When Jon Stewart quit the Daily Show, the satirical news and comedy show he hosted for 16 years until August 2015, he explained to his replacement, Trevor Noah, that he was tired – and angry at the state of politics and political discourse in the US. As Noah reported:
He said ‘I’m leaving because I’m tired.’ And he said, ‘I’m tired of being angry.’ And he said, ’I’m angry all the time. I don’t find any of this funny. I do not know how to make it funny right now, and I don’t think the host of the show, I don’t think the show deserves a host who does not feel that it is funny.‘
Stewart is clearly no longer tired. And he has channelled his anger into passion for a cause: he is now a fierce advocate for the James Zadroger 9/11 Health Compensation Act.
On June 12, he appeared in front of Congress, which was sitting to discuss the extension of the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Fund for 9/11 first responders and survivors. The committee witnessed testimonies from a physician, a firefighter’s widow, and Luis Alvarez, a retired NYPD detective, who was due to start his 69th round of chemotherapy after developing cancer from working at Ground Zero.
The testimonies offered a powerful insight into the health problems of those who were exposed to the toxic air where the World Trade Centre buildings collapsed. But it was Stewart’s impassioned speech to Congress that went viral.
The media’s fixation with Stewart’s testimony isn’t attributed to his celebrity news value, but the symbolic capital he built since his time on The Daily Show. As chief news anchor, Stewart built a reputation as an important satirical voice and incisive social commentator to a generation that had grown tired of sensationalised news and vitriolic politics.
Hitting the funny bone
The essential ingredient of Stewart’s scathing political critiques was humour; it helped create a bond with the audience as he used his platform to comedically articulate citizen anger towards elite institutions. Subsequently, the humour acted as a form of relief, offering the audience temporary respite from the current political environment by inviting them to laugh at those in power.
It is was the inclusion of humour that made Stewart’s work a potent form of political criticism because it made the aggressiveness of the message more palatable to the satirical targets. This is why Stewart was able to land critical blows on air that journalists couldn’t – because he defied the conventions of traditional journalism while speaking to audiences in a language they identified with.
Stewart has always been quick to downplay his cultural impact, responding modestly that he just “writes jokes about the news” and that his role as a TV satirist was limited to criticising targets rather than building something positive. Perhaps that was why he decided to turn to advocacy when he quit nightly comedy.
While Stewart’s advocacy role no longer affords him the comedic safety blanket he once had, it is the absence of humour, in his address to Congress, that made his message all the more powerful. What we saw was a visibly emotional man, holding back tears as he expressed his anger at the shameful way in which the political system has treated 9/11 survivors.
The role of emotion in politics has tended to be understood as the enemy of good citizenship. But in her book Emotions, Media and Politics, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen argues that emotion can enhance the power of political storytelling because of its ability to cultivate compassion, bring neglected stories to the public sphere and, in the process, call into being communities orientated towards political action.
Stewart’s powerful testimony certainly raised the profile of the Congressional hearing as the video clip spread rapidly online and generated hundreds of news articles. The following day, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill that would permanently reauthorise the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. According to the New York Times, the bill will now go to the floor for a full vote in the House of Representatives, where it is likely to pass.
A serious business
Stewart’s transition, in recent years, from satire to political advocacy has not gone unnoticed by his late-night TV successors. In a paper, Provoking the Citizen, I documented how satirists Sam Bee and John Oliver have adopted advocacy journalism strategies to draw attention to US President Donald Trump’s policies on immigration and female healthcare. But while Stewart and American late-night hosts are reimagining the possibilities of their public platform, their UK counterparts are seriously lagging behind.
The closest the UK has to a successful comedy activist is Mark Thomas and his campaigning on the Ilisu Dam in Turkey. Russell Brand was also a prominent political activist for a time, appearing on Newsnight and attending demonstrations including the Million Mask March and campaigning for better social housing. However, Brand has openly admitted his failure in politics was a result of believing his own hype, a consequence of his celebrity status.
While there are many instances of comedic activism I could mention – Eddie Izzard’s role in the Labour Party and Ricky Gervais’ work with animal rights groups, comedy remains their chief currency and profession. What Stewart has shown us is that comedy and satire have limited capabilities. They can draw our attention to a problem, but the ability to create real political change is dependent on passion, tenacity and sustained engagement in the democratic process.
Trump believes white nationalism is a winning strategy — because Fox News tells him so
Donald Trump thinks white nationalism is going to win him the 2020 election. This much is clear. Trump's racist Twitter rant on Sunday — in which he suggested that four nonwhite congresswomen, three of whom were born in the United States, are "originally" from somewhere else and should therefore "go back" — might have seemed at first like a spontaneous eruption of racist rage from the simmering bigot in the White House.
Soon, however, it became clear that this was strategic. Trump thinks it's a winning move to echo the claims of David Duke and other white nationalists who believe the United States is for white people. He justified his racism by saying that "many people agree with me," and by continuing to rave on Twitter about how the real purveyors of "racist hatred" are those who look askance at his embracing the rhetoric of Stormfront and the KKK.
Dear NeverTrumpers: Either help or STFU
Before I offer up a come-to-Jesus moment for the NeverTrumpers, let me say that as many of you know, I’ve defended members of this exiled faction in the past, and continue to stand by the idea that we need to form a coalition to close the loopholes exposed by Donald Trump’s malfeasance as a means of preventing another, perhaps more dangerous monster from sashaying through the Trump-shaped hole in the wall. To be clear: I’m not talking about conceding on policy or platform planks. I’m merely suggesting a detente between voices who all agree that Trump is a menace and his presidency is an existential national crisis.
Last chance for impeachment: Next week Robert Mueller will shape history — but how?
When Robert Mueller comes to Congress next week to field questions — "answer" is too optimistic — about what he learned in his investigation of Russia and Donald Trump, it’ll be his and our last chance to get it right; to inform the American people of the enormity of Trump’s offenses and our sacred duty to impeach him. If he doesn’t want to, or can’t be made to, we may all say, in unison with Mitch McConnell, “case closed” as all hope of impeachment will have died.
It seemed as if our chance had passed; that due to the misfeasance of Robert Mueller and some Democrats, impeachment was all but dead. Trump’s latest racist tantrum — his noxious series of tweets directed at four progressive Democratic congresswomen — revived it simply by reminding Congress that he is morally unfit to be president of the United States. He is the greatest proved liar in the history of American public life. He runs the most corrupt administration in the history of the American presidency. He helped rig one election and now invites the rigging of another. He not only admits to being a serial sexual predator, but brags about it. But all that we knew.