Cockburn is old enough to remember when famous comedians sought to be transgressive. He recalls when they were funny, too. Now, at least on network television, satire has become the mechanism through which politically acceptable opinion is transmitted to the masses. Even when TV comics do ‘edgy’, they are more often than not simply indicating that they understand the direction in which elite consensus is traveling.
Take Jon Stewart and his appearance on last night’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert as ‘the first in-studio guest’ in more than a year. Stewart went ‘all-in on the Wuhan lab leak theory’, according to the Daily Beast. He did, in a way. At least he made some quite good jokes about the possible origins of the COVID-19 crisis.
‘So, I will say this — and I honestly mean this — I think we owe a great debt of gratitude to science,’ he said. ‘Science has, in many ways, helped ease the suffering of this pandemic, which was more than likely caused by science.’
‘Oh my God, there’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China, what do we do? Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab. The disease is the same name as the lab. That’s just a little too weird!’
He then mockingly said the virus might have come about because ‘pangolin kissed a turtle’ or ‘a bat flew into the cloaca of a turkey and then it sneezed into my chili and now we all have coronavirus.’
Ho ho ho. From the instant his words were broadcast, controversy stirred on social media. Various Twitter users scolded Stewart for his ‘harmful’ conspiracy theory ‘rant’. Somebody called Brad Johnson said Stewart’s tirade was a ‘dangerously misinformed attack on science’. A possible parody account, @RachelBias7, added: ‘Jon Stewart was one of my idols until tonight. He’s giving credibility to the Wuhan lab leak conspiracy and spreading dangerous lies. At least Trevor Noah isn’t afraid to speak the truth.’ Which was, Cockburn must admit, pretty hilarious.
But we all know that Jon Stewart would never have dared voice the Wuhan lab leak theory, which he now regards as so blindingly obvious, on television last year. That would have actually taken courage. Back then, the idea was widely dismissed as fake infodemic news, Trumpist drivel put about by Steve Bannon and other right-wing post-truthers. The lab leak theory wasn’t something you could say in polite company even in the early months this year, even after the State Department had released official intelligence suggesting connections between the lab, the virus, and China’s illegal bioweapons program. That was all Donald Trump and Tom Cotton and Mike Pompeo’s State Department, so it had to be ignored.
In recent weeks, however, a growing number of respectable scientists and writers and publications have begun to agree that the theory is more than plausible. It may even be, as Stewart suggests, likely. Joe Biden’s administration has ordered intelligence officials to ‘redouble their efforts’ to find out how COVID emerged in Wuhan (even as he shut down the investigation that Mike Pompeo ordered). The lab leak theory has almost completed its journey in the elite mind, from fringe crackpot brain-flatulence that we must all shun to sensible explanation that we must all find credible.
It’s safe enough for Jon Stewart to joke about it, which is why he did. Stewart went a bit further, to his credit, and dared to tease the God ‘science’ on Colbert which is like laughing out loud in the nave of the church of liberal opinion. But the real outrage should be that we are all expected to pretend that it is risky, interesting or fringe now to suggest the Wuhan lab leak theory is true, when the opposite is true.