Satire in America

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has a thoughtful piece by Wyatt Mason on satire in America.

The business of scoring this frustratingly debased game of contemporary conversation has been the main focus of “The Daily Show.” Stewart et al. have built careers as liberal foils to conservative talk radio. Where the Limbaughosphere thrives on a muscular, hectoring rhetoric, the mode of “The Daily Show” has been a lampooning of such bullying. Although “The Daily Show” can revel in the same kind of posturing, even if the stance is far more liberal, the best of its work is restrained in the Horatian manner. The show’s “artful ridicule” is at its most scrupulous when attentive to, critical of and vocal about abuses of language. When James Frey, author of the fraudulent memoir “A Million Little Pieces,” was being torn apart by an array of talking heads indignant over his distortions, Stewart offered a deadpan summation that spoke to the perfervid journalistic outrage. Pundits were upset with Frey, Stewart explained, “because he misled us. . .into a book we had no business getting into.” Armed with scrupulous syntax alone, Stewart ironically evoked two infamies that rhymed with Frey’s: the claim that the Bush administration had misled us into war and the observation that the media, so severe in its judgments of Frey’s lie-world, had remained less dogged before the administration’s possible untruths.

This is artful indeed, but a high point both for “The Daily Show” and contemporary satire more generally came shortly after The New Yorker published Seymour Hersh’s 2004 exposé, “Torture at Abu Ghraib.” …The irony — uncomplicatedly galling — seemed obvious enough, but its precise grade was measured nowhere more finely than in an exchange between Stewart and Rob Corddry, a player who has since departed. As Corddry explained to Stewart, his voice that of a schoolteacher instructing an uncommonly simple-minded child:

Jon, there’s no question what took place in that prison was horrible, but the Arab world has to realize that the U.S. shouldn’t be judged on the actions of a. . .well, that we shouldn’t be judged on actions. It’s our principles that matter; our inspiring, abstract notions. Remember, Jon, just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn’t mean it’s something we would do.