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The Joke's on You: Are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Lulling Americans Into Submission?

Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source.

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Stewart sees himself as a common-sense critic, above the vulgar fray of partisan politics. But in unguarded moments—comparing Steve Jobs to Thomas Edison, say, or crowing over the assassination of Osama bin Laden— he betrays an allegiance to good old American militarism and the free market. In his first show after the attacks of September 11, he delivered a soliloquy that channeled the histrionic patriotism of the moment. “The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center,” he said shakily, “and now it’s gone, and they attacked it. This symbol of American ingenuity, and strength, and labor, and imagination, and commerce, and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. The view from the South of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that.”

It does not take a particularly supple intellect to discern the subtext here. The twin towers may have symbolized “ingenuity” and “imagination” to Americans such as Stewart and his brother, Larry, the chief operating officer of the New York Stock Exchange’s parent company. But to most people in the world, the WTC embodied the global reach of U.S.-backed corporate cartels. It’s not the sort of monument that would showcase a pledge to shelter the world’s “huddled masses.” In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of that. To imply a kinship between the towers and the Statue of Liberty—our nation’s most potent symbol of immigrant striving—is to promote a reality crafted by Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. Stewart added this disclaimer: “Tonight’s show is not obviously a regular show. We looked through the vault and we found some clips that we thought might make you smile, which is really what’s necessary, I think, uh, right about now.”

You got that? In times of national crisis, the proper role of the comedian is not to challenge the prevailing jingoistic hysteria, but to induce smiles.

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