Are shows like The Daily Show, Colbert Report and Real Time With Bill Maher really as alternative as people like to believe? Or do they play the part of “controlled opposition” -actually serving the forces they pretend to subvert? I don’t have the final answer, but it’s a question worth contemplating.
Political satire plays an interesting role in modern culture. It gives a mostly younger, well educated and liberal audience a chance to laugh at things like war, injustice, environmental issues and the violation of civil liberties. My point is not that these issues are too serious to be joked about. Laughter can always be therapeutic, and the notion that some subjects are taboo is itself one that inhibits freedom. But can satire sometimes be used as a way to discourage real resistance or the creation of a truly new paradigm?
In a recent essay in The New Yorker, author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that Stewart, Colbert, Saturday Night Live and the like are part of “the institutionalization of satire.” In this essay, he quotes another writer, Jonathan Coe, as saying, “Laughter is not just ineffectual as a form of protest…it actually replaces protest.”
I don’t know if I’d go that far –laughter is certainly better than mindless acquiescence. Yet it’s also easy to see how taking the position of snickering at the stupidity of mass culture, political leaders and other absurdities can indeed take the place of more substantial action.
If you really analyze what the most popular American political satirists are focusing on, you’ll see that a lot of it has more to do with matters of culture, education and even geography than ideology. This is especially apparent in the supercilious attitude of Bill Maher as he recounts the latest faux pas made by Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh. A lot of this ends up being a well educated, urban and mostly coastal (East or West) audience having a laugh at the expense of Middle Americans who shop at Walmart and watch Fox News.
In other words, a lot of the appeal of this type of satire (and all satire, perhaps) is in experiencing a rush of cultural elitism, a shared sense of being part of the hip crowd. So what’s wrong with that? We could criticize cultural elitism from an ethical, sociological or class struggle point of view, but that’s not my intention here. My point is that these contemporary political satirists are essentially playing a mind game on their fans. They are flattering their audience into a state of
appeasement and self-satisfaction.
It’s also crucial to remember that these high profile satirists are part and parcel of the American mainstream media, as much as they like to portray themselves as “alternative.” If you doubt this, consider that Jon Stewart’s annual salary is currently $30 million. How many of his “Occupy” fans who protest the bonuses of CEOs even know this?
If you need any evidence of where shows like The Daily Show Ultimately stand, consider a recent interview Stewart did with Erik Prince, founder of notorious private security company Blackwater and author of a new book (the title says it all) Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.
Stewart made a half-hearted attempt to appear like he was asking some tough questions, but it was quite apparent that the whole interview was a chance for Prince to redeem Blackwater’s image in the public eye. Watch the video below to see what Abby Martin (someone who does a real alternative news show called Breaking the Set) has to say about Stewart’s interview.
Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, along with the Fake News segment on Saturday Night Live can be fun to watch, and they do sometimes provide some much-needed humorous break from the often bleak world of current events. Some of their ironic observations might even occasionally expose something significant about how the power structure operates. But don’t mistake them for anything truly alternative.