It is extremely hard to watch the nation convulse over gun control. Those of us concerned with the state of our democracy and with the increasing acceptance of violence as an everyday part of life cringe as we hear the pro-gun rhetoric. We hear that any effort to control guns is tantamount to waging war, to tyranny, and to destroying all of our national values.
But it's much worse than that. This debate is not just about guns; it's about the health of our democracy. It's about the ways that violence, hysteria, and aggression have replaced community, civic engagement, and reasoned debate.
Beyond the real concerns any of us should have over the outcome of this conflict, our main worry should be the fact that the lack of dialogue, the absence of meaningful discussion of the issues, the political posturing, and the media coverage reveal a democracy in crisis.
We have shrill and outrageous statements made in public: Like that of James Yeager, CEO of Tactical Response, a Tennessee company that trains people in weapon and tactical skills, saying that he will be the first to shoot and set off a civil war if Obama takes measures to control guns. Yeager's plan? If the majority wants to protect itself from guns, then he will have to shoot them.
We have elected state politicians, like Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands) of Texas suggesting that they will attempt to circumvent any federal measure to control guns. Rather than solve the problem democratically, he offers a solution that seems based in secession.
And we have mainstream media figures like Megyn Kelly of Fox News hosting panels on whether the children that appeared alongside President Obama when he announced his gun control initiatives were "props." Rather then discuss the issues, Kelly chose to focus on the staging.
Then there are the pundits, like Rush Limbaugh, who bristle at the mere idea that the conservative media is hyping up the anxieties over gun legislation. He went after Carol Costello of CNN for reminding viewers that gun control was not equivalent to overturning the second amendment.
Each of these examples reveals the ways that democratic deliberation is suffering in our nation. But thankfully we have comedians in our midst who work hard night after night to bring reason and critical reflection to a nation steeped in hysteria and hyperbole. For years the satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert has served as a corrective to the media sensationalism that frames much of the way the nation thinks about key issues, but their comedic interventions on the gun debate have been both refreshing and insightful.
One of the key things that Stewart and Colbert have done on their shows is to demonstrate how the gun debates are part of a larger disintegration of critical thought among our nation's citizens. Beyond pointing out that there is nothing about gun control that violates the second amendment, they remind their viewers that much of the information publicly circulating on the issue is coded in extremist thinking and not based in fact. There is no chance of a democratic debate if those on one side of the issue refuse to base any of their claims on reality. Luckily we have satirists to remind us of what reality looks like.
Stewart sagely went after a series of the major claims coming from those that fear gun control. His satirical monologue addressed the hype over Obama's Executive Order, whether he was a tyrant, and whether he was coming after "our" guns. Driving home the extent to which those opposing gun control had lost their grip on reality, he questioned the claim that guns offer minorities greater chances to defend themselves. Watch the full clip here:
When Stewart goes after the claim that, if the Jews had been armed, the Holocaust might have been averted, he is at his satirical best. Funny, sharp and eye-opening. He is able to take a claim that has circulated in the public sphere and completely expose the logical fallacy to it.
Right behind Stewart, delivering the second part of the one-two punch comes Colbert, whose in-character performance gives him a chance to take the gun lover role to its satirical extreme. Dressed in camouflage and fearful for the moment when "jackbooted thugs" would come to take way his guns, he devoted his entire show on January 14 to the issue. That show took to task the arguments that seemed to suggest that guns are like civil rights victims. Later in the week, Colbert focused on the media coverage, especially on claims made by Steve Doocy and Rush Limbaugh. Watch the full clip here:
When Colbert emulated Rush's exaggerated weeping like a child, he exposed the extreme lack of humanity that comes from many of the pro-gun advocates. As he took Rush's position one step further: "Boo hoo! I want a pony, I want to go to Disneyland, I want to wake to see another day. Boo hoo!" The beauty of the satire is that it immediately reveals the absurdity of Rush's position while also entertaining us at the same time.
And the fun isn't just limited to Comedy Central. Bill Maher did a great bit on "Real Time" that reminded his audience of the myriad rights that really are under attack. While the gun advocates are mistakenly worrying about the second amendment, our right to privacy is evaporating. As Maher put it, "The only thing that still has bipartisan support in Washington is not giving a shit about privacy."
So if you are looking for some sanity in the gun debate, turn to comedy. Satirists like Stewart, Colbert, and Maher entertain us while revealing the flawed thinking that is making a folly of our democracy. You may think comedy is just about laughs, but these days satirical comedy is shooting with both barrels.