Why Colbert and Stewart matter to politics

Newspin
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

By the time this goes to press, political satirists John Stewart and Stephen Colbert will have conducted their “March to Restore Sanity” and the “Rally to Keep Fear Alive,” respectively, in Washington, D.C. Seen by many as a direct response to Glenn Beck’s rally in the same city on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Stewart explained in a recent interview on National Public Radio, such a mindset gives Beck too much credit.

Sure, he’s great fodder for comedy, says Stewart, but Beck’s rhetoric really lacks any more substance than the comedy shows that parody him, though it’s arguable that Beck isn’t in on the joke.

For those who see the emergence of more vocal conservative pundits and politicians as distressing, figures like Beck, Sarah Palin and the like as fodder for derision and even fear, it seems that the tea ,party movement is giving such people a platform that is bending the public’s ear, and for some, the prospect of someone who listens to Fox News as a legitimate source of “fair and balanced” information is nothing short of terrifying.

Not so, argues Stewart. He suggests that the worry about a Palin presidency or the like actually is overblown. If we can survive a civil war among other things, he says, we can live through a less-than-capable conservative presidency.

Sounds strangely familiar, in a way, actually.

In fact, there’s a case to be made that electing someone like Palin or Delaware’s GOP senate candidate Christine O’Donnell might actually be good medicine. If moderates and progressives already are asleep at the wheel after only two years to the point that they’ll let more extreme leaders win political office, perhaps the wakeup call of the 2000-08 Bush presidency wasn’t harsh enough.

All of this begs the question: Why do the media and those who consume their product seem content to reduce political figures to little more than caricatures, and to establish fear and contempt as the baseline emotions upon which our political system operates?

Because it’s easier than taking the time and effort to learn about issues of any real importance and substance.

Who wants to read about the latest arbitration over water rights when we can follow the developing story about O’Donnell’s dalliances with witchcraft or her positions, so to speak, on masturbation? Why debate the appropriateness of NAFTA or how to tackle immigration reform when it’s so much more fun to speculate about Barack Obama’s birth certificate or read an e-il about how he’s a closet Muslim?

This dumbing down of the American voter would be easy to blame either on politics or the media, but I’d argue it’s only a viable market because we, the end-user, have created such a demand.

In a culture where People Magazine outsells The New Yorker four-to-one and there are two Maxim subscribers for every U.S. News & World Report reader, it’s easier to put analysis and critical thought into its proper perspective. And while the emotional tide of good feeling that helped usher Obama into the White House was heartening in many ways, it’s also discouraging to see how quickly such fickle emotion can fade.

And, yes, this is an entirely appropriate time to point out the irony of my observations in the pages of an alt-monthly that also contains columns on sex, nightlife and the related fluff that accompanies them. No more ironic, I suppose, than the fact that some of our most poignant contemporary political commentary comes from 30-minute shows on Comedy Central that sandwich their wry observations between fart jokes and hyperbole.

John Adams, James Madison and other of our political progenitors are no doubt turning in their graves over the dim-witted offspring their revolutionary system of governance, based upon the nobility of human integrity and the value of rigorous intellectual debate, have now produced.

In a culture where substance takes at least second chair to sensational rhetoric and character assassination, those who shout loudest garner the brightest spotlight. Politics has entered the compressed news cycle as one more distraction to be picked from an ever-running stream of detritus when we have a moment. The winners in such a context are those shiny morsels that grab our attention, which helps explain why every political speech now sounds like a string of unrelated sound bytes.

Sometimes, we have to laugh to keep from crying, which is why I’m grateful for people like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Love or hate their take on issues, it’s hopeful to have a pair of comedians who have the nerve to point out that the political emperor has no clothes, or, in this case, no substance.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.


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