In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been very surprised by Stewart or Colbert’s coverage of Occupy. Neither comedian has ever really offered a deep critique of our political or economic systems beyond the occasional recognition that money plays a significant role. The main reaction they go for is of the “yeah, that’s pretty fucked up” variety. In the new issue of The Baffler, Steve Almond writes about Stewart’s brand of depoliticized political humor, even going so far as to call his show a, “lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage.” It’s a good piece and it touches on many of the barriers to political mobilization created by having a media system dominated by private interests. Perhaps nothing is more revealing than The Daily Show’s pantomiming of political action. Here is a portion of Almond’s piece in the Baffler:
Having convinced more than 200,000 such folks to get off their butts and crowd the National Mall—not to mention the two and a half million who watched the proceedings on television or online—Stewart’s call to action amounted to: “If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you, I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted.” Such is the apotheosis of the Stewart-Colbert doctrine: the civic “rally” as televised corporate spectacle, with special merit badges awarded for attendance.
Bill Maher was one of the few prominent voices to call his comrades out. “If you’re going to have a rally where hundreds of thousands of people show up, you might as well go ahead and make it about something,” he said. He went on to point out the towering naïveté of their nonpartisan approach, with its bogus attempt to equate the insanity of left and right: “Martin Luther King spoke on that mall in the capital and he didn’t say, ‘Remember folks, those Southern sheriffs with the fire hoses and the German shepherds, they have a point too!’ No. He said, ‘I have a dream. They have a nightmare!’ … Liberals like the ones on that field must stand up and be counted and not pretend that we’re as mean or greedy or shortsighted or just plain batshit as they are, and if that’s too polarizing for you and you still want to reach across the aisle and hold hands and sing with someone on the right, try church.”
Maher’s dissent, all but lost amid the orgy of liberal self-congratulation, echoed Mencken’s exhortation: one must challenge the quacks to get rid of them. The reason our discourse has grown vicious, and has drifted away from matters of actual policy and their moral consequence, isn’t because of some misunderstanding between cultural factions. It is the desired result of a sustained campaign waged by corporations, lobbyists, politicians, and demagogues who have placed private gain over the common good.
In a sense, these quacks have no more reliable allies than Stewart and Colbert. For the ultimate ethos of their television programs is this: the customer is always right. We need not give in to sorrow, or feel disgust, or take action, because our brave clown princes have the tonic for what ails the national spirit. Their clever brand of pseudo-subversion guarantees a jolt of righteous mirth to the viewer, a feeling that evaporates the moment their shows end. At which point we return to our given role as citizens: consuming whatever the quacks serve up next.