Barry’s Blog # 4: Funny Guys

I enjoy watching Jon Stewart preaching to the choir as much as anyone. However, I never expect any authentic, radical commentary from him, for three reasons.

First, the fact that he never mentions the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in office) indicates the limits of his criticism of American policies that have been remarkably consistent, if hypocritical, since the end of World War Two.

Second, and perhaps more fundamental, is his policy of regularly inviting creeps like Bill O’Reilly as well as government spokespersons and representatives of the corporate media onto his show for debate. Stewart is first and foremost an entertainer, and no one should expect him to jeopardize his own status.

Now I have nothing against “reasoned debate,” but by doing this, he gives them and their positions legitimacy before the camera and the millions who watch it, a legitimacy that they neither need (they get plenty of exposure on their own) nor deserve. This expresses what I call “liberal innocence” — the insistence, despite all evidence, that conservatives (I prefer the term “reactionaries”) and liberals will sort out “the facts” in a disengaged, orderly, intellectual process, on a “level playing field.” The unedited history of the last sixty years should show anyone who is willing to look that the Right has never played by the “rules” and never will. Naively hoping that they will only solidifies our sense of innocence and leads ultimately to disillusionment with the political process itself.

Stewart has a clear function within the corporate media: to constantly remind his viewers of the limits of acceptable discourse, meaning from far-right to moderately liberal.

I also enjoy(ed) watching Keith Olberman and Rachel Maddow trash right-wingers with their devastating wit. However, the fact that they rarely criticiz(ed) the Obama administration (whose fundamental policies and financial supporters are not significantly different from its predecessors) indicates a similar kind of innocent refusal, even denial, to rock the boat. By skewering right-wingers without acknowledging either collusion by Democrats or authentic left-wing alternatives, they serve the function of all the media: to constrict the terms of debate to a fraction of the spectrum and give the impression that we have real freedom of expression in this country.

But ultimately, Olberman was deemed unacceptably liberal to his corporate bosses, who fired him in January. And who was given the task of letting the public know just why it was good riddance? Why, John Stewart (<div style=”background-color:#000000;width:520px;”><div style=”padding:4px;”></div></div>), who slammed Olberman for his “bombast” and “rage,” thereby solidifying his own position as the arbiter of reasoned discourse. Here is the third reason why I never expect to hear any real criticism of corporate power in America from him. Many parents told their activist children in the 1960s, “We approve of your goals but not of your methods.” In attacking Olberman’s style,Stewart instructed the audience that, as bad as things may be, one would be wrong to even feel rage, or by extension, to feel anything at all, other than then mild (if short-lived) euphoria after having had a good laugh, let alone to act upon it.

So I will nominate Stephen Colbert as the only funny guy/fake newsman who actually slips some real criticism into his schtick. By pretending to be a conservative conversing with conservatives, he is able to reveal them as the thugs they really are, without giving them legitimacy. It’s a subtle difference between him and Stewart, but, I think, a very important one: parody vs. satire. Colbert is a subversive: he undermines the dominant discourse and gets away with it, at least occasionally. I suspect that the only thing that keeps him employed is his high ratings.

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