The Daily Show as Cultural Criticism
If I could put just one TV episode in a time capsule to explain our culture to future civilizations, I would choose The Daily Show episode from May 11, 2010. The clip is entitled God Smacked. Religious hucksterism combines with the right wing cult of masculinity and presto! mixed martial arts taught in the name of Jesus. No more ‘turn the other cheek’ Christianity. The new version is all about testosterone.
The cult of masculinity that exalts physical prowess and aggression is widespread in our modern American culture. It’s a peculiarly American version of machismo, defined as "strong or aggressive masculine pride."
Chris Hedges writes that in modern evangelicalism,
Jesus is portrayed as a man of action, casting out demons, battling the Anti-Christ, attacking hypocrites and castigating the corrupt. This cult of masculinity brings with it the glorification of strength, violence and vengeance. It turns Christ into a Rambo-like figure; indeed depictions of Jesus within the movement often show a powerfully built man wielding a huge sword.
Violence is as American as apple pie. Drone strikes pulverize civilians, night raiders slaughter pregnant women, detainees are tortured at black sites, and when these black sites are discovered, detainees are moved to other, more hidden sites. And most Americans placidly accept all this. Chalmers Johnson has referred to present-day Americans as "consumerist Spartans," combining our love of shopping with our warrior culture.
We Americans are as terrified of sex as we are fond of violence. I am not aware of TV networks being given fines for excessive violence in their shows, but the fleeting view of an uncovered breast causes the regulators to levy steep fines. Jesus doesn’t care if we knock the brains out of someone, just as long as we don’t reveal our naughty bits.
Later on the Daily Show episode, Jon Stewart interviewed Sebastian Junger, who spoke about writing his new book, "War." He had spent five months in a remote outpost in Afghanistan embedded with troops there. There was nothing to do there but wait for the next fire fight. But the men there had been trained by the military to be expert fighters, evidently, to the point, that there was nothing else that they wanted to do with their lives.
Jon Stewart: They almost look forward to firefights so they didn’t get bored.
Sebastian Junger: …The only thing up there that was mildly compelling was combat, and so, a couple of weeks went by without a fire fight and I was struck — that was a long time without fire fights — and I remember on very hot day the lieutenant walked through — he was all of 24 years old — he walked through the outpost, sort of muttering to himself, going a little crazy in the heat, and I overheard him say to himself, "Oh God, please someone shoot at us today."…
They joined this unit because they wanted to experience combat, to be in that kind of situation. There was no complaining about the fact that they were there. They were really worried that when the got home…They were really worried that they were going to miss Restrepo [the outpost], and they would want to go back and in fact that’s exactly what happened.
How revealing, especially in the context of the comedy sketch that preceded it. The soldiers are professionals, doing their job the way they were trained to do it. But their lack of interest in civilian life and bonds with family is telling. They now only want to fight.
One interesting point: in neither of these long segments was a woman, or women in general, ever mentioned. The actors and participants here were all male, participating in stereotypically masculine activities. War making, wrestling and splitting logs with their bare hands are seen as seen as worthwhile, compelling and important activities in machismo-land and women are not only not needed, they are not wanted.
The other important point was the link between this simplistic view of masculinity and the Christian Right, and not just the far-right, but throughout institutional Christianity. A Gallup poll in 2006 found that “the more frequently an American attends church, the less likely he or she is to say the war [in Iraq] was a mistake.” Now in church when the devout sing "Onward Christian Soldiers," they are speaking literally, not metaphorically.
Nowhere in these segments is there a sense that manhood might be about seeking truth, learning about the universe, creating a thing of beauty (a song, a painting, a dance or a book), acting ethically, taking responsibility for oneself and others, creating a family, forming deep bonds with women and children. It’s ultimately a sad, adolescent view of manhood, that reduces men to testosterone-fueled, war-fighting machines.
James Baldwin writes about the tortured relationship between Americans and sex and violence:
The American ideal, then, of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden — as an unpatriotic act — that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood. (James Baldwin, "Here Be Dragons," 1985)
But what about the women in our warrior culture? A recent survey found that "seven in ten girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members." Girls and women today aren’t doing so well, if self-esteem is any indication. In conservative Christianity women have an inferior role, and this view is still pervasive in society, despite the strides women have made. The warrior culture oppresses men and women alike. Maybe someone like Sebastian Junger could write a book about this someday.