs to raise awareness of issues that otherwise might never have been taken up.

The best example is Stewart’s outraged response to the congressional filibuster of a bill to provide health benefits to 9/11 first responders. He ultimately spurred lawmakers to pass the measure. Millions of Americans better understand the unseemly details of our campaign finance laws thanks to Colbert and the satirical Super PAC he launched several years ago. Oliver has used his show to educate viewers on topics from net neutrality to the student loan racket.

The difference between this era and previous ones is a pervasive cynicism about our institutions of power. As a people, we no longer seem to believe that our leaders are capable of facing, let alone solving, the crises we confront as a nation and a species. Comedians have become, in some sense, our culture’s moral backstop. We seem to be living in a world much like the one Shakespeare portrayed in “King Lear,” in which the court jesters are the only people who dare speak truth to power.

The event that brought this home for me was the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which Stewart and Colbert held a few days before the 2010 midterm election. It was, by far, the largest gathering of that election cycle. More than 200,000 citizens filled the mall in Washington, D.C., and millions more watched at home. What they got was basically a variety show.

Like a lot of folks, I was hoping Stewart’s closing statement might be a rousing call to civic action. Or that he would at least encourage people to vote. But that was not Stewart’s agenda. The Fool, after all, is ultimately after laughs, not better policy. “If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you,” he declared, “I can only assure you this: You have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted.”

The ensuing election ushered in an era of unprecedented partisan rancor and gridlock – which Stewart and Colbert were only too happy to mock for our amusement.

Of course, it was ridiculous of me to expect a couple of television comedians to lead a mass movement devoted to activism. After all, we don’t expect a Hollywood superhero to rescue the planet. But in my disillusionment, I found myself thinking about a book I’d read back in college called “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” by the cultural critic Neil Postman. It was one of those books I marched around quoting, like the obnoxious undergraduate I was.

Re-reading it three decades later, I was shocked to discover how accurately it depicted the America of 2015. Postman warned that our growing dependence on television had created a society whose standard of value was “whether or not something can grab and then hold the public’s attention. It is a society in which those things that do not conform – for example, serious literature, serious political debate, serious ideas, serious anything – are more likely to be compromised or marginalized than ever before.” A society, in other words, where morality becomes just another form of entertainment.

Postman traced this mindset all the way back to the dawn of our mass media, in which the telegraph first gave Americans access to “news” events that we could talk about but that could not lead to meaningful action. He even anticipated the eventual appearance of parodic news programs such as “The Daily Show” that would illustrate “how television recreates and degrades our conceptions of news, political debate, religious thought, etc.” And he predicted that the “parodists would become celebrities, would star in movies, and would end up making television commercials.”

Sound familiar?

“To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles?” Postman concluded. “What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?”

This is the question I find myself asking as Stewart rides off into the sunset.

Yes, I realize this makes me sound like a major buzzkill, the guy at the party you don’t want to get stuck talking to. But I believe that the crises bearing down on us – from climate change to resource depletion to viral plagues – are too grave to be dismissed with pacifying punch lines.

Today, a clear majority of our citizens, of every ideological persuasion, share the same haunting suspicion: that we are somehow powerless to fix our broken systems, adrift in a fog of frantic material distraction that has led us astray from lives of deeper civic engagement.

For some, religion remains the fount of salvation. Others place their trust in the bluster of demagogues. For those of us who loyally watched Stewart and Colbert, perhaps the time has come to feel the anguish lurking beneath our laughter.

At times, our collective agitation has led to real moral progress. Abolitionists helped stoke a war against the slave states. The Crash of 1929 ushered in the humane programs of the New Deal. Citizen activism brought us the Civil Rights Act and an end to the Vietnam War. The iniquities of Watergate led to campaign finance reform.

I refuse to believe that the citizens of the planet’s sole remaining superpower are incapable of confronting the moral challenges of our time. But doing so will require that we no longer be content with viewing ourselves as passive consumers of satirical entertainment. It won’t be as much fun. It’s inconvenient and frightening to confront our predicaments without some form of comic relief. But it’s not enough to cackle at the absurdity of our political theater. We have to rise from our couches and take action.

Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.”

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