I Know Something You Don’t Know

by Jen Paton

One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony. For some 30 years–roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright–the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously.

Roger Rosenblatt, then-Editor in Chief of Time Magazine, 16 September 2001.

7-29-03-messo-2 Rosenblatt’s partial definition of irony is telling: he misses the most dangerous part. The most insidious irony is not the swaggering and droll Alanis Morisette sense of the word. Rather, the most dangerous irony is the irony of distance. In 1979, Dahlgren and Chakrapani argued that the way foreign countries and foreign people are portrayed in Western news is ironic in the sense that the audience is “situated in a position of superior knowledge to the protagonist.” We think we know something that the people on the news – the flood victims, the terrorists, the freedom fighters – don’t know. The West is ordered, stable, developed, and modern. “The Rest” are disordered, underdeveloped, and primitive.

You find this distance playing out in surprising places. My oldest friend attends medical school in one of our most “liberal” cities. Recently, one of the “standardized patients” (actually actors who interact with the students for training) arrived wearing hijab. “She’s wearing a burka!” whispered a classmate to my friend. She corrected him and he was incredulous: how do you know this stuff?

Thirty five percent of Americans know a Muslim person – at the same time, “events and controversies related to Islam dominated U.S. press coverage of religion in 2010 -” beating out Catholic church scandal for the first time this decade. This makes how Islam is portrayed in the American media more important than ever. Unfortunately, the ironic detachment Dahlgren and Chakrapani described over three decades ago seems to persist in coverage even of in-country Islam. When forty percent of Americans say Islam is more likely than other religions “to encourage violence among its believers.”, one wonders where those ideas come from. Especially since, in 2002, only twenty-five percent of us thought so.

Witness those protesters outside the mosque in Orange County – some were protesting the event’s speaker while others seemed more interested in shouting at little American girls in hijabs. “Go home” a few cried. To where, precisely? In Covering Islam, Edward Said wrote that “malicious generalizations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West.” It’s hard not to feel he may be right when a 2007 Survey of London newspapers found 91% of articles in newspapers about Islam were negative. In the U.S. context, its tempting to blame Fox, and indeed isn’t it easy to?

Sorry, but this is too easy. Fox blaming (in the UK, also known as Dail Mail blaming) is the kind of scapegoating by which “the liberal elite” attempt to let ourselves off the hook. Yes, much has been made of the relative “informedness” of, for example, Daily Show viewers, and Daily Show watchers would seem to be the polar opposite of Fox’s viewership. But remember: the Daily Show is a programme that gives us reports on “Mess O’Potamia”, and which, during the 2006 Palestinian elections, told us: “Palestinians flocked to the polls to elect … maybe this guy with a beard … or … I don’t know … maybe that guy with a beard.” (Ross and York 2007). Despite it’s self-conscious and highly ironic tone – or perhaps because of it – Ross and York conclude that The Daily Show “reproduces, rather than interrogates,” the tropes of “conventional news journalism.” (ibid, 2007). Just last week (14 March 2011), a segment satirized a trip to find missing Wisconsin senators as a piece to seek out “warlords” in hiding – complete with jokes about how Wisconsonites “treat their women” and vaguely Middle Eastern music playing over the correspondent’s journey into Midwestern backcountry.

There’s a self satisfaction among American liberals about the Daily Show, that those of us who watch the programme “get it” – both politics and the media – in a way others do not. The polls which show Daily Show viewers tend to know a bit more about politics and current affairs only reinforces this feeling of smugness. It’s a smugness that seems to permeate academic writing about The Daily Show as well: one scholar describes Stewart as “there to help move the nation from a simple submission to the White House's propaganda about 9/11 and the war on terror” to a “more engaged, thoughtful critique of current events.” (Dettmar 2006). But what if something of what Stewart does is equally “propaganda”? And if it is, what is it propaganda for?

Like pornography, we might say we know propaganda when we see it. The trouble with trying to define propaganda, though, is that the definition, unsurprisingly, shifts according to who you’re speaking with. The left likes to sling the word at Fox News, the right at Al-Jazeera, NPR, or the entire mainstream media. Sharon Tuttle Ross (2002) defines propaganda as “an epistemically defective message used with the intention to persuade a socially significant group of people on behalf of a political institution, organization, or cause.”

Tuttle Ross goes on to note that Dana Carvey's satire of President George Bush on Saturday Night Live is not an example of propaganda, since neither Dana Carvey nor SNL are a institution…or cause.” By contrast, the Daily Show, I would argue, has made itself a cause: it’s a line Stewart has crossed, or is at least dancing very nimbly along, with his “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” last fall. With that march, Stewart made his programme a political institution, to ends unknown. In a way, that move should have made The Daily Show less ironic, it should have facilitated a move into the real. Instead, largely because of the inclusion of the outré and consitently satirical Steven Colbert, its’ inchoate definition and purposefully ironic message-as-lack-of-message (“and/or…Fear”,) it muddied the waters.

What does it mean to stand for sanity, anyway? It’s a word that, after all, implies that I know something you don’t, that your beliefs, about God, or guns, or abortion, or religion, or gay marriage, are simply a matter of not knowing enough, of simple ignorance. A sanity/insanity binary as articulated by left leaning American media is the mirror image of the one articulated by right wing American media: you’re closed minded, you are willfully ignoring the facts, you are obviously a moron. In that sense, the Daily Show is propaganda for the idea that left leaning Americans are worldly, that they “get it,” that they aren’t victims of the irony Dahlgren and Chakrapani describe in their attitudes towards “The Rest.” Can we be so sure that we are really so open minded as we’d like to imagine? If insanity does mean doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result…well, perhaps we should change the kind of conversations we are having.