Congress Failed the 9/11 First Responders

Jon Stewart and the importance of political satire

“It would be one thing if their callous indifference and rank hypocrisy were benign. But it’s not. Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity:’s the one thing they’re running out of.”

What am I at my highest aspiration and what are you at your highest aspiration?” The question posed by Jon Stewart to political commentator Chris Wallace in 2011 was an important one. Stewart had spent the past decade criticizing Wallace’s network, Fox News, for its overly-partisan news coverage. But now, on his show, Wallace had turned the question back on Stewart, accusing the rest of the media of similar bias:

Over the years, you have called us…‘A biased organization, relentlessly promoting an ideological agenda under the rubric of being a news organization…A relentless, agenda-driven, 24-hour news opinion propaganda delivery system.’ Here’s the deal. Are you willing to say the same thing about the mainstream media, about ABC, CBS, NBC, Washington Post, New York Times?

Later in the interview, after failing to get a “yes” answer to this question, Wallace turned his attention to Stewart’s network, Comedy Central. He accused The Daily Show of ideological bias and, even further, a left-wing activist slant. The following exchange ensued:

Stewart: Are you suggesting that you and I are the same? Are you suggesting that — what am I at my highest aspiration and what are you at your highest aspiration? Tell me.
Wallace: I think — honestly, I think you want to be a political player.
Stewart: You are wrong. You’re dead wrong…Do I want my voice heard? Absolutely. That’s why I got into comedy…I’m a comedian first. My comedy is informed by an ideological background. There’s no question about that…I’m not an activist. I’m a comedian.

So who’s right? Is Stewart merely a comedian who ridicules conservatives more than liberals, or is he a partisan activist masquerading as a harmless comic? The answer has considerable implications regarding the power of his rhetoric. But I believe the critics — who fear that Stewart has wielded considerable political influence over the years — are misguided in their opposition to Stewart’s “activism.”

In 2015, after the Charleston shooting, Jon Stewart opened his show with a sobering monologue about the moral depravity of the killer. “I got nothing for you in terms of, like, jokes and sounds because of what happened in South Carolina,” he said. The event was too heartbreaking and our discourse too stale for him to, in good conscience, crack overly-optimistic quips about politics.

It was a powerful speech, and I encourage all readers, regardless of ideological preference, to listen to it in its entirety. For a comedian whose show consisted largely of “jokes” and “sounds” (in the words of the host) to take several minutes to scold our country for their inaction on gun reform was incredibly powerful. No sarcastic remarks, no intricate references, just calm and incredulous moral outrage from a disillusioned citizen.

To label the above as overly political is to miss the point. Stewart did not take five minutes to advocate for left-wing policies. In fact, those who watch the clip in full may note that he did not endorse any specific solutions to our gun problem. He simply highlighted the ridiculous state of gun violence discourse in America.

This is the job of satirists. Yes, they write jokes. And yes, often times those jokes are informed by a certain ideological bend (although true fans of satirists will realize that many are more politically moderate than the media make them out to be). But satirists’ only alliance is to the mockery of the absurd — in whatever form that may take. True, Stewart often criticized Fox News during his time on The Daily Show, but Fox News was (and still is) ridiculous. Stewart also, however, made it a priority to mock CNN when they exploited tragedies for ratings or democrats when they voted in favor of bills they didn’t read.

Satirists intentionally focus on those news stories which are absurd. Often these are political because, well, our politics are absurd. Instead of criticizing the party which they may (or may not) subtly endorse as a result, we ought to look instead to the underlying problems which cause the absurdities in the first place.

But sometimes, as was the case with Charleston, absurd events are too tragic to warrant jokes.

For example, if Congress were to advocate slashing benefits for 9/11 first responders by 50 to 70%, that would be pretty outrageous. Or if they were hesitant to extend the federally-operated fund which pays out those benefits, that would be appalling as well. But it would be really ridiculous if Congresspeople held a hearing on all these matters, invited sick 9/11 first responders to testify, and then didn’t show up.

Well, you probably have figured out where this is going by now. All of the above has happened.

Congress’ treatment of our 9/11 first responders is egregious and anyone of reasonable moral stature is currently outraged. Perhaps that is why Jon Stewart’s emotional testimony in front of Congress has garnered so much media attention.

Behind him were 9/11 first responders, some of them terminally ill, and in front of him was a nearly empty panel of the House Judiciary Committee. As he was the first point out, the same people who invariably tweet that we ought to “never forget” the heroes of 9/11 did not take the time to remember them.

Stewart began a visceral speech: “Sick and dying, [the first responders] brought themselves down here to speak…to no one.” Tears formed in his eyes and his hands began to tremble as he recalled the evasion tactics Congress has used for years to avoid compensating the victims. “Breathing problems started almost immediately, and they were told they weren’t sick, they were crazy.” Some government officials made excuses as to why no funding as necessary.

Others simply tried to avoid the issue entirely. They’d hand out business cards promising later contact, which rarely came. Stewart recalled how angry he would become with Congress’ blatant disinterest. “Ray would say ‘calm down, Jonny. Calm down,’” he said, tapping his breast pocket. “I got all the cards I need.” Ray Pfeifer, a member of the New York Fire Department and friend of Stewart’s, died two years ago from 9/11-related cancer. Stewart became visibly pained as he recalled his friend. Trying to get to the end of his story, he slammed his fist on the desk. Seconds of silence went by as he tried to find the courage to begin speaking again. Finally, he continued: “I got all the cards I need. And he would tap his pocket…where he kept the prayer cards of 343 firefighters,” he finished, his head down and his voice trembling.

He ended by calling on Congress to unanimously support the bill to extend the first responders fund, a vote to take place on Wednesday.

The testimony was raw. It was moving. A man known for his legendary sarcasm had no jokes, once again.

Therein lies the true power of satirists. While their job is to humorously draw attention to the absurd, as noted above, the real impact of their statements come when an event is too upsetting to joke about. When the comedians whose careers are based on making others laugh cry openly in front of Congress, the importance of their message is more potent than ever. And their inability to joke about certain events forces us to consider just how serious they are. Sometimes, this sort of attention is sobering to a desensitized public.

Stewart is an activist in one sense. He’s been fighting relentlessly for the rights of 9/11 first responders to receive healthcare to treat job-related illnesses. Since he stepped down as host of The Daily Show, this is the main cause he has championed. So to the Chris Wallace’s of the world, I ask this: if you really believe that Stewart has political influence, that his goal is to be “a political player” why is that such a bad thing?