Throughout history, the humorist has been to some degree revered in virtually every culture, and rightly so. Humor is a way of seeing reality with its masks stripped away, and it’s safe to say that Mark Twain is quoted far more often than Immanuel Kant. Court jesters were prized by their employers not only because they provided diversion from the tedium of attending royal feasts and ordering beheadings, but also because their foolery frequently contained valuable insight and implicit sage advice, often expressed more bluntly than anyone else dared.
In the contemporary era, there are few humorists more astute and audacious (and therefore more hilarious) than Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They speak boldly and hilariously not only to political power but to media power. But I repeat myself.
Recently, Stewart was a guest on Fox “News” and pointed out that Fox’s viewers are the most misinformed segment of the American population. Host Chris Wallace naturally protested. And he received some backup from a rather unlikely source: the nonpartisan fact-checking organization PolitiFact. They said Stewart was wrong, because Fox viewers rate supremely ignorant only in some studies, while in others they’re just somewhere near the bottom – which even if perfectly accurate doesn’t negate the observation that they’re the most misinformed overall.
Stewart responds as only Stewart can. Feigning humble ignorance he “apologizes” for his mistake, then casually points out some of the lies Fox has spread. And then some more, and then some more until he is visually buried under a mountain of them. But bear in mind that by no means is he listing ALL of Fox’s recent lies; he’s just enumerating SOME that PolitiFact itself has pointed out. These include two lies PolitiFact awarded its Lie Of The Year honor in 2009 and 2010 (“death panels” and “government takeover of healthcare” respectively). In other words, in order to challenge Stewart, PolitiFact had to challenge itself. Utterly surreal.
When the foremost propaganda arm of a major political party successfully masquerades as a news organization; when in fact that propaganda arm is the most popular among “news” networks in the country; when even nonpartisan watchdog groups can’t be relied on anymore, there’s only one thing to say.
Thank heavens for the comedians.
(See the sequel to this piece for the response to some of the silly reactions to it.)