Jesters: Of Jon Stewart and Birbal
Jon Stewart’s retirement last week restarted discussion surrounding the United States’ dependence on satirical news programs. Much as Jon Stewart might have liked to call himself a person who merely made jokes, the fact remains that he was one of the most trusted voices in the media. And he’s not the only one. The US has a pantheon of such satirists- Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Bill Maher, to name a few. Intentionally or not, Arnab Goswami makes a mockery of the news. In all seriousness, AIB has, on occasion, forayed into commenting on the political space, as has Justice Katju in his inimical manner.
America’s reliance on ‘infotainment’ made me wonder why we prefer getting our news from comedians. It struck me that America is not the first such country- monarchies through the ages relied on ‘fools’ or ‘jesters’ to be honest with the king along with providing entertainment. Jesters have been recorded in Europe, China, America, India, Japan and Africa. Jesters played a vital role in royal courts because most people were afraid to be honest with kings. Quite often, the task of delivering bad news was left to them.
The methodology used by John Oliver is actually strikingly similar to that of one of the most popular jesters in Indian history- Birbal. Oliver not only humorously lampoons the government and institutions, but often also instigates trolls to do things like crash the FCC website. This reminded me of one of the more popular Birbal tales in which Emperor Akbar believes that a man survived a winter night in a freezing lake by relying on a fire miles away. He accuses him of cheating and doesn’t reward him for completing the challenge. In order to make Akbar realize his mistake, Birbal invites Akbar for lunch and cooks his biryani from five feet above the flame. Jesters, modern and old, rely on witticisms to prove a point.
Jon Stewart often joked that it was a shame that people relied on him for news. And I agree. Effective as Stewart’s methodology might have been, he is no substitute for news. Nor is John Oliver. I can understand the rationale behind the existence of court jesters. They lived in an age when you could be whipped, beaten or worse for saying a word against anyone of note. These were men who were either ‘naturally fools’ or appointed and licensed to speak their minds. Their contribution to courts was significant in terms of addressing the information asymmetry that that naturally existed as a result of the court structure. America, on the other hand, considers itself a bastion of democracy and free speech. Freedom of the media has been extended to include fears and potential harms in the form of the chilling effect doctrine. The media and the ballot, not comedians, are supposed to be checks on institutions.
However, it is undeniable that they have a huge impact as this article suggests. And this isn’t because they are the only ones saying what they do say. John Oliver was certainly not the only one talking about net neutrality, as the various clips in his show demonstrate. And yet, he was the one who managed to make the FCC sit up and take notice. The FCC has no responsibility to either him or any news outlet. It is, however, accountable to public opinion. The fact that John Oliver did what several newsmen failed to do, speaks volumes not about the state of governance, but the average television viewer. Do we, the people, the new sovereign, also need jesters to tell us things we don’t want to hear? The jester must speak, not because no one else may, but because we wouldn’t care if they did. The jesters of old thrived on fear; jesters of the day thrive on apathy.