In A recent segment on his program the “Daily Show,” a satirical news program on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart commissioned Aasif Mandvi, an American Muslim actor, to deliver what was arguably the most honest five minutes of Middle East news coverage to appear on U.S. national television in recent memory.
Stewart begins the segment with a collage of news conferences referencing statements by President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in July and August. Both are interpreting recent crises in the Middle East, from the Lebanon war to Iraq, as great “opportunities” – Rice goes on to say the world is witnessing the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” The segment then cuts to Stewart as the in-studio anchor playing the comic foil to Mandvi, a “news reporter” in Beirut, Lebanon. In one priceless exchange, Mandvi recounts a conversation with an Arab standing in the smoldering remains of what was once his village. When asked by Mandvi about his perspective on recent events in the region, the now destitute and devastated man replies cheerfully: “You can’t get hummus, without mashing some chick peas!”
There are few exceptions to the lack of honest voices in mainstream news, one being Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, who given our circumstances has justifiably appropriated Edward R. Murrow’s classic signoff, “Good night and good luck.” But by and large, mainstream American media fail to significantly probe the realities of conflict that are tearing the world apart, so much so that that the only truth to be found on television is in the absolute absurd – like the absurdity of spinning death and destruction as an opportunity from the comfort of a Washington DC. news conference. In a recent interview with Katie Couric, the anchor ofthe CBS Evening News, President Bush responded to a question about his strategy to win the war in Iraq by stating, “One ofthe hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.” After listening to a clearly unscripted comment where the president undermined his own credibility as the commander in chief, Couric decided not to follow up with a question that clarified his statement. Murrow would have been disappointed.
But maybe the boldest and most provocative absurdity illustrated by Stewart in that program was a reality that, if grasped by Americans, could change the way we understand the war on terror. Stewart asks Mandvi whether there was resentment that the changes the U.S. brought were foisted upon the region. Mandvi answers by stating that Arabs view their predicament no differently than how Americans viewed the events of 9/1 1 – “Tough day, great opportunity.”
The authence audibly gasped – it is unthinkable that the tragedy of 9/ 1 1 could in any way be comparable to the pain and suffering of anyone else – especially a group of Arabs who must in some convoluted way be responsible for America’s terrible misfortune. When Stewart responded that Americans never viewed 9/ 1 1 as an opportunity, Mandvi wrapped up his commentary, “Well I guess not everybody knows how to respond when opportunity knocks their house down.” Although the cameras never panned the authence, there was a palpable sense of discomfort. Stewart visited the sacred cow ofthe post-9/11 world, and stepped on it – that in responding to the terrible evil visited upon Americans, the U.S. may be facilitating a similar evil upon others.
We live in an absurd world where absurd policies are justified by the very reasons they should be abandoned. In such a world, I guess it takes a comedian to tell the truth.