I mentioned to a friend that I was planning to attend this Saturday's march in Washington, D.C., and she replied, "Oh, the Jon Stewart march?" I said, "No, the march planned months ago by real activists." She hadn't heard of it.
Lost in the kvetching and hand-wringing about Stephen Colbert's appearance before a House subcommittee on immigration on Capitol Hill has been a serious discussion of the limits of comedic politics. Without question, Colbert (in the role of the hilariously self-absorbed, irrational conservative host of a late-night show) and Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show regularly provides better political analysis than evening news shows and Sunday-morning political talk shows, should be commended for their often brilliant and courageous engagement with the excesses of right-wing political talking points.
Their work came to popularity precisely because the mainstream media had largely abandoned their obligation during the Bush years to question and to push hard against the propaganda offered by an administration that showed contempt for transparency. Colbert's performance at the 2006 White House Correspondent's Dinner, when he faced down President Bush and the entire co-opted White House press corps with a searing indictment of the press and administration collusion, stands as one of the most fearless and brilliant comedic performances of the last 50 years. The silence in the room was made up of both astonishment and shame, and the evening may have represented a turning point in the mainstream media's slow attempt to redeem itself from its embarrassing abdication of rigor during the Bush years.
Stewart and Colbert have formed a kind of "keepin' it real" tag team, exploring the hypocrisies of politics and politicians, and demanding that we confront the absurdities of absolutist, right-wing bromides. The video footage Stewart uses to critique political posturing is as much an indictment of real television news shows that refuse to do the kind of background work Stewart's team manages to do nightly as it is a brilliant sendup of the increasing irrelevance of truth in American politics. That Stewart and Colbert are so consistently funny is a testament not only to their talent but also to the discipline and hard work they bring to each night's performance.
But Colbert and Stewart are not real political activists. Some would say that this is what makes them so effective. Without a doubt, they have introduced a whole generation to critical political thinking. But Colbert and Stewart are comedic performers who host television shows. They may decide that they prefer acting in movies or doing stand-up or writing humor books (as they have both done). Their television shows may be canceled if they fail to garner sufficient ratings.
They cannot (nor do they purport to) offer any sustained opportunity for political transformation in this country. It's also worth pointing out that their audience is a narrow one: young, college-educated, middle- and upper-middle class — and white. And — judging by the intensity of the male banter on their shows — disproportionately male (count the number of times Stewart uses the term "douche bag" in a week).
But real activists have a different agenda and often speak to a different audience. Progressive activists agree with the politics of Stewart and Colbert, but their focus and attention is on shifting political discourse and policy to vindicate the rights and needs of the poor, of working-class people, of racial minorities, of those who are disabled, undereducated, underpaid and outside the Beltway. The environmentalism they are concerned with is not only that of the Inconvenient Truth but also that of environmental racism and justice.
Their goal is to permanently transform American politics to create not only a place at the table but a real place in American politics for a vision of equality, justice and unity that can include all Americans from all walks of life. The activism that seeks jobs, peace, environmental justice and transparency in government will be engaged in the fight long after Colbert and Stewart take the next step in their entertainment careers.
So when Stewart and Colbert begin to move from their late-night desks into the realm of real political activism, reliance on their comedic leadership may present a cause for concern. Colbert's appearance before Congress is an example. The dangers and indignities faced by migrant laborers are matters for serious discussion and legislative action.
Without question, there are many organizations that have devoted years, time and effort to seeking the passage of legislation that would protect the lives and health of migrant workers. Why was a performance by Colbert regarded by the congresswoman who invited him as potentially more persuasive than, say, the testimony of an actual migrant laborer? Have we reached such a moment of political disengagement in this country that even our legislators need professional comedians to make the work of governing more palatable?
Likewise, the march planned for Oct. 2 has been long in the works. Billed as "One Nation: Working Together," the march seeks to bring together activists, leaders and average people representing labor, civil rights, environmentalism, the faith community and a host of other areas to advance an agenda (pdf) that responds to the needs of millions of Americans whose interests are rarely engaged on popular television programs. A key focus of the march is on jobs and on national unity. The fear now is that the quasi-comedic political marches planned by Colbert and Stewart on Oct. 30 — marches that are sure to entertain but are inchoate in their demands — have essentially buried the Oct. 2 march.
Without question, planners of the One Nation march could have been more effective in getting the word out about their march. But they don't have national television shows on which they can promote their work; nor are their leaders likely to be invited to appear on one. They engage in the boring, difficult, decidedly noncomedic work of on-the-ground organizing, and the sustained engagement with efforts to advance the lives of those at the bottom. While they diligently worked for months on publicizing their march, the media devoted hundreds of hours to Glenn Beck's August march. (And it's certainly likely that Sherrod-gate derailed efforts by the NAACP, one of the key organizers of the march, to bring much-needed attention to the effort in the late summer.)
I commend Stewart and Colbert for their work. I rarely miss either of their shows. But it would be great in the future if those guys checked in with real progressive activists (available on popular Web sites everywhere) before they scheduled their own forays into the real world of political activism.
Sherrilyn Ifill teaches law at the University of Maryland. She is a frequent contributor to The Root.