Sound bites of reason

According to my star chart, the water bearer of Aquarius was chased out of the sky blubbering the final verse of “Kumbayah” to usher in the dawning of the Age of the Smartass whose constellation vaguely resembles a giant finger searching for an eyeball to poke.

Satire, irony, sarcasm, invective and really loud people have truly found a home in the political discourse of 21st century America, and the conversation is suffering as a result.

If you need a refresher course on the indisputable power of satire to influence public debate, just turn on the TV, dive headlong into the blogoshpere, or eavesdrop for 10 seconds on any water cooler conversation in America, and you will inevitably hear someone regurgitating the punch lines from last night’s talk shows, insisting that you YouTube it immediately.

Comedy works. Its value as a rhetorical shortcut that makes entire conversations small enough to carry can be astonishing and even graceful in deft hands. Add to this our very real collective need for pressure release valves in the public discourse, and it becomes pretty difficult to construct an argument for the ways that comedy is somehow undermining the conversation.

From my perspective, though, we’re being blown around in the winds of a perfect storm where uncertainty, unrest, extraordinarily noisy conversation and unhelpful, reductive sarcasm may scuttle the whole damn ship against the rocks of inflexibility and exhaustion.

In comparison to the blunt-force trauma inflicted on the American psyche by mouthpiece-entertainers like Glenn Beck, Laura Schlessinger and Rush Limbaugh, who willfully and violently smash everything with the cudgel of rank stupidity, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann are merely sarcastic, loud and obnoxious, leaving pundit/comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as unlikely paragons of reason who use satire as a tool to stimulate dialogue and expose hypocrisy. All the same, I can’t help feeling like the whole lot of them are playing tug-of-war without a rope. No one is being convinced of anything, and the net effect is a paralyzing cacophony.

Satire loses its potency when, instead of being a means to augment and redirect thoughtful conversation, it becomes the focus of the entire conversation itself.

Colbert’s recent testimony before a Senate subcommittee on immigration was an act of classical satire that drew national, if momentary, attention to the situations of migrant workers in America, highlighting the hypocrisy in our reliance upon foreign laborers who literally gather our food for us, only to face prosecution for being illegal. That was the intended effect of his presence, at least.

Did Americans, their lawmakers and the pundits take a moment to thoughtfully inspect their own hypocrisies? Or did the publicity stunt only serve to legitimize the presence of the ironic cult of personality in the political landscape, giving the hawks another bone to pick in the meantime?

The sound bite news cycle that ensued was, not surprisingly, less about migrant workers and more about Colbert’s appearance on the Hill “in character,” as if he could be expected to show up in any other form.

I avoid television in general and news-as-entertainment programs specifically because of the dull feeling of uneasiness and mistrust I experience over the amount and type of power that entertainers exert over public sentiment on both ends of the spectrum.

I’ve watched “The Daily Show” just enough to conclude that Stewart is probably a genius, that I’m generally sympathetic with his ideals, and that he may be doing some measurable amount of good in exposing the folly of the increasingly potent media-ocracy in which he’s ferreted out a successful career. Still, I hold him at arm’s length with the others.

But recently, in anticipation of his “Rally to Restore Sanity,” which will be held on the National Mall later this month, he put forth this bumper-sticker-sized message: “Tone it down a notch for America.”

This is a message I can get behind and whose time has come. I find it increasingly difficult to be civil in the face of what I perceive to be a growing, completely insane and highly orchestrated attack on reason.

Last week I became aware of a group called the Coffee Party who are working to institute thoughtful dialogue between distinctly differing ideologies outside of the battering winds of the media gang-fight. Conversation the old-fashioned way.

So let’s have a cup of coffee. Let’s talk.