by Hannah Green
On Friday night, I watched John Oliver perform for a crowd of Northwestern students in an on-campus theater. “It’s hard to be in college right now,“ he said, “because of, you know, the world.” These words probably got the longest, or at least the most interesting response of the performance. Oliver looked at us in amusement for a moment as we laughed, then said, “That was a cathartic laugh.” He commented on the symphonic quality of our laughter as the initial hilarity of his words melted into recognition and subsequent despair.
At this moment, I felt an impulse of self-righteous self-pity. It was hard being a college student right now. The economy is bad, everyone’s weighing their options looking for realistic job opportunities, the American dream of creating your ideal career seems to be dying, from a very young age I haven’t trusted my government or electoral system at all, especially in matters of foreign policy, and even here in the US we seem to be losing our rights left and right. I remembered a dark, sleep-deprived Wednesday when I was fourteen. My high school US Government teacher turned on the television so that we could watch John Kerry’s concession speech. My friend and I had been volunteering, answering letters at Democratic Campaign Headquarters in DC. We sat in the back of the classroom, dressed all in black, and wept in each other’s arms. I hadn’t even liked Kerry that much, but I had wanted so badly for Bush to lose. “It’s good to see young people who care so much,” our teacher said to us kindly. I thought, “I will never give a crap about politics again.”
For better or for worse, that didn’t really happen. I’ve continued to pay attention to politics, and often found it disheartening. But are things really especially difficult these days? I searched for evidence. Of course I couldn’t really know. I hadn’t been around at any other time. Still, I could remember an episode of Mad Men from last week. There was a girl in high school, and she was afraid that her parents wouldn’t let her go to college. They were worried about her, and she was worried too, because of recent race riots and news of the gruesome murders of eight student nurses, both in Chicago.
At first I thought that this girl and her parent’s worries about such events must show that the sixties were a more innocent time. (I assume, out of pure faith, that Mad Men gets the mindset of the sixties one hundred percent right.) But then, do sex crimes seem less shocking now than they did then because they happen more often, or because we grew up with Law and Order: Special Victims Unit?
I called my sister to tell her about John Oliver’s show, and what he said about the world being difficult now and the cathartic laugh. Oliver is known for his sarcastic political commentary on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he works as a correspondent. My sister talked about how Jon Stewart has become more cynical, too. She’d seen him on a few episodes of The Larry Sander’s Show, a nineties sitcom that she’s been watching on Netflix. “He was so starry-eyed then, at the beginning of his career, making jokes about regular things. He was so young and so… attractive,” she said. “And I mean, he’s still really attractive, but he’s lost that hopeful look, because of the content he’s been reporting on…”
So maybe Stewart’s now deadened eyes prove that everything really is especially hard these days. On the other hand, maybe he would look happier if he stuck exclusively to dick jokes and making fun of Reality TV. I’m grateful that he doesn’t do that, because his show makes me laugh, and it makes me feel like I understand what’s going on in the country better, both in terms of actual events and how people think. And occasionally, references to history show that a lot of these problems aren’t really new. Throughout the 20th century, there were economic collapses, unwise wars and international involvements, human rights apparently becoming less rather than more important to the government, and presidents who lied to the country’s face. A true cynic might believe that all of these are trends that have only been getting worse over the years, but also have all met resistance, have at least gone a few steps forward before moving farther backward. So I appreciate John Oliver’s compassion for our generation, but I also think that the best response might be to embrace the difficulty, and resist the trends that we don’t like.
Hannah Green is from Madison, Wisconsin. She studies the history, literature and languages of South Asia, with a particular interest in Urdu and Pakistan. She is currently an undergraduate at Northwestern University, but not for long. As she waits in suspense to find out what will happen after graduation, she likes to do things like listen to podcasts about Pakistan and find pictures of graffiti in Iran.