It’s the end of the world. Do we want to laugh or know what’s happening? How about both? How about neither?
Television personalities Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear Oct. 30, an event made in response to Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally. Stewart and Colbert’s rally, which started separately and eventually unified, is serious about how unserious American politics are — a bizarre act of pop-political performance art.
For them, Beck’s rally was a joke. Theirs is the punchline, and the only way to fully understand the inherit ridiculousness of his event is to host one in similar terrain, only with self-awareness.
Here’s the thing, though: When you are mobilizing the youth, when you’ve become the beacon of bipartisan commentary, when you’ve preached detachment from political ideology, you’ve become something aside from an entertainer: you’re a pundit.
So what becomes of the satire? If satire is the art of saying something fake and pretending it’s real in order to make a point, then what do we make of a rally that is real but pretends it’s fake in order to make a point?
This paradox is a problem. But it’s indicative of a larger one: We can’t differentiate between what is opinion and what is news. If your job is to entertain by making fun of political rallies, what happens when you then throw a political rally? How are we left to distinguish between entertainment and news?
The days of Cronkite are gone. We ignore the unbias voices of reason in favor of commentators who use extremity as a way to gain trust. The layman logic is this: The louder you are, the angrier you are. And if you’re angry, then you must be right. So what is the difference between Beck and Stewart, especially now that they’re both yelling? Stewart is making fun of those people, sure. He’s reminded us on many occasions that his show is meant to be entertainment, that it’s merely making fun of things that actually matter. His goal is to “criticize the loud folks [who] over the years dominated our national conversation on our most important issues.”
But media is not news. News is not media. They can throw parties at the same time, but neither should be attending the other’s. When a right-wing commentator starts commentating, are they speaking on behalf of their party or their opinion?
Stewart and Colbert are supposed to be are the types of pundits who know that pundits are meaningless. But while they think they’re the answer, Stewart and Colbert are, in actuality, symptoms of the problem, where we don’t take our politicians’ rhetoric seriously, so we instead turn to our comedians looking for that seriousness. What we need is distance. We need a gap between the people like Stewart who understand the intricacies of satire because they’ve made a career of pointing out the existent ridiculousness in non-satirists. This is the blending of new and old media — of journalists who are here to tell a story and personalities striving for viral infamy.
They aren’t the news — they’re the reactions to how others are dispensing the news. They’re the critique. The commentators they’re making fun of shouldn’t be considered primary news sources. But the comedians making fun shouldn’t be holding political rallies. Here’s what we’re supposed to know: The right is crazy and always yells. The left is just as crazy, and sometimes yells even louder. The middle stays cynical.
Yet this sudden surge of right-wing spectacle commentators is a response to Colbert and Stewart having become media messiahs for the left. They’ve dominated the liberal youth, and the only way to fight fire is with louder fire. So are Colbert and Stewart commenting on a monster that they’ve essentially helped build? Is Colbert helping their cause or hurting it? And, most importantly, are these even questions worth asking in a topsy-turvy political climate?
We’ve become an era unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality — we went from living on farms to living online — and now our information is melding into spectacle, all in the hopes that irony will be its saving grace. We know to laugh at something that’s wrong, but after we’re done, how do we know what’s right? And how do we know how to fix it?
Stewart and Colbert. Beck and Olbermann. These are not journalists. They are not political figures. They are entertainers: clowns in three-piece suits. The only difference is that two of them know it, and two of them don’t. So why is everyone so loud?