Jon Stewart in Egypt, talking satire

I found this interview between Jon Stewart and his Egyptian counterpart of sorts, Bassem Youssef, somehow a little encouraging. One of the remarkable things about Jon is his ability to make substantive points in areas and venues where most others would founder. Part of this stems from the disarming capacity of good comedy, but obviously this isn’t enough. Genuineness is needed too, and sharp intelligence, and together they produce his mastery of tone and tact, in evidence here for instance at 10:26:

I’ll tell you this: it [satire] doesn’t get me into the kind of trouble it gets you into. I get in trouble, but nowhere near what happens to you. … I do Bassem’s job in a country that has carved out already – it is settled law, satire is settled law. Governments have realized that … if your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime. [wild applause]

Because … you have to be able to handle anything – a joke is a joke. You may say that is an insult, and they say, you know, there’s an expression – I don’t know if you have it – “adding insult to injury.” Yes, maybe it is an insult, but it is not an injury. A joke has never ridden a motorcycle into a crowd with a baton. A joke has never shot tear gas into a group of people in a park. It’s just talk. [applause]

So … what Bassem is doing, and this is what is so inspiring to me – [to Bassem] and I know you don’t like it when I talk like this – he is showing that satire can still be relevant, that it can carve out space in a country for people to express themselves. Because that’s all democracy is, is the ability to express yourself and be heard. You won’t always win, but you can’t confuse tyranny with losing elections. It’s just the opportunity to be heard, and for the majority to respect the minority, whatever they may say, however they may do it. [applause] This is what you do.

Just after this, Bassem brings up his experience of living in America and becoming acquainted with Fox News: “I was wondering in which pit of hell they do their editorials…. The amount of hate, and stereotyping, and profiling …”

But Jon interrupts, saying: “But I always see it as fear. I always see it for what it is…. It’s fear. Everything is conspiracy, there [are] monsters around every corner.”

And I think this in fact is one of his secrets, why so many public figures far from him in political views enjoy coming onto his show: he maintains a fundamental, genuine respect for people he disagrees with. Being able, for example, to see the fear beneath manifestations of aggression or even hatred, he protects himself from falling into aggression and hatred in turn. Instead, you can see in such interactions some kind of basic empathy still operating, which he uses to explore further where such negative thoughts and actions are coming from. This is one of the things that really sets Jon Stewart apart for me.

All of which enables, too, the heartwarming moment when the Jewish Stewart is praised by Bassem Youssef, on Egyptian television, for being known as a defender of the human rights of Muslims.

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