As Jon Stewart leaves the stage, we have a chance to reflect on his legacy. News comedy is much older than Stewart, but Stewart became not just a superstar but—for some Americans—a lodestar. How could that be?
Perhaps because, as Richard Rorty noted, we live in the age of irony. To Rorty, this meant that we must look askance at all and any truth claims. Americans just know better. The age of irony is, as Daniel Rodgers has shown, part of a larger “age of fracture” in which we learned to distrust the institutions that had once structured our lives. Before the 1970s, Americans had thought of themselves as having “common purposes and socially entangled lives.” But as we lost confidence in our institutions, “concepts of human nature that had been thick with context, social circumstance, and history gave way to an understanding that emphasized choice, agency, performance, language, and desire.” It became harder for Americans to “imagine spheres of collective solidarity—class, neighborhood, or the common good.” And this corrosive cultural force transformed politics and ideas on right and left.
As serious journalists lost their jobs and television news became twenty-four-hour entertainment, there was no reason to take seriously the media’s coverage of politics. In fact, it was hard to tell the difference between politics and entertainment. If politicians were confident that they could, in the words of one Bush aide, “create [their] own reality,” what point was there in digging deeper for some underlying truth? We knew we were being had. As Stewart put it, “bullshit is everywhere.”
Americans did not expect much from public and private institutions, much less from our leaders, so it did not shock us when they lived up (or down) to our expectations. Exposing truth, the journalists’ primary aspiration, was not enough. We had no way to make sense of American democracy’s sick state. At least, there was no way to do so seriously because there seemed no place for serious analysis.
And that’s where Stewart stepped in. He was serious, as Robin Marie points out in her post on the US Intellectual History blog. Perhaps he was more serious than the rest of us. He condemned the failures of the mainstream media. He believed that public officials had to be held accountable for their actions. He believed intelligence belonged in the public sphere. He was not joking.
But that’s not why he was so popular. Instead, what mattered was that he allowed his viewers to turn away from our democracy’s problems, to laugh them off. He was right and he was needed. He offered solace for a suffering people. Those of us who watched the show had to laugh because it was the only resource we had left. To laugh it off meant to lighten the load for a minute. It also helped us feel wiser. As Lisa Colletta writes in the Journal of Popular Culture, by being “made conscious of the constructed nature of meaning and its own participation in the appearance of things,” The Daily Show’s viewers participated in the “in the self-referential irony that characterizes most of our cultural output today.” In other words, we have come to care most about what Stewart called “the theater of it all.”
What The Daily Show did not do was convince us that political change was possible. We had already given up. And Stewart convinced us that it was appropriate to do so. The Daily Show was liberating because it assuaged our disempowerment and made us feel righteous about it. Our deepest anxieties were confirmed. Our skepticism was reinforced.
Once upon a time, journalists would not have considered all this a laughing matter—and most still don’t. But in the age of irony we no longer believe that knowing the truth will make things better. We just want in on the joke. And that’s why a comedian, not a journalist, was the only one we could trust. And, like so many other Americans, I am thankful that he was there when I needed him.