That time is again upon us when car, make-up, and insurance commercials are momentarily sidelined to make way for content-less, image-shaping, political advertisements; when millions of bumpers across this great land will be drafted in an attempt to create the illusion that a candidate has wide-spread support (isn’t the logic of a bumper sticker, “I think this guy’s so worthy of my vote that I’ll attach his name to the back of my car. If I’m willing to go that far, you should vote for him too!”?); when presidential candidates meet on national television to debate issues which will affect the lives of millions of people, but are only allowed a few minutes to state their arguments and are given even time less for rebuttals.
Of all the negative affects modern media has had upon the political process and elections, perhaps the most disturbing and dangerous in my opinion is the way satire has become our dominant form of political discourse. Satire has long been a significant part of a society’s expression of political opinion. Political cartoons are about as old as cartoons themselves. I am not saying that satire itself is bad for politics; but what happens when the dominate way people engage, learn about, and take a stand on political issues is through satire?
In Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, he makes the claim that the medium of television is naturally suited for entertainment, and therefore everything you put on television will eventually resort to entertainment as a chief end. When it seeks to educate, TV entertains by teaching us only what is “interesting”–and usually with a catchy tune; when it seeks to present facts or news, TV entertains by dramatizing and glamorizing; and when it seeks to discuss political issues, TV entertains with satire.
Consider the fact that two of the most important (influential at least) shows on television which deal with politics, The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, are both satires. If you doubt the influence of Stewart and Colbert, just contemplate the fact that Colbert’s
I Am America (And So Can You!) is on the top of the New York Time’s best sellers list right now, with less than a year until the presidential election. What book are people turning to for political guidance? The one written by comedian and TV celebrity, Stephen Colbert. In addition to these shows, we have Michael Moore’s films, satirical shirts, bumper stickers, slogans, etc… Lets, face it politics are boring and laughing is fun.
Alright, so satire is funny and popular, but you might ask, what about the “real” news? CNN and MSNBC? Or what about when people have conversations with family and friends? Surely satire is contained to Comedy Central, YouTube and bumper stickers!
Certainly there are times when viewers watch shows which are genuinely informative, and people do have meaningful political conversations still; however, I can’t help but wonder how often these “serious” political engagements are free from a satirical attitude. I would imagine that even when most people watch “real” news shows, on CNN or MSNBC, they create their own running satirical commentary (out loud or in their head), filling in the humor that the shows fail to provide. And when they talk to friends or family about politics, I would wager that the issues and arguments they express are often carry the language and tone of the Daily Show.
If satire has always been a part of the political process, what’s the big deal if it has become the main way we engage politics? The danger I believe is not in the satire itself, but in the way that it makes us feel as if we are being politically active when we laugh. When we laugh at political satire it is as if we are voting or protesting. A commentator (the comedian, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert…) points out an issue satirically and by laughing we agree with them and enter into a chorus of laughter across the country.
Laughter is powerful. When we laugh we speak out into the world; it is an action. We are doing something. Reading a book or watching a strictly serious news program is typically a silent affair. But satire allows us to literally voice an opinion. In addition, laughter has the tremendous effect of trivializing serious issues and powerful figures. Laugh at a tyrant and he seems to lose all his power for a moment. We feel as if we are doing something about a problem by mocking it, or more specifically, laughing as someone else mocks it, when we are only being entertained. The danger then is that people will stop at laughter (and I personal know many who have done just this). They might have a strong political belief, but the cathartic effect of satire expunges them from any desire to change anything about the world.
Politics is distressing and boring; people need a way to both express their frustration about the way the nation is run and also have a good time doing it. And since we’re all incredibly busy, it would be nice if this political expression wasn’t too time consuming or costly. With satire we can feel as if we are taking a political stand with a minimum investment of time or energy, all while being entertained. Perhaps the best way to bring a nation to its knees is convince its citizens that they are being politically responsible when they’re merely laughing on the couch.
I’m not advocating a ban on the Daily Show or satire in general, but it is my sincere hope and prayer that we would be discerning about how we engage politics. If we think our government is being unjust we have many ways to seek change and I believe we are obligated to act (read some Old Testament books of prophesy for God’s opinion of unjust governments); however, we must remember that all the effective methods of change are costly and are usually not particularly entertaining. In the end I would rather have a nation full of people who support a political system I am opposed to than a nation of people whose political action begins and ends with laughing as Jon Stewart points out the latest foibles and follies of politicians.