This week, a satirical monologue by famed humorist David Sedaris went viral — in the bad way. During the two-minute bit which appeared on the CBS Sunday Morning program, Sedaris suggested the idea of a “citizen’s dismissal” that would allow people to fire retail and service sector employees for delivering poor service. A social media pile-on predictably ensued, with many pointing out the tone-deaf cruelty of a joke built around firing service providers in the midst of a pandemic-ravaged economy.
.@DavidSedaris demands the right to fire others
The humorist suggests the power of a “citizen’s dismissal,” like a citizen’s arrest, could revolutionize customer service https://t.co/bIqxoYzGs0pic.twitter.com/fTli5vqf2F— CBS Sunday Morning 🌞 (@CBSSunday) December 6, 2020
One bad joke is never the end of the world, but Sedaris’ faux pas was not an isolated incident. One of the most conspicuous aspects of culture and entertainment in the Trump era has been the lameness of its political comedy and satire. Many have blamed Trump, a performance all on his own; it’s nearly impossible to make fun of something that is its own comedy act.
But what afflicts our entertainment industry goes far deeper than Trump, and it has implications not just for the country’s comedic relief but also for its journalism and news media.
It’s undeniable that today, there is a cultural consensus reigning across our mainstream media and entertainment institutions, and it is a decidedly liberal one. It’s not that our entertainment is politically liberal so much as it is associated with a very specific class of people: highly educated, professional class inhabitants of the country’s urban centers. These people constitute something of an economic and cultural “overclass” and they have come to dominate America’s most powerful institutions.
If the 1960’s and the 1990’s had a countercultural liberalism, there is no “counter” in today’s cultural liberalism; it is the culture, a hegemonic power center unto itself, wielded as a weapon of social status, tribal identity, professional advancement, and corporate propaganda.
Far from a question of liberal politics, today’s cultural liberalism is identified far more by a moral framework of consumer choices, consumption habits, personal behaviors, and an obsession with displays of multicultural tolerance and surface-level diversity than any of its overtly political positions, which in reality are a largely settled matter. In fact, pretending those liberal political positions haven’t been settled and are instead under some sort of constant threat tends to be another primary feature of today’s hegemonic cultural liberalism.
Put differently, the culture that dominates the media today is perceived to be a ruling class culture because it’s the culture of the people who do, in fact, rule.
This puts those in mainstream media and entertainment in a position of speaking not to power, but from power. Combine that with the job of trying to generate laughter, and it’s more likely that precarity, not hilarity, will ensue; comedy and satire rely heavily on subverting society’s most commonly held views and assumptions, but today’s comedians only reinforce them.
This is why Sedaris’s joke failed: He was punching down, from the powerful position of cultural liberal elite to service providers whose economic insecurity is redoubled by their cultural marginalization. In a more integrated America, where a life in the well-educated professional class is one way — but not the only way — to live a secure and dignified life, and where those lines of culture war aren’t drawn so sharply, Sedaris’s joke might have worked. But in this America, that culture clash rages on.
This divide also impacts our news media. You can see this in another video that went viral this weekend, in which the owner of a Los Angeles restaurant expressed desperation and rage at her local city government for imposing strict COVID lockdown requirements that are devastating for her business while at the same time permitting a movie production company’s catering area to set up shop in her own parking lot.
Bar owner in Los Angeles CA is livid to see that mayor Garcetti has approved an outdoor dining area for a movie company directly across from her outdoor dining area (which was shut down) pic.twitter.com/jkUP2CWg35— Jake Coco 💙🇺🇸🎶🐻 (@jakecoco) December 4, 2020
As is so often the case, what made this video go viral was not just the story and the sentiments expressed in it, but also that its perspective so rarely makes it into mainstream media. In this case, it’s the perspective of the non-Zooming side of the economy — those who can’t simply file their opinion columns, email their meeting notes, or finalize their website designs from home while continuing to receive their bi-weekly direct deposits.
Opinion | What David Sedaris’ failed joke exposed about liberals after Trump
In comedy, a lack of awareness just leads to bad jokes. But in journalism, it results in a news media that is chronically disconnected from the lives and perspectives of half the country. A deep and penetrating lack of awareness is perhaps the most consequential aspect of having such an economically and geographically segregated class of people in full command of society’s most elite institutions.
And it’s already resulted in a servility and lack of adversarialism when it comes to the incoming Biden administration. One NBC News reporter, after watching Biden refuse to answer whether he’s spoken yet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, wrote that she was “struck by the reality that we’ll now have a president who, as a rule, doesn’t lie, even when it might be easier.” A CNN reporter dutifully reported how Biden’s broken foot reveals how his White House will be different from Trump’s.
Joe Biden wouldn’t say if he’s talked to Mitch McConnell
I’m just struck by the reality that we’ll now have a president who, as a rule, doesn’t lie, even when it might be easier— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) December 4, 2020
And a New York Times reporter commented that Biden, who is yet to even take office and faced less questioning than perhaps any modern presidential candidate, drew “an implicit contrast with Trump’s use of the briefing room to disseminate falsehoods and undermine credibility of the press.”
While the Trump years are coming to a close, that broader cultural cleavage will not only remain with us but may actually be more fully formed and matured because of those years, bequeathing us a news media that has defined its entire identity in opposition to whatever exists outside of the elite cultural bubble it unconsciously inhabits.
For those concerned about the quality of both comedy and of journalism in the post-Trump era, the real fear should be that Trump was not a brief period of cultural polarization, but instead one of cultural acceleration.
Shant Mesrobian is a writer living in San Francisco. You can follow him on Twitter @ShantMM.