For the last few years, I have had a running argument with some of my progressive friends. While they all think that Jon Stewart's The Daily Show offers a great critical analysis of contemporary politics, I have argued that his type of humor undermines American politics by turning everything into a joke and a source of mockery. My argument is not that we need to respect or idealize our political officials; rather, I believe that by constantly laughing at public figures, we feed a libertarian consensus.
It is important to emphasize that libertarianism cuts across political affiliations and is defined primarily by a rejection of the need for public institutions coupled with an idealization of the individual. From this perspective, the most obvious form of libertarianism is the Tea Party with its stress on cutting taxes, shrinking government, and individual free speech. However, this anti-tax, anti-government politics has been a central tenent of both Democratic and Republican presidents. Even Barack Obama is prone to calling for reducing government's interference and cutting taxes. In fact, one could argue that the failure of most of his major policies, like healthcare reform and financial reform, stems from his desire to keep government out of the way of the free market.
Not only have mainstream politicians from both major political parties endorsed an essentially anti-state, anti-public rhetoric, but our shared popular culture feeds the unacknowledged libertarian consensus. Thus, programs like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Family Guy, and South Park all use humor to put down social institutions and celebrate the ironic individual. Moreover, the type of irony that Jon Stewart has perfected embodies a key aspect of libertarianism, which is the ability of turning serious issues into unserious entertainment.
This role of humor in our culture should make us take a second look at Freud's widely misunderstood theory of jokes. While most people understand that jokes represent an indirect way of saying something aggressive or anti-social, what they don't know is Freud's argument that jokes work by bribing audiences with enjoyment so they do not hold the joke teller responsible for the content of the joke. In other words, jokes are a way of escaping from social responsibility, and this escape from the social represents a defining aspect of the libertarian mindset.
One place where we see how humor works in a very negative way is through the use of prejudices and stereotypes in popular culture. Since the joke teller can always deny responsibility for a racist remark by claiming that it is just a joke, racism, sexism, and homophobia are able to circulate in our culture under the veil of being pure entertainment. Therefore, not only does humor keep hate alive, but it adds a level of individual non-accountability to our daily discourse.
In my attempts to study how humor affects people in our culture, I have engaged in anonymous chat room discussion with college students, and I have found that while students are quick to deny that we still have prejudices in our society, they also reveal that they have internalized stereotypes and prejudices on an unconscious level. After some probing in a safe environment, students report that discredited racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas frequently enter into their thoughts, and they often experience a high level of self-loathing due to their inability to live up to ideal forms of beauty and power.
What connects this self-hatred to cultural productions like The Daily Show is that in both cases, humor is used to plant unconscious messages that are consciously refuted. Furthermore, these unconscious messages most often represent negative portrayals of society and diverse individuals in our culture. In other terms, while we might think that we identify with Stewart and his intelligent ability to mock all public figures, we also identify with the victims of his attacks.
If we now stand back and look at contemporary youth culture and our dominant political actors, we find that there is often the same smug combination of individual over-confidence and social contempt. The key then to the ironic libertarian imagination is a rejection of the public world from the position of private purity. For instance, Stewart rolls his eyes at the stupid mistakes of politicians because not only does he know better, but he also knows that there is really nothing one can do.
I know people hate this argument because they love laughing and escaping through entertainment, but one has to ask what are we escaping from, and what does it mean that we spend so much time trying to remove ourselves from our own lives. Before you tell me to get a life and loosen up a bit, step back and think about the last time you laughed and whom or what was the target of your laughter.