Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Fighting Fire with Squirting Lapel Roses

Last year, I saw Emory philosopher Cynthia Willet give two separate lectures culled from material for her forthcoming book Comedy, Friendship, Freedom: A Democratic Political Ethics. Willet's project is philosophically astute, extrememly timely, and not a little provocative, and I am very much looking forward to the publication of her complete text. She is trying to turn our attention to the power of comedy for political change, reform, critique and to investigate the sort of "freedom" and "friendship" opened up in comedy that subverts and reformulates our more conventional notions of those concepts/practices.

Now, for most people of my generation/education/political persuarsion, the idea that comedy has some political purchase is nothing new. In fact, for many of us, the only thing standing between our day-to-day existence and total despair is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Most of my friends have themselves adopted this sharp (or, negatively stated, acerbic), quick (sloppy), biting (mean), and astute (cynical) sense of humor, which often turns an everyday conversation over beers with them into an exercise in pugilistic hilarity. Some people (namely, my father) find this generational characteristic a little off-putting--we're too loud, too mean, too enamoured with our own disillusion and, yes, a little too honest to make for good (read: polite) company. I actually respect his criticism to a degree, as I myself (like almost everyone I know) have certainly gone home and plucked the barbs out of my own ego after having been lambasted by friends... all in good fun, of course. But it is what it is. These are my people.

What Willet's work has made me think more about, however, is how much can actually be accomplished by such comedic criticism. Every night I watch Jon Stewart and I wonder: how in the world can things continue to go on like they are with this kind of truth out there? Of course, I know that the targets of Stewart's and Colbert's not-so-subtle criticisms probably don't watch their shows, or grossly misunderstand the jokes, but one would think the fact that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are such a central part of the social milieu would have some cash-out value. But, then again, maybe Stewart and Colbert are not that central. Maybe I'm just a member of the choir that they're preaching to nightly.

When I taught Media Ethics, I would show the clip of Jon Stewart's visit to the FOX exercise-in-ridiculousness show Crossfire. If you haven't seen it, you can watch it here. (And even if you have seen it, watch it again!) Stewart's dilemma in that conversation is the one that I imagine is the most insurmountable for the comedian who actually wants to effect political change-- how do I get people to take me seriously? But every time I see the clip again, I am reminded that it is one of the most brilliant, and most inspiring, moments of political confrontation that I have seen in my lifetime. It's such a perfect little concentration of all that is wrong with political discourse in our country right now... namely, that there is no "discourse." The Right caricatures and then lambasts the Left seriously, and the Left caricatures and lambasts the Right comedically. We all know who's been winning that battle for the last 6 years-- the question is, who's going to win the war?

1 comment:

John said...

First of all, infinite thanks to you, Leigh, for blogging on life in Memphis. I always knew the city was like a vast text that could be teased apart, analyzed, deconstructed, added to, but it is not a city for writers. But thank you for your rich observations. Now as far as the political scene... I can do little but enter a marginal note here. It seems to me that the issue is not that the right acts with force (hardball) and the left acts comedically (softball) but that the right once having secured power claims to be above power, political debate, the political process. Our president calls any attempt to engage him in political questions or any assertion of a position contrary to his "playing politics" as though he were somehow not a supreme political actor. There is plenty of absurdity and high irony to go around but I would say it is subtle, Kafkaesque comedy and not a matter of ridicule. It is because of the gravity of the situation that we laugh, laughter that is very close to tears.