Vail Daily column: Civics 101: Cut the BS
During a 16-year-run on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart taught Civics 101. Using a comic’s touch, he stayed on message. Our Republic can’t flourish if leaders don’t work with their rivals, he emphasized. Stewart lampooned political leaders who broke this rule.
He practiced what the Bible advises: “to shun profane and vain babblings” (II Timothy 2:16). Stewart crystallized quaint scriptural language to its core. “Cut the BS,” he declared.
Before signing off for the final time on “The Daily Show,” Stewart began his show in a trademark way. Seated behind a fake-news desk, the comedian shuffled papers as he went on the air.
Stewart used those out-of-order, never-neatly-stacked notes as a metaphor. They stood for politicians who BS because they don’t know what they’re talking about. So their comments are strewn all over the map, like Stewart’s fistful of messy papers. He satirized blathering that stunk. Its scent lacked the aroma of what’s true, honest and of right character.
Winner of 20 Emmys for compelling writing, “The Daily Show” featured keen wit. It poked fun of pompous politicians who carried on like preening rock stars. Stewart’s lampooning made viewers laugh and those cringe who took the brunt of his barbs.
His satirical mastery rivaled that of the Irish cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) who detested the English. Swift wrote “Gulliver’s Travels” to straighten out crooked politicians in Parliament and deflate leaders who were too full of themselves.
Stewart’s satire wasn’t as savage as Swift’s, but its mockery of BS-ers proved effective, funny and true. He deplored religious smugness and made fun of ludicrous politicians. Stewart’s verbal grenades blew apart their silly pretensions.
How did his satire, like a sharp knife, cut through BS?
“‘The Daily Show’ used satire and exhaustive research of video clips to break down manias stretching from Bush v. Gore to Ebola,” writes media commentator James Poniewozik. “Any honest media critic knew that Stewart was doing the job better than the rest of us. His show turned TV’s own tools and language against it to spotlight buffoonery and bad faith, hot air and hypocrisy” (Time Magazine).
Like a pit bull’s bite, Stewart didn’t let go of his lesson in Civics 101. He demanded national leaders state their differences, find common ground through compromise, work with rivals to correct injustices and let Uncle Sam’s resources help citizens down on their luck.
Stewart often played the role of the “fool” in Shakespeare’s plays, the zany guy who speaks the truth. He came across like a feisty uncle who exposes political fabrications that hoodwinks voters.
This comedian’s satire wasn’t jaded or mean. It cut a reasonable path.
On the National Mall during the 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in politics, Stewart described New Yorkers headed into Manhattan’s Holland Tunnel. Drivers who lay on their horns or curse slow cars ahead don’t move traffic along. They mess it up, creating logjams that stall cars in long lines.
Stewart repeated his Civics 101 lesson. “Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear, often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers. And yet, these millions of cars must somehow squeeze one-by-one into a mile-long, 30-foot wide tunnel carved underneath the mighty river, carved by people, who I’m sure, by the way, had their differences. And they do it, concession by concession.”
Thomas Jefferson taught Stewart’s Civics 101. He barely won a nasty presidential campaign in 1800. Christian conservatives damned him as a religious radical because of his unconventional faith. The Gazette of the United States slammed Jefferson as a heathen. Headlines warned: “Choose “God — and a religious president” (namely, incumbent John Adams) or “Jefferson — and no God.”
Jefferson didn’t bite on these taunts. He took the oath of office and gave a conciliatory inaugural address. He declared, “Let us, then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind … . Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists (the opposing political parties in the presidential election of 1800).
Stewart, exuding Jefferson’s collaborative spirit, closed his last show using pithy, earthy language. He rehearsed Civics 101. “Bulls— is everywhere,” he declared. “There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been infused with BS.”
Varieties of verbal manure stink up life. They make bad things sound good, rationalize complacency and act as if fights against injustice are defeated before they start.
Stewart closed “The Daily Show” with good news. “The best defense against BS is vigilance,” he declared. The comedian deputized viewers to take his satirical baton and continue the race by refuting BS. Urging vigilance, Stewart charged viewers to speak up. It doesn’t matter if they talk out-of-turn. Speaking up earns them a passing grade in Civics 101.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.