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Comedians, Satire and the Law: 2010 “Cultural First Responders” December 29, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Gay Marriage, Gays in the Military, Immigration, Law, Ethics & Society.
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The idea of our republic is that we elect representatives to effect change.  Seems lately that perhaps we are having greater success when our favorite comedians speak on our behalf   Satire has always played a role in addressing hypocrisy and highlighting the issues of the day. However,  Jon Stewart’s impact on the recent passage of the bill to provide 9/11 first responders with health care benefits transforms the role of the comedian from social commentator to catalyst for change.

There has been much written about Jon Stewart’s role in securing healthcare for 9/11 first responders. While he has declined to comment on the passage of the bill, those who were struggling against what began as overwhelming odds credit the Daily Show’s coverage for “shaming” Congress into action.

“…[S]ome of those who stand to benefit from the bill have no doubt about what — and who — turned the momentum around. “I don’t even know if there was a deal, to be honest with you, before his show,” said Kenny Specht, the founder of the New York City Firefighter Brotherhood Foundation, who was interviewed by Mr. Stewart on Dec. 16.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg added, “Success always has a thousand fathers,” …“But Jon shining such a big, bright spotlight on Washington’s potentially tragic failure to put aside differences and get this done for America was, without a doubt, one of the biggest factors that led to the final agreement.”

While Jon Stewart often insists that his is just a comedy, fake news show, Jon Stewart and his colleague, Steven Colbert, of the Colbert Report, have taken on the cable news networks and highlighted many of the cultural/legal issues being debated in our country.  (In addition to their nightly pieces, this year brought us the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, and other dramatic examples, such as Steven Colbert’s show on which he spent the day along side migrant workers and his controversial trip to Capital Hill to testify about their working conditions.)

Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are certainly not lone social commentators.  As the momentum builds to legalize gay marriage in view of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Jay Leno quips, “What does that say about us as a nation when we believe gay men can now handle armed combat, but aren’t yet ready for the fighting that happens in marriage?”

Whether  the comedic world will have a measurable impact on changing the law remains to be seen; however, clearly the comedians are voicing the views of a significant cross-section of the country regardless of the action or inaction of Congress. In fact, the flurry of Congressional activity in the waning days of the December session during which Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, The Dream Act failed to pass, and 9/11 first responders were provided with health care benefits evokes the following query.

Is the law a reflection of society’s current values or does the law serve to motivate behavioral change that eventually changes overall societal values?  Like many aspects of law and society, inevitably, the general answer is: it depends upon the circumstances and one’s perspective.

More specifically, it also appears to depend upon who is interested in calling attention to the various cultural issues and values at play. Perhaps instead of continued lobbying on Capital Hill, the students marching in support of the Dream Act should “elect” their local comedians in hopes of making the dream of an education become a reality.

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