Why is Syria Flummoxing American Satirists?

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It's hard to talk about the ideas or politics behind comedy news, because while we all know that they're important and influential, we also know that because they're entertainment, you can't talk seriously about them without sounding like a dummy. So let's sound like dummies for a moment!

Jon Stewart came back from hiatus this week with a long on-air essay about why the U.S. shouldn't intervene.


It's a strange segment to watch. There's a real cringer of a riff about Sarin gas deaths in Syria, where Stewart advertises a fake perfume called Signatures of Sarin. It's discordant in a way the Daily Show rarely is. But more broadly, the segment seems to illustrate that this form Stewart's usually so good at -- the comedic polemic -- might just not fit the topic, which is so sad and complicated. (WaPo's Max Fisher has a nice piece going into more detail about how Stewart's long case against intervention frames the case wrongly.) 

Surprisingly, The Onion hit the same pitfalls while taking the opposite tack. Stewart's a dove on Syria, The Onion's a hawk. As Dave Weigel pointed out, America's Finest News Source has published a litany of articles premised on the idea that intervention is clearly the only moral choice:  ‘Help Has To Be On The Way Now,’ Thinks Syrian Man Currently Being Gassed”“Obama Deeply Concerned After Syrians Gassed To Death On White House Lawn”“‘Syrians’ Lives Are Worthless,’ Obama Tells Daughters Before Kissing Them Goodnight.” The Onion's Syria articles feel like the wrong kind of juvenile -- the case for war as understood by a neocon college Freshman.  

I think both approaches are clanging here because they share a moral certainty that seems unearned. Smart, ethical people across the political spectrum are having a hard time figuring out what the U.S. can and should do in Syria. There's something strangely cable news-y about seeing a gray question dealt with in such black-and-white terms. 


UPDATE: I talked to John Hockenberry about this on The Takeaway. Audio's here, if you'd like it.