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Political Animal

Only When I Laugh

By Brian Morton | Posted 3/8/2006

“Earnestness,” as conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke once put it, “is stupidity gone to college.” I have profiled O’Rourke in print, spent an afternoon-turned-evening drinking with him, and have a personally signed copy of his book Holidays in Hell, in which he inscribed, “To Brian, who has been on a few of these himself.” And, after any number of years working alongside liberals in nonprofit organizations and in both the legislative and executive branches of our government, sometimes I have to say . . . that he’s right.

In many of the employees of the do-gooder organizations filling the streets of our nation’s capital beat the tender hearts of earnestness, wrapped in the mantle of martyrs toiling in the service of great causes. Often those of us in the more cynical camp—usually in the public affairs and the communications departments, the ones who can’t afford too much earnestness, as we have to deal with reporters—have been known to break into sarcastic renditions of “Kumbaya” whenever the air gets a touch too treacly.

Imagine my surprise when I read an op-ed column in last week’s Boston Globe charging that the death of earnestness among young liberals in U.S. politics can be laid directly at the feet of none other than Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

Wow—liberal humor is dead! Someone get on the horn and tell Molly Ivins that she can hang it up now and head to San Padre Island for that long-deserved vacation! Jon Stewart, whose weeknight broadsides against the current administration landed him Sunday night’s genteel performance at the Academy Awards, is to blame for killing young people’s dreams of a better world deader than last night’s steak dinner. How sad, how very sad.


Consider the essay, written by earnest young Michael Kalin, a freshly minted 2005 graduate of Harvard University, one of our nation’s finest establishments of learning. He posits that young earnest students watch The Daily Show while filled to the brim with the fire that would make them head to Washington, intent on changing the world for the better. Only, after night after night of scathing wit laced with a “holier than thou” attitude aimed at politicians, they instead head for the bunkers of commerce. “People who possess the wit, intelligence, and self-awareness of viewers of The Daily Show would never choose to enter the political fray full of ‘buffoons and idiots,’” Kalin writes. “Content to remain perched atop their Olympian ivory towers, these bright leaders head straight for the private sector.”

It appears that Kalin is still full of the collegiate vim and vigor that causes one to rise up and protest at any perceived slight before heading down to Washington to right the world’s wrongs, save the seals and the trees, and provide universal health care for all. But it looks like he can’t begrudge us all the laughs we might need to survive those who don’t feel the same way about government (that is, the ones in power right now).

So, as Kalin writes:

Unfortunately, the rise of mass media and the domination of television news give Stewart’s Menckenesque voice a much more powerful influence than critics in previous generations. As a result, a bright leader who may have become the Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson of today instead perceives politics as a supply of sophisticated entertainment, rather than a powerful source of social change.

Here’s where we finally start to get what our angry young man is about. At a time when our nation is devaluing our heritage as the beacon of freedom and democracy with an incurious Texas yahoo at the helm who invades nations at will, sanctions torture, ignores poverty, coddles theft by the wealthy, and reads to children as iconic towers fall in flames, liberals can only make jokes? Who can laugh now?

But the older, angrier, wiser, and calmer kids smile and shake their heads. If there is one great tenet that Americans understand above most other nations on the planet, it is the concept that, as Winston Churchill put it, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” It isn’t just that we can laugh at our government—but that we don’t have to go to jail for doing so.

So, what to do when some wet-behind-the-ears Ivy League kid wails about the death of earnestness because a liberal comic on cable TV makes fun of government? Fill up my drink and stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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