Comedy Central and the Activating Virtue
Without courage, ethical conduct is often impossible, and courage is in short supply in some quarters. One of the most egregious failures of courage recently came from that barrel of laughs known as Comedy Central, home of the Bush-bashing media darling satirical news program, “The Daily Show.” It is also home to the in-your-face cartoon satire “South Park, which created an episode that included a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed. Before you could say “one Danish, hold the cartoons!” Comedy Central blinked, censoring the images just as if it were Al Jarzeera. Why?
Because they were scared, that’s why. At least, that’s the way the Scoreboard deciphers the channel’s cravenly vague statement that “In light of recent world events we feel we made the right decision.” Does that sentence mean that since the terror attacks on 9/11 showed America that it really needs to mind its P’s and Q’s lest the Muslim world get ticked off, Comedy Central isn’t taking any chances? That it endorses the censoring of humor and satire based on how violent the targets are likely to get? That it regards John Peter Zenger, Lenny Bruce, Larry Flint, Edward R. Murrow, Henry Miller and other First Amendment warriors as big saps? Who knows, maybe all of the above; but it clearly shows us this is an outfit that is happy to bask in the protections of the First Amendment while being is unable to muster the guts to stand up for it.
Comedy Central’s collapse of principle leads us to Jon Stewart, the station’s break-out star who is the public face of C.C. and its resident champion. He has excelled in getting guffaws by ridiculing President Bush, Secretaries Rumsfeld and Rice, GOP Congressional leaders and conservative religious leaders, and to be fair, he’s a funny guy, despite his flop at the Academy Awards. But this is the same Jon Stewart who hijacked his guest spot on “Cross-fire” to condemn the show’s hosts for adulterating its product, policy debate, in a cynical quest for ratings. Thus it was fair to expect this supposedly courageous truth-teller to step up and condemn his bosses for adulterating their product, current events satire, with that most un-American of practices, censorship. But Stewart did not. He hasn’t said a word yet. He continues to savage the Administration for using “fear” as a political weapon, and his barbs portray the Patriot Act as the sinister device of a party seeking to stifle freedom. Meanwhile, his station has tossed in the towel on freedom of speech, allowing extremists on another continent, from an authoritarian culture, to dictate what American audiences see on TV.
A total absence of respect will stifle the urge to laugh, and just as the Scoreboard stopped finding Woody Allen amusing once he seduced his adopted daughter, and just as O.J. Simpson’s antics as “Nordberg” in the “Naked Gun” movies make us cringe as we wonder if he’s wearing his Bruno Magli shoes, Comedy Central and head stooge Stewart have forfeited their ability to induce mirth through their sheer cowardice.
The most stinging and eloquent rebuttal of their conduct came from the word processors of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, “South Park’s” creators who authored this speech delivered by a character in the episode sanitized by Comedy Central:
Freedom of speech is at stake here, don’t you all see? If anything, we should all make cartoons of Muhammad and show the terrorists and the extremists that we are all united in the belief that every person has a right to say what they want.
Look, people, it’s been really easy for us to stand up for free speech lately. For the past few decades, we haven’t had to risk anything to defend it. One of those times is right now. And if we aren’t willing to risk what we have now, then we just believe in free speech, but won’t defend it.
Post Script: this piece would not be complete without a cartoon of Mohammed, taken from a South Park episode of a few years ago, when Comedy Central assumed that there were no risks to edgy satire. Here is Mohammed with his pals, Jesus, Buddha, and Joseph Smith: