Friday, September 30, 2005

comedy in an age of censorship

Perhaps it has always been so, but it seems to me that more stories go untold today than even ten years ago, not the obscure but important stories that don't get the play they deserve, but the stories that everyone knows but decides not to talk about: the questions about whether Bush is drinking again, the deliberate underplaying of bad news from Iraq, etc. It often feels like the press sees its collective narrative of the country as the country itself, and worries that if that narrative were threatened, the country itself would disintegrate, that the Fourth Estate sees itself not as a check on government or the powerful, not as a servant of the public, but as the essence of the polity, the Establishment in a more profound and broad sense than any a 60s radical railed against.

Somerby has, of course, documented the political narratives for years. More recently, he's focused more on how the prevailing narrative shapes efforts at educational reform. I don't know journalists well enough to judge his views of journalistic motives, but it's hard to deny the narratives themselves.

It doesn't work, of course. Reality never matches the narrative completely, so the public is never completely fooled. The public may not know which parts of the story to disbelieve, but they know that they're being told a story, they know parts of the story are lies, that even if the facts are verifiable, the narrative that ties them together is not. The public is, of course, complicit in the charade. We may know enough not to trust the narrative, but that doesn't prevent us from craving it, any more that it prevents addicts from craving the poison that may eventually kill them. We choose to watch and read and listen to the voices that reassure us, even though we know they lie.

And that's where comics come in. Stewart, Letterman, and Co. live in the gap between the standard narratives and unfolding events. The NBC Nightly News can't run a story about rumors of Bush drinking. Letterman can tell jokes about it. The Nightly News can't say that Iraq is spinning out of control. The Daily Show can run the tagline Mess O'Potamia for years.

Humor takes the edge off. The question of where truth ends and joke begins allows people to say and hear things that wouldn't otherwise be acceptable. Mark Kleiman and I discussed this in e-mail in the context of Letterman's Bush joke, leading him to comment on the eerie similarity between the role of today's comics and the role of comics in the old Soviet Bloc. Eerie, yes, but hardly surprising when you compare the role played by our media today with the role played by communist media in the days of the Cold War.

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