Is Stephen Colbert America’s Aristophanes? The State of Satire Today

What is the role of comedy in the political life of a democracy? In Ancient Athens, comedy took place at festivals in which civic engagement was supported and the drama was penned with an entire audience in mind instead of an individual whereas American comedic appreciation takes place passively in front of the television or movie screen. The communal nature of Athenian theater also connected it to the democratic society, where citizens (albeit a minority of the population) were expected to engage in the public realm of politics and cultural life. Comedy was used as a tool to hold public citizens accountable, although not always fairly, as was apparent with Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates in his play “The Clouds.”

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A sharp contrast with the Ancient Greeks, there is no special ritual surrounding American absorption of entertainment: no festivals, more an individual or small group immersion in leisure. What are the particulars of the gap between Greek theater and entertainment, so linked to a communal democratic society, and the American approach, as typified by television? In his essay, “Aristophanes in America” (available in part here) Euben lists voyeuristic, private, consumerist, passive, cosmetic, power-centric (although the “workings of power [are] invisible”), utopian, homogenous (catering to lowest common denominator), and ahistorical as qualities of the American television culture (107-8).

While television shows like The Simpsons, as Euben writes about, provide entertainment and an outlet of escape for Americans, they lack the “interrogatory role in our public life” to delve deep into the social conditions (116). While I agree with Euben’s evaluation of mass audience shows like The Simpsons or South Park, which may offer nuanced social commentary but will largely be taken purely for entertainment, to the right minds political satire like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show or the Colbert Report or certain other comedic outlets might not only spark an interest in political issues but also provide an engagement that could inform a wide public audience. Continue reading

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Why We (Still) Need Philosophy

Philosophy. Noun

  1. The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, esp. when considered as an academic discipline.

What’s Wrong With Philosophy Today? The Source of Irrelevance 
Contemporary academic philosophy today, at least in the English-speaking world, is too rooted in idealism, and removed from the experiential, removed from real world problems, too fixated upon studying issues so far removed from our own lives and social issues that we fail to take it seriously. For those reasons, academic philosophy is on the decline. Ever since the material sciences seemingly removed philosophy’s relevance to understanding the physical reality humans inhabited, we’ve drifted away from seeing philosophy as a relevant way to grapple with issues in our world: instead we turn to the social and natural sciences, and, in cases that strike us as more perplexing, religion. Over the past few centuries, Western intellectuals have adopted a scientific, empirical view of the world, seemingly stripped of ideological perspective, or so they reasoned. All the while, philosophy in America and Britain shifted toward the Analytic camp, toward grappling with notions of logic and language, a more ‘meta’ view of intellectual constructs, and the discipline of philosophy’s influence on non-academic life fell by the wayside. A key process encouraging this development was the divide between Analytic and Continental philosophy, the former of which predominates in universities in Anglophone countries, and is more concerned with logical problems than tackling grand profundity of human experience and the issues surrounding it. Today, we need philosophy (less so from the Analytic tradition) more than ever as a guide through which we can interpret what science and direct experience tells us, as well as comprehend the essentially value laden nature of those experiences and empirical structures. The former more significantly, we must have a framework through which we can understand varying ontological perspectives and act accordingly with our own value systems. Integrating a more philosophically rigorous approach to decision-making, whether at a personal or societal level, requires not only allowing for philosophical education, but also bringing philosophy down from its ivory tower and away from the almost pointless goals its found itself entrenched in (my bias against fields such as philosophy of language is clearly showing here, and let it do so).

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April 22, 1970, only seven months after his speech in Seattle, the teach-in, dubbed Earth Day, generated more than twelve thousand events across the country, many of them in high schools and colleges, with more than thirty-five thousand speakers. “Today” devoted ten hours of airtime to it. Congress took the day off, and two-thirds of its members spoke at Earth Day events. In all, millions of people participated. This activity was largely uncoördinated.

Such efforts lead to the passing of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the EPA in the early 1970s. Can we learn lessons from the movements in the ’70s, or is the cultural pressure just not present enough to quell political inertia? Continue reading