Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why I, too, love political comedy

Check out this column at the Daily Princetonian where a teenager from Louisiana explains why she likes political comedy - and, in particular, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert:
Stewart and Colbert, through banter and parody, lay bear [sic] the typical ridiculousness and gaffes of American politics. But what took me a while to realize, perhaps because I didn’t want to become so disillusioned so early in life, is that in their banter and parodies were larger truths about our politicians. ...

Recently, Colbert was on Meet the Press for a one-on-one interview with host David Gregory. The way he explained his and Stewart’s banter-to-truth methods were spot on with what I’d always gained from their shows — whenever anything particularly ridiculous, foolish or just plain stupid occurred in the world of politics, Stewart breaks down said occurrence and Colbert reconstructs. This way Stewart is able to pick apart the absurdities, while Colbert reconstructs them so what politicians seriously said now sounds absolutely foolish. Different approaches, but the same goal. Expose and cut through the bull.

And that’s what America needs. But more specifically, what 20-something-year-olds need, because at our age all we do is cut through the bull. This is not to say our parents or professors take everything politicians’ say at face value; time and experience have probably taught them not to. But this life experience often leads to jadedness — an exhaustion of “crazy, stupid politics” so great they usually move on when another round of absurdity begins. But because young adults, college students, are so forthright, they expect, or at least hope, others will be too. Thus, when politicians attempt to beat around the bush, make seemingly impossible gaffes or just baldly lie, the works of Stewart, Colbert and all political satirists tell us, “Hey, it’s not just you. We, too, realize the incessant idiocy occurring. We feel your pain, and you don’t have to face it alone.”

What’s funny is politicians often complain about this and the “gotcha media,” as a fan favorite coined it. But really, if no one said “gotcha” to the ridiculous things politicians said, then, by default, they would become the norm. And who would want that to be the norm?

I'm a huge fan of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert myself - for much the same reason - though I'm far from being a "20-something-year-old." For that matter, so are they.

So I'm not sure how much this has to do with age. Oh, sure, young people are supposed to be idealistic, while their elders are jaded and disillusioned by what they've seen so many times before. And maybe that's true, I don't know.

But I suspect that most people my age who are apathetic about politics were always so - or pretty much, anyway. Yes, they were always social animals, so momentous events which galvanized their friends would also interest them. But did they really have a passion for politics or just a passion for fitting in?

I've always liked history, and politics is making history in real-time. For example, you learn in school about terrible Supreme Court decisions like the Dred Scott case, and you wonder how educated Americans could be so clueless. But we live in times where decisions like Citizens United will cause future schoolchildren to wonder, too.

If you love history, how could that not interest you? But how many young people really love history? Not very many, I'm sure. The people who love history will probably stay interested in politics their whole life. Those who don't will likely join the apathetic middle class. (Admittedly, some people find their interest in politics much later in life.)

Hey, I could be wrong. Maybe I've become jaded and disillusioned myself. I remember marching against the Vietnam War, but we marchers weren't a majority even then. And most of us - myself included - were there mostly because our friends were.

I was indeed disillusioned by how my generation seemed to forget... pretty much everything in the 1980s. For chrissake, we experienced the Arab oil embargo! We celebrated the first Earth Day! How could we forget all that, how could we ignore all that, for the "don't worry, be happy" philosophy of the Reagan years?

Even worse, how could we do this all over again with our head-in-the-sand approach to global warming? Gah! And that's just one example.

OK, OK, maybe I am disillusioned. But I haven't given up. And what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do for me is let me laugh at this stuff, rather than scream in rage. Laughing is a lot more pleasurable... and almost certainly more effective, too.

Here's a video clip from TYT about a white supremacist rally in North Carolina, where counter-protestors dressed as clowns. Cenk Uygur said that he hadn't been sure - at first - that clowns would intimidate the Nazis. But he was completely wrong about that (as he acknowledged, himself).

Ridicule is the one thing which would intimidate those people. After all, they wanted anger. Do you really think they didn't expect anger? That was the whole point of the rally. They would even have welcomed violence. Both would just feed into their own narrative of a race war.

But no one likes looking ridiculous. Laughing at these loons is far and away the best response to them. And that's the case with most loons, which is why Stewart and Colbert are not just funny, but also very effective. (It's abundantly clear that Fox 'News' is not happy when it's featured prominently on either of those shows.)

As much as possible, I try to include humor in this blog, too. Humor isn't always effective, and it's certainly not the only way to fight back, but it often suits me. And it's probably a lot better for my health, too. :)

But there's one other point I want to make about "becoming disillusioned so early in life" - or at all: politics is our alternative to violence.

We human beings are social animals. We live together in groups, we always have. But we don't always agree on everything (an understatement, huh?). And when we disagree about the right thing to do, the right course to take, we only have two options, violence or persuasion.

We've always used both options, to some extent, and both can be ethical or unethical. (For example, persuasion using lies is unethical. Using violence to defend against violence is usually ethical.) But as we've moved towards modern democracies, we've started using persuasion more and more, and violence less. Politics is our main alternative to violence.

Think about it. We have these angry political campaigns and these angry elections, with one side always unhappy about losing. But what happens then? They start focusing on the next election. That's how sane people in modern societies settle their differences. You might lose this time, but there's always next time.

Of course, you might need patience. Look at how long it took for women to get the vote or for racial minorities to get equal rights. But our society can change enormously if you just never give up.

OK, some visions of America do lose. The segregationists lost. Even conservatives, by and large, don't support racial segregation these days. (Then again, history isn't over, is it? Some people are still fighting that war, long after it was settled for most of us.)

But look what happens when politics breaks down. We had a horrific, bloody civil war in the 1800s, when Southerners were unwilling to accept losing an election for president. It was just an election. There would have been another one four years later. (Indeed, there was another one four years later, even in the midst of war.) But they chose violence, instead.

That's one reason why all this talk about secession is so ridiculous. We went through all this once before. (And it was about black people then, too. Funny, huh? Although, given the Republican Party's notorious 'Southern strategy,' that's no coincidence.)

Most Americans have little experience with war these days, even as we continue to fight them. And almost none of us have first-hand experience with a civil war. I suppose we've just become complacent in our ignorance, huh? But it's still astonishing to have this wild talk about secession, isn't it? (Admittedly, it's just talk. Even the supporters aren't crazy enough to actually mean it, I suspect.)

But this is why no one should get disillusioned with politics. For all its flaws, it's politics or war, basically. Those are our two options. So laugh at politics. Ridicule politicians. Grimace in disgust. But never forget the alternative. The alternative would be far, far worse.

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