Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Don't flatter Jon Stewart - Youssef's satire is truly subversive

[Originally posted at NOW]

Bassem Youssef is a man who has been called many things, but perhaps nothing more objectionable than “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” – a description that, quite apart from its general witlessness, is far too generous to the American presenter.

Granted, Stewart’s show did come first, and Youssef’s al-Bernameg is undoubtedly modeled on it. And true, they are also both quite funny. But here the resemblances end. To speak of Youssef as a mere duplicate of Stewart is to bulldoze the difference between jokes and satire; between riskless gags and real, subversive dissent.

What are some of these differences? Well, for a start, Stewart is unlikely to be summoned for questioning by the security apparatus of an authoritarian theocracy any time soon, as Youssef was on Sunday. That’s a relatively obvious asymmetry in terms of courage expended. Yet Youssef also surpasses Stewart in a second kind of courage that is quite different to mere physical bravery.

In an excellent 2009 essay, ‘Cheap Laughs’, the late Christopher Hitchens noted that Stewart and the rest of America’s pantheon of self-described “satirists” not only pander to “an audience that has a limited range of reference”, thus reaching too easily for “the rubber hammer and the exploding cigar” rather than “the flashing scalpel”. Their “secret asset”, he realized, is their “hard-bitten and hard-line" Democrat partisanship, an irony at their own expense to which they are painfully (and humorlessly) oblivious.

Stewart inadvertently confirmed this very point yesterday, when in asegment defending Youssef (whose name he repeatedly mispronounces “Yoe-sef”) he said, “If insulting the President and Islam were a jailable offence here, Fox News go bye-bye” – an illiterate “joke” swiftly followed by roars of auto-prompted studio applause. A brief later montage of token and entirely harmless pokes at the incumbent president (whose relations with Morsi thus far have, incidentally, been warm) was noticeably more backhanded-compliment than slap-in-the-face.

One man, in other words, makes a fortune flattering the commander-in-chief of the world’s only superpower, while the other risks jail and possibly worse to expose a thuggish religious dictator. Stewart should be so lucky as to be compared to Youssef.

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