I am in mourning and in withdrawal. I am losing my two nightly sanity fixes, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. I’m left with my morning fixes: running, swimming and cycling. Sleeping will become more of a problem. I published this piece a number of years ago in Deliberately Considered. I might want to expand on it, exploring the importance of televised political satire and the American social condition. -J.G.
Neil Postman was a famous media critic. He thought that the problem with television was not its content but its formal qualities as a medium. It presented a clear and present danger. Because of it, we were Amusing Ourselves to Death. In thinking about the role of television in contemporary politics, specifically as it is facilitating new kinds of major media events, I am struck by the fact that television’s effects may be quite the opposite, when it amuses us, it gives life. When it is deadly serious, it is just that, deadly. I am having these dark thoughts thinking about Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and their respective demonstrations on American sacred ground, the Washington Mall, between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials.
Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor Rally, held on the Washington mall, with speakers on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial, was seen as a serious event, an abomination for those who were pained by the hijacking of the legacy of one of the great mass demonstrations in American history held on the same place, on the same day of the year, forty seven years ago, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, highlighted by “The I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. But viewed from the right, even from a skeptical conservative observer such as Ross Douthat of The New York Times, it was an encouraging development, affirming important cultural values, showing that the right was “free of rancor, racism or populist resentment, the atmosphere at the rally resembled that of a church picnic or a high school football game.” Of course, on Fox the enthusiasm, the celebration, was less restrained.
Stewart and Colbert
On the other hand, the planned Rally to Restore Sanity, promoted by Jon Stewart, and the “counter demonstration,” the March to Keep Fear Alive, promoted by Stephen Colbert, are clearly meant to be funny, and there is truth in packaging, since both of the principals work for the cable network, Comedy Central. But it is being taken seriously. Arianna Huffington, of the famous Post, let the world know that her organization would provide free bus transportation from New York to the Rally, appropriately on Stewart’s show.
And President Obama even lent his support (okay, perhaps with his tongue strategically planted in his cheek). And the demonstration is likely to draw tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, because of a widespread sense that our politics has become insane, and there is a need to protest this.
These two media events show how far we have come. The boundary between entertainment and politics has never been more tenuous. But I admit. I find one of these media events encouraging for the prospects of American democracy and the other extremely dangerous, and I don’t think it is just a matter of my political commitments.
Beck has his power because he is outrageous. He receives public attention by being a provocateur, denouncing the President because he just doesn’t like white people, criticizing healthcare reform as a form of reparations, leading people to believe with absolute certainty that bizarre readings of the American constitution and American history are the truth, and getting them to cling to the constitution as the Red Guards of the Chinese Cultural Revolution clung to Mao’s Little Red Book. The provocative is linked with the dogmatic on the Orwellian network that calls it tendentious news productions “fair and balanced,” and mass demonstrations are mobilized. Sometimes Beck mutes his message, as he did at the Honor Rally, sometimes he is particularly combative, but both of his faces are backed by the appearance of certainty.
Colbert and Stewart on the other hand use humor to question dogma. Their political sympathies are clear, but this doesn’t prevent them from making fun of politicians whom they admire. Stewart is outrageously funny by being outrageously moderate with this comment on the rally’s Web site:
We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.
The form is more important than the content, and it is precise.
Postman thought that network television necessarily needed to amuse its audience to keep its attention. He thought that “public discourse in the age of show business” (the subtitle of his book) would necessarily be un-serious and diminished as a result. I was never convinced, but I am sure that we are seeing something else, a contest, now, in which the cable news programs that preach to the converted are polarizing and atomizing our politics using a form which is dogmatic and deadly serious. In this situation, the forms of comedy, amusement and satire are life-giving antidotes, as Stewart and Colbert reveal.