Political satire has a long and honorable history: Aristophanes, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift; W.S. Gilbert; George Orwell; Tom Lehrer, David Frost, and That Was the Week That Was; George Carlin; Spitting Image, Yes, Minister; the Smothers Brothers; the early Saturday Night Live, Dave Barry, The Onion, South Park, Family Guy, and so many more. Unfortunately, while it would be a slight exaggeration to say that political satire is dead in America, it’s been on the critical list for some time. That’s too bad. We need it more than ever.
Throughout history, satirists have risked their liberty and even their lives using humor to engage in deep commentary about the reigning political system and its exalted political figures—they’re called leaders, though surely better terms are rulers and misleaders. But no satirist risks his life or liberty in America today, which makes the scarcity of good satire so puzzling. Is it fear that keeps it safely limited? Or is it simply that so few people today can see the fundamental flaws in the American political system, which trashes liberty in so many ways?
You tell me.
By now most people who pay attention to these things know that The Daily Show’s host, Jon Stewart, who is probably regarded as America’s premier political satirist, felt it necessary to recant after apparently uttering a heresy according to America’s civic religion: democracy.
In an election-day interview on CNN, Christiane Amanpour asked Stewart if he had voted. He said, “No”—to which Amanpour reacted with (or perhaps feigned) amazement, “No?!”
Stewart continued, “I just moved. I don’t even know where my thing is now.”
That night on his own show, Stewart, after assuring his audience that he has known where “his thing” is since age 13, acknowledged that his answer created “a bit of a story.” So he felt compelled to say,
To set the record straight, I did vote today.… I was being flip, and it kind of took off. I shouldn’t have been flip about that.… It sent a message that I didn’t think voting was important or that I didn’t think it was a big issue. And I do, and I did vote. I was being flip, and I shouldn’t have done that. That was stupid. So, I apologize.
Where to begin?
First off, how did his flip answer create “a bit of a story”? He’s a comedian for heaven’s sake! Several nights a week he makes fun of politicians and government bungling! He does flip for a living! Who got upset with his reply, aside from U.S. Secretary of War Amanpour? Whether one believed Stewart’s answer or not, how in the world was it the stuff of public controversy? Does no one have a sense of humor? Must he say “just kidding” after every sentence?
Maybe one reason political satire is so scarce is that Americans don’t get it. Paul Fussell, who wrote excellent books on how war degrades culture, said that World War II killed Americans’ sense of irony. (See his Wartime.) We have here good evidence for Fussell’s claim.
But even allowing for the irony-impairment of American culture, did Stewart really feel he had to apologize? Did he think he’d lose his audience if he became known as one who is “flip” about the holy rite of voting? I realize that ratings are a matter of life and death, but come on. I doubt that his career was in jeopardy. He might have even picked up a few viewers.
My son, Ben Richman, a fine rock guitarist who also has a keen eye for politics, had a different take on Facebook:
I don’t think he was giving into public pressure, either. I think he genuinely felt that joking about it was wrong. At the end of the day, Stewart loves the system.
I’m inclined to agree. Stewart can be funny when he pokes fun at politicians for their gaffes and indiscretions, and occasionally he ventures into a minefield. (He’s done some surprisingly good stuff on Israel.) But if you watch closely, you’ll see that he doesn’t plunge the dagger in too deep. He is a man of the system, a progressive, of course. Thus, he believes government is good, the more active the better. He rarely gets down to fundamentals, and on the rare occasion when he does, he quickly retreats.
Remember when in 2009 he called President Harry Truman a “war criminal” for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed or maimed nearly 200,000 Japanese civilians? Now, actually that statement was neither satirical nor ironic. It was the unvarnished truth. Truman’s victims threatened no one, and the war was essentially over. Yet those civilians were subjected to the most ghastly of fates. Some were vaporized on the spot, literally leaving only their shadows behind. And don’t forget that Truman dropped the second bomb three days later. He considered dropping a third, but decided he didn’t want to kill any more children. Reading about what the victims’ experienced will turn your stomach, if you have a scintilla of decency in you.
But, nevertheless, Stewart recanted a couple of days later. On his program he said,
The other night … I may have mentioned during the discussion we were having that Harry Truman was a war criminal. And right after saying it, I thought to myself that was dumb. And it was dumb. Stupid in fact. So I shouldn’t have said that, and I did. So I say right now, no, I don’t believe that to be the case. The atomic bomb, a very complicated decision in the context of a horrific war, and I walk that back because it was in my estimation a stupid thing to say.… Sorry.
Stewart did not bother to explain why the statement was “stupid” (he also called his voting remark stupid) or why Truman’s decision was “complicated”; that’s what every Truman apologist says. But we know what Stewart meant. In America’s civic religion, it is heresy to talk about an American war as though it was a massive series of crimes committed by “our” misleaders. You must not say that. Actually, that’s not it. You must not think that. Two and two is five. Never forget it.
Yes, it is permissible to say the war in Vietnam (never WWII, however) was a blunder, a colossal mistake. But don’t say it was mass murder and a humongous criminal operation. Don’t say the perpetrators should be brought to justice. Noam Chomsky did that and was thenceforth barred from publications that had regularly published him. It is a rare mainstream publication that would let you say that Bush 43, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, Tenet, Petraeus, McChrystal, et al. should be hauled before the International Criminal Court to stand trial for their wars of aggression against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Has Nuremberg been erased from the history books? (Since writing this, I’ve been reminded of Stewart’s obsequiousness before court historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin.)
Getting back to Stewart and voting: his remark was actually pretty lame. All he said was that he couldn’t vote because he didn’t know where the polls were in his new location. He didn’t say he was happy about it. He could have said,
Did I vote? Of course I voted! Would I pass up a critical opportunity to add my one single drop of water to the vast ocean? Why, every vote counts! Had I stayed home, the whole country—heck, the whole world—might be different. You must be crazy to think I’d let that happen.
That would have been satire. But it also would have struck too deep at America’s civic religion, which holds that trudging faithfully to the polls every few years is the be-all and end-all of freedom. (That voting majorities by nature must violate the rights of voting minorities and nonvoters is curiously overlooked.)
What I wouldn’t give to see Americans react to Emma Goldman saying on television, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” No doubt she’d be burned at the stake.
Excuse me, but I grew up watching George Carlin. So call me spoiled. Jon Stewart is to George Carlin what Joe Scarborough is to H.L. Mencken.
Here’s how Carlin handled politics:
I don’t vote. On Election Day, I stay home. I firmly believe that if you vote, you have no right to complain. Now, some people like to twist that around. They say, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain,” but where’s the logic in that? If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent politicians, and they get into office and screw everything up, you are responsible for what they have done. You voted them in. You caused the problem. You have no right to complain. I, on the other hand, who did not vote—who did not even leave the house on Election Day—am in no way responsible for what these politicians have done and have every right to complain about the mess that you created.
George, we need you.