Stewart and Socrates (PJS)

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Aus: Judith Barad: Stewart and Socrates: Speaking Truth to Power. In: Jason Holt (ed.): The Daily Show and Philosophy. S. 69ff

Consider this description of a society:

  • People pride themselves on their democratic form of government and constitution.
  • There are great differences in wealth and social status; many of the poor join the military.
  • People are very materialistic and concerned with "getting ahead."
  • The arts flourish and people love entertainment.
  • There are two political factions, often at odds with each other.
  • It's a great manufacturing power, supplying other nations with industrial products.
  • It's a great military power, which belongs to a coalition of other nations.
  • There is a problem with immigrants crossing its borders.
  • The political climate is tense.
  • Although in principle religion and state are separate, in practice they overlap.

Now the question: Which society is being described? Twenty-first-century America? Or fifth-century BCE Athens? Without any further details, the description could apply just as well to either. And the two societies have one other thing in common. They both have controversial reformers who use similar methods to urge people to think. However unlikely it may sound, John Stewart plays the role of reformer in America today much as Socrates did in Athens long ago.

Here Come the Sophists!

As in America, most Athenian citizens received a basic education that made them literate and gave them simple skills. But if Athenian families wanted their children to be successful, more was needed. This concern with success led to the birth of sophism in the second half of the fifth century BCE. Traveling from one city to another and charging very hefty fees, the sophists claimed that their students would become admired, competent, and, above all, rich. For those able to afford their teaching, the sophists emphasized rhetoric, the art of persuasion. More specifically, they taught their students to persuasively argue both sides of any case. And from teaching people how to make the weaker argument appear to be the stronger, it was just a short step to questioning whether there even is such a thing as true or false, right or wrong. Unfortunately, the sophists didn't care what their students were trying to persuade others to do or believe. And so, in effect, the sophists helped people to promote their own interests, even if it meant sacrificing the interests of their community.

Although the roots of sophistry lie in ancient Greece, the practice has never gone out of style. After all, isn't the primary goal of advertisers and salespeople to persuade a consumer to purchase a product regardless of whether the product is good for her or not? Don't public relations specialists manipulate the uninformed public? Don't defense attorneys try to persuade juries that their guilty-as-hell clients are innocent? Thankfully, The Daily Show commonly takes on such sophists in its satirical news segments. It's surprisingly easy to do. A reporter simply asks audacious questions of people so blinded by their pursuits that they don't even realize they're being mocked.

To Scoff at the Sophist in Office

Stewart's primary objects of derision, though, are sophists in politics and the mainstream media. Political sophists do their best to persuade their constituencies to vote for them, but their deceptive rhetoric wouldn't be so successful without the media sophists. So Stewart regularly attacks media sophists for their complicity with political sophists by delivering verbal jabs at both. During the 2004 Presidential election, Stewart asked "reporter" Ed Helms if he knew what was going to happen at the Presidential debates the next day. Helms read him the report he was going to file. Stewart responded that Helms had written the report as if the debates had already happened. Helms admitted that he wrote the report the day before the event. Incredulous, Stewart asked him, "You write your stories in advance and then put it in the past tense?" Admitting "all the reporters do that," Helms explained: "we write stories in advance based on conventional wisdom and then whatever happens, we make it fit that storyline." When Stewart asked why they do that, Helms answered, "We're lazy? Lazy thinkers?"

Opposing the way the traditional media has stayed clear of confrontations with the Bush administration since 9/11, The Daily Show is unrelenting in its ironic assaults, highlighting how media sophists sacrifice the investigation of newsworthy stories for ratings and access to the White House. Stewart called Crossfire hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala "partisan hacks" and berated them for not raising the level of talk on their show beyond sloganeering. At a time when the mainstream media was focused on Vice President Cheney's daughter, Stewart continued to hammer the media for its coverage of the Presidential debates. He said: "The things is, we need your help. Right now, you're helping the politicians and the corporations and we're left out there to mow our lawns." In contrast to such self-interested agendas, Stewart uses the following criteria in deciding to put something on The Daily Show: "Is that funny? Is that smart? Is that good?"' As a matter of moral principle, Stewart has said that there are some guests he simply wouldn't invite on his show, such as Mike Tyson and Bob Novak.' Indeed, Stewart has called Novak, who revealed the identity of a CIA agent, a "douchebag for liberty" and awarded him, in absentia, the "Congressional Medal of Douchebaggery."

The moral question is something sophists simply don't consider. Instead of asking whether an action is right or just, the sophist asks, "Will reporting this story or supporting this policy advance my career?"

Sophisten (PJS)‎

Sokrates (PR Hrachovec, 2007/08)