Earlier generations of Yale students no doubt got far more news from traditional sources than ours does. It is practically cliche at this point to say that our generation, which has a historically unprecedented number of resources readily available to it, is no more informed than if we were all waiting for next week’s newsreel to bring us an update. It seems like we must be trying to bury our heads in the sand, because that’s the only place where cable television and high-speed internet service cannot bombard us with news.
But it’s not that we don’t care; it’s that the wealth of information available to us has shown traditional sources to be untrustworthy, to be not real in a way we don’t want to put up with. Though no one in this post-modern world could deny that all news reporting is somehow biased, there is still not a spectrum of critical analyses represented in the mainstream media. That is why, for many of us, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” has taken the place of the traditional news media. Stewart’s perfect combination of irony and satire, of facts and jokes, his willingness to lay bare the process of “news” fabrication, has endeared his brand of humor to so many of us, and won him the kind of critical acclaim that indicates just how influential his show is.
According to a recent cover article in Newsweek, for example, in addition to the two Emmys Stewart’s show picked up in 2003, it also “won a Peabody Award for its 2000 campaign reporting, in large part because beneath the jokes, ‘The Daily Show’ really does approach something like intelligent analysis,” far too rare in this post-Sept. 11 world. John Edwards deemed the show’s political appeal important enough to announce his candidacy for president on the show.
Our generation seems to love irony with reckless abandon. Witness the recent fashion trend of sporting tacky, faux-vintage clothing and accessories; or the amazing success right now on Broadway of “Avenue Q,” a puppet show that sets songs about the existentially bleak lives of 20-somethings to catchy, Muppet-esque music. Stewart embraces this trend, and manages, in so doing, to endow it with political significance. It is the post-modern, post-Vietnam, Monica Lewinsky scandal approach to living in the world– news as farce — that helps us learn about the world in the way that the “facts” presented in newspapers and TV news used to do.
Yet what is so great about Jon Stewart is that his brand of irony does not necessarily connote a hopeless cynicism. This is the fundamental brilliance of irony, and why, if ours is one of the most ironic generations in history, then it is also perhaps one of the most hopeful: if we make fun of our president’s foreign policy, of our country’s undemocratically low voter turn-out, of the overwhelming futility of the recent changes to Medicare to affect the lives of anyone but CEOs of insurance companies, it is because these political trends do not, somehow, meet our expectations; it implies a hope that our world can, should, and will, be better.
As we prepare to leave Yale’s ivory tower, the class of 2004 is thinking about more than how to get a leg up as we enter the job market. America seems to be embroiled in Iraq for an indefinite period of time; it is perpetually teetering on the brink of recession; and as we have learned from the Enron and WMD debacles, Americans cannot expect the corporations or politicians in charge to tell us the truth. For better or worse, this is the world we are graduating into.
It is no secret that Yale alumni hold some of the most powerful, prestigious positions in world affairs. On Commencement day, we will be passing into this brother/sisterhood, inheriting something of an obligation, then, a parent’s expectation that we will continue to live up to the family name. Over the last three and one-half years the class of ’04 has struggled with the question of how to be world citizens, how to be good people, how to exercise our eventual positions of power for positive change. A Class Day speaker is meant to exemplify these values of a true liberal arts education: liberal because it is progressive, invests faith in people; arts because it does so using the highest faculties of the human mind.
On Class Day, we do not need someone to lecture us on the intricacies of this or that policy; we do not need someone who has gone on from Yale to accomplish great things, to come back and lecture us about his or her own greatness, implying that one day, we too might accomplish great things. We need to take our lessons instead from Jon Stewart, someone whose whole career embodies a non-partisan, political agenda for positive change. We need to celebrate the liberal aspect of our liberal arts education. And, after four years of reading more than we thought humanly possible and writing faster than we thought our fingers could, we need, finally, to have a good laugh.