It was a relief to finally read something that reminds us that comedy is not dissent. This piece by Sugarman echoes a critique I wrote some months ago – and for which I was summarily mocked, about John Oliver and his treatment of the issue of state surveillance of American citizens, and later, on his rather bizarre and right-wing interview of Snowden.
In the first piece I had argued that:
“Comedy denudes issues of urgency and the human will to act. It finds a way to make us laugh at torture, social deprivation, racism, war and murder. It makes acceptable what ought to be intolerable and seduced us into a place where we come to believe that describing and articulating something as a joke is an act. and it lets us feel that having laughed, we have somehow done and acted. for after all, we laughed st the fools and that sets us apart from them.
Comedy has become the anesthesia our capitalist societies are given so that we can accept the unacceptable. So that we can indulge in inaction while thinking we are acting. Comedy is the posture we adopt when critical thinking and critical engagement are lost.”
And at the risk of repeating myself, I argued again about a segment he did with Snowden:
“Under the guise of holding a serious debate, but cleansed and disarmed by jokes that immediately follow any time anything serious is said, Oliver becomes responsible for disarming us entirely. He does this throughout the entire episode. If you watch, you can’t help but notice how this works. It is as if he cannot allow the serious statement to stand, or believes that we as audiences are there to listen to the serious issues. That instead, what we are there for, is entertainment.
And in the end, this is what we get. Entertainment. Oliver is taking on serious issues, but then intentionally under-cutting them with jokes that reduces their meaning, and erases their impact on us. We laugh, and during that laughter, we release our sense of responsibility and engagement.
Oliver hypocritically says that we have to have this conversation, but he repeatedly blocks his own arguments with trite and silly jokes. He undermines his own public position. “
And yet again, on during an interview he did with General Keith Alexander:
“There are many who think that parody is political dissent and criticism. Jon Stewart has made a career out of this, and many commentators have pointed out how comedy television is really the only place where political criticism and dissent can be heard loud and clear. This is a pathetic and sad state of affairs for our democracy. What people who watch these programs do not seem to realise that parody undermines dissent, and deflate it of meaning. It certainly distracts from the need for action and the venues for achieving it.”
So when Sugarman points out that:
“But even Stewart understood the limits of his influence. In one of the “The Daily Show’s” more memorable segments, he addressed the media’s fantasies about his work. “The world is demonstrably worse than when I started,” he observed, not a little forlornly. Which is why the seemingly endless barrage of late-night slayings, maulings and disembowelments are so thoroughly maddening. Taken in their totality, these news items read like an expression of collective myopia if not outright delusion, and betray a poverty of ideas in addressing the increasingly violent rise of Trumpism or worse: a complacency with the present course.”
I am really grateful to finally see that someone is willing to wake us up from this false sense of ‘action’ and ‘engagement’, when in fact what we are really doing is stunning ourselves into apathy, and are laughing ourselves into our own messes!