In what can only be described as the corruption of politics, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had a “sanity rally” recently to energize Democrats and counter the Glenn Beck “Restoring Honor” rally conducted in August. With an unofficial crowd estimated at 200,000, Colbert launched the event by arriving on stage in a capsule like a rescued Chilean miner from an underground bunker. He pretended to distrust all Muslims until basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who is Muslim, came on stage. “Maybe I need to be more discerning,” Colbert mused, then turning to Stewart to scold: “Your reasonableness is poisoning my fear.”
For many at this rally, it was an opportunity to take control of a the political narrative, if only for one afternoon. The liberals had their moment in the sun. Absurdist views along with protest placards seemed to suggest frustration with the leadership in the Democratic party that many described as timid, fearful and unwilling to stand behind President Obama.
Alex Foxworth, a 26 year old doctoral student from Richmond, Va., summed it up by noting: “The battle for the American mind right now is between talk show hosts and comedians. I choose the comedians.”
Alas, that is precisely how many in the nation view politics of the moment. All aspects of life from campaigns to social exchange have become a form of amusement. Serious discussion is immediately thought of as ideology and hence rejected as bias and propaganda. In the final volume of Winston Churchill’s “The Second World War” he has as a subtitle “How the Great Democracies Triumphed and So Were Able to Resume the Follies Which Has so Nearly Cost Them Their Life.” The rally in Washington was merely one manifestation of the follies. It was not an isolated event, but rather part and parcel of a pattern found in all of the mass media: continuous amusement.
Hillel Belloc, observing this contemporary condition, said, “We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh, we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile.”
Yes, we laugh at the comic inversions and excoriating certitudes; we admire the comedians. But there is a backdrop for this rally of satirists; it is comprised of historical forces that often do not take kindly to the destruction of normative judgment. It is especially harsh with the display of hubris which the gods never forgive.
In writing about The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism Max Weber noted that in the final stage of this evolution, it might truly be said: “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” Is this where we are at the moment – laughing at the nullity and assuming we have reached a higher level of civilization?
Oscar Wilde once argued that “when bad ideas have nowhere to go they gravitate to American universities and become courses.” Surely there is truth in this claim, but only a partial truth. Bad ideas emerge as satire when the nation engages in nervous laughter about what to believe and comedians provide the course for the future.
When every condition is a joke, the nation is in trouble. Americans need relief from quotidian tension; they also need serious reflection on the present state of affairs.