Spare some pity for Trevor Noah. He got thrown into the deep end at The Daily Show where he'll replace Jon Stewart -- as we just learned. Won't be easy. How to summarize Stewart's achievement? I'd say: he popularized Chomsky.
For decades Noam Chomsky and other lonely academics rabbited on about the hidden agendas of U.S. mainstream media: the New York Times and the rest were as propagandistic as Soviet media, without the excuse of overt state coercion. It had an impact but it was limited. Then along comes Stewart and attains the same effect -- mostly by playing back the day's news and reacting with befuddlement, rage, above all hilarity, multiplied by his live audience sharing his reactions and presto: Chomskian skepticism meets the masses.
It's always been striking how many non-Americans inhabit the show: Canadians Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, Brit John Oliver, now South African Noah. It's like all the Canadians who've anchored Saturday Night Live for 40 years, starting with Lorne Michaels. Why did they do so well with satire there: better than they might have at home, and better than even Americans?
I'd say it's the detachment they bring with them as outsiders. Rage isn't the key to satire; it's distance. It's like Wordsworth's prescription for poetry in his 1802 manifesto for Romanticism: it begins with deep "emotion recollected in tranquillity." But that's just the start. The tranquillity slowly disappears and the emotion re-emerges as you write, accompanied by "various pleasures" and "enjoyment." It actually works for satire as well as it does for poetry -- or better. Stewart lets us enjoy those hellish events as he rummages back through them.
(This connection isn't as weird as it may sound. Wordsworth was writing as a thwarted believer in the French Revolution. He shifted from politics to nature.)
Critical Americans have a hard time reaching that Zen-like state about their own society. From my experience there during a feverish era, politicized people are so angry at the lies they were told by their own institutions -- the schools, the media -- that they often can't calm down enough for satirical purposes. They react more with Springsteenian fury when they address those issues. Stephen Colbert, I grant, pulled it off -- but not in his own skin; he transformed into an overheated, bigoted right-winger -- and kept it up for nine years!
Or take Mark Twain, (IMHO) America's greatest writer. His treatment of race and slavery is consummate. But he had his entire life, pre- and post-Civil War, to calmly process the subject. When Huck Finn decides to do the immoral thing and not send Jim back to slavery, it's satire passing into great art. But when, late in life, Twain became enraged at the rising U.S. empire -- in the Philippines, Cuba, etc. -- he lacked time to assimilate it. His many anti-imperialist writings reach for satire but come out mainly as bile: "As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich, Our god is marching on." It's an American dilemma.
But outsiders like Canadians can calm down for them, process the material and play it back. Noah embodies this recipe perfectly. He's a calm, biracial South African with an ingratiating demeanour under which he makes devastating observations. But he should be wary. The earnest, angry left has lots of bile for its own, as we saw this week over some old, lame Noah tweets on women and Jews. He opened himself to it by saying he and Stewart are "both progressives" who "think in a global space." Show those progressives (or "pwogwessives" in Alexander Cockburn's term) an opening and they'll target you. Stewart was already dismissed as insufficiently rigorous in the pwogwessive Salon this week.
I'll end on a Canadian note. My friend and political tutor Kent Rowley came of age in the 1930s, when there were high, dashed hopes among pwogs for the Canadian communist party. My own era's version was the NDP. I once moaned to Kent about how inadequate and hypocritical they were, even as they claimed to have all the answers. They're clearly not the ultimate party, I grumped. He twitched with delight and roared, "That's what we'll call it: The Ultimate Party."
How's that for post-rage, post-tranquility wit and wisdom?
This column was first published in the Toronto Star.
Image: Post Memes/flickr
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