A Comedy of Errors

Last Thursday’s The Daily Show featured a subject so “epic”, so “startling”, that the customary format of the show was dispensed with in favor of a two-part “investigation” conducted by the show’s John Oliver.  What farcical nugget might be deserving of such an extreme degree of Jon Stewart-brand derision?   Which parody-worthy windfall of the week, between KONY high jinks, Goldman Sachs’ public wallop, and Bashar Assad’s dirty inbox laundry had so fired up The Daily Show writers?  Stunningly, the solitary punch line of Thursday’s report was a 5-month-old decision by the United States to suspend funding to a UN agency, in response to its admitting Palestine as a member state.  Insert the dumbfounded mien Stewart has so perfected here.

The set-up is one we know well.  Select a given position, frame it in simplistic terms, discard whatever pesky facts detract from potential laughter, sprinkle with a well-intended stooge who, whether through ineptitude or careful editing will try but woefully fail to defend aforementioned position, shake, stir, serve up on Comedy Central.

In this case, the U.S. position under Daily Show fire was taken in October, in the wake of a much-maligned Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN.  After the effort fell flat with members of the Security Council, the Palestinians took their case to a number of UN agencies.  The Executive Board of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, with full knowledge that U.S. law would mandate a cut-off of funding should Palestine be admitted, voted to allow the issue to go to a full UNESCO vote.  A few weeks later, after a full court press to remind UNESCO what the inevitable consequences of such a move would be, and to persuade the agency not to put itself in such a position, UNESCO, from its perch in Paris, voted to admit Palestine, neither a state nor a full member of the UN, as a member state.

As promised, a pending $60 million U.S. payment to UNESCO was canceled.  And the Palestinian appeal for statehood at the UN stalled there, at least for the time being.

The message of the Daily Show segment is clear from the start:  Based on an arcane law that, according to Oliver, “we would love to change if we could, but we can’t, except we can”, the boorish United States government has chosen to defund a pollyanna UN agency that is just trying to do good in the world, unconcerned with politics, or the obscure circumstances that the rest of us worry ourselves with.  In short, the United States has chosen ceremonious grandstanding over good sense, has chosen the parochial interests of its unfortunate ally Israel over morality, and has resultingly kept food out of the mouths of “starving drought-ridden African children”, and books out of their hands.

Never mind that this is the same UNESCO that this past November, while President Assad butchered his own people, elected Syria to a committee that deals directly with human rights (incidentally, this embrace took place just one day after The Arab League voted to suspend Syria’s membership.)  This is the same UNESCO that failed to expel Syria from the agency’s board and human rights committee earlier this month, ignoring broad international pleas.

This is the same UNESCO that in November summoned its Israeli ambassador in order to lodge objection to a political cartoon that appeared in an Israeli newspaper (irksome free press) and the same UNESCO that in February saw one of its beneficiary entities publish an essay in which a 10-year-old Palestinian girl extols the life’s work of Adolf Hitler (perhaps UNESCO’s version of free press).

And, this is the same UNESCO whose mission statement touts its commitment to “contribute to the building of peace”, and yet with its decision to recognize Palestine as a member, advanced by one more degree the death of an already moribund peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians.  But there go those pesky facts getting in the way again.

It’s deceitful for Stewart to keep hiding behind the “it’s just comedy” cloak, or for him to claim, as he brusquely did last summer to Chris Wallace, that he’s neither an “activist” nor an “ideologue”.  Knee-slappers don’t negate the responsibility that comes with being a source from which, whether Stewart likes it or not, a growing number of people inform themselves about the world.  And, it’s within these kinds of manufactured laugh lines that those who would have us doubt the wisdom of the relationship between the United States and Israel find perceived legitimacy for their platform.  While half-truths and hyperbole can often be manipulated to hilarious effect, someone needs to be the bearer of tedious reality.  Even if I haven’t weaved in enough wisecracks for it to make news.

About the Author
Ilana Decker is the North America Director of the Henry Jackson Society, a transatlantic think tank headquartered in the UK that specializes in foreign and international security policy