Five years ago, my father stopped reading and started watching MSNBC, whose keening pundits now bestow constant background radiation unto our crowded living room. At 11 pm on weekdays, though, after Lawrence O’Donnell’s feverish closing monologue, father languidly picks up the remote and squints and with manic deliberateness (it’s a matter of programmed familial routine) presses 5, then 0, upon which the channel switches to Comedy Central. Or switched. Or soon-to-be switched, meaning after January 1, 2016—of which the reader must be well aware, since there is just no way that anyone has dodged the avalanche of headlines and top-ten lists and commemorative pseudo-obituaries and demotic speculation-on-replacement following the February 10 announcement that Jon Stewart, America’s most trusted man, is leaving The Daily Show.
The New York Times’s announcement of his departure aired minutes after Stewart’s own: “Jon Stewart, who turned Comedy Central’s The Daily Show into a sharp-edged commentary on current events… said on Tuesday that he would step down after more than 16 years as the show’s anchor.” The Daily Beast released a list of “7 Moments Jon Stewart Led America.” CNN: “How Jon Stewart Changed Politics.” USA Today: “Can anyone replace Jon Stewart?” The Washington Post: “Jon Stewart changed journalism before journalism was ready” and “Why Jon Stewart and Brian Williams should switch jobs.” Financial Times (the world’s most debonair newspaper): “Highlights from Jon Stewart’s Career.” On the morning of February 11, The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson wrote on Stewart’s big announcement, saddened by the loss of what “has increasingly felt like the realest news on television,” delivered by a man who “processes more news with more intelligence than just about anyone.” New Yorker staff writer Amy Davidson released a semi-satirical piece arguing that “The last hope for bringing some rationality to the 2016 Presidential field died Tuesday night.”
It so happens that my father is no fan of Jon Stewart. In his cynical middle-aged secular Jewish Brooklynite way, his favorite descriptive phrase is “the most talentless schmuck on television.” He’s also a moaner, and a face-rubber, and if you wish to know any aural or palpebral details of these habits, stop by our living room while Stewart is on-air. Because father does watch. And absorbs. And if you were to ask him, this anarcho-syndicalist professor of film history, what his main sources of news are in 2015, he would probably answer: “Eh, you know, Democracy Now, Stewart and [previously] Colbert.” And as demonstrated by the prenominate headlines and article excerpts—not to mention the day-to-day American experience—father is not alone. The mourning of Stewart’s departure has been almost ubiquitous, and what is being mourned almost ubiquitously is not so much the loss of a comedian as the loss of a journalist.
The main reason for the pervasive post-announcement sorrow is that the American liberal universe has begun to see Stewart, particularly in the past five years, as one of its leaders in purveying subversive political truths, as the man who speaks truth to power four nights each week, forty weeks per year, who brings to millions of living rooms nationwide the cruel absurdity of it all. And this view is held not only by the young and naïve. See, for instance, Larson’s aforementioned New Yorker editorial, in which she writes that “During Stewart’s long tenure, when something terrible has happened…The Daily Show has been one of our few perspective-giving reassurances,” or Amy Davidson’s piece, in which she keens, “Someone needs to sort out who is clumsy and who is absurd, who is semi-serious and who is wholly alarming; the Republican base isn’t going to do that on its own… What about the poor G.O.P.? Doesn’t Jon Stewart want to help?” or a recent New York Times profile claiming that “[Stewart] and his writers have energetically tackled the big issues of the day…in ways that straight news programs cannot: speaking truth to power in blunt, sometimes profane language.”
This latter claim warrants consideration: when precisely has Stewart “spoken truth to power?” It seems to me more or less self-evident that Stewart is not the dissident of Arthurian bravery that he is sometimes held to be—I don’t mean to strum so long on this point. A few adroit critics already have. The most sophisticated critique along this line that I’ve been able to find (actually provided by my editor) is a piece in The Baffler by Steven Almond, who I’ve learned is a pretty reputable writer of essays and fiction. Almond argues that since Stewart is employed by the same corporations as the rest of the media, he’s just another automaton-buffoon, except we take his buffoonery to be “genuine subversion,” and he’s somehow risen to popularity. Even Almond, though, still considers Stewart a “dependable news source” and a “superlative comedian,” and he says that Stewart has in fact “on occasion aimed [his] barbs squarely at the seats of power”—while enlightening his readership of the baffling facts that Jon Stewart is not a socialist, nor an anarchist, and that he makes money. In sum, Almond corrects illusions nobody has. And in so doing, he misses more crucial questions, or so I wish to suggest: what mechanisms have allowed Stewart to wear the tender cognomen of “dissident” while never scathing the nexus of state-corporate power? Why do a number of the most adroit political analysts I know consider him a real source of news? What is so goddamn appealing about his style that has flung to him the title of “the most trusted man in America?”
In order to demonstrate that Stewart in truth stands firmly at the stagnant heart of establishment thought, and in order to get at these questions, let’s consider a few examples. And in order to avoid any sort of selection bias that might unfairly convenience our analysis, let’s choose these examples from lists compiled of Stewart’s most heretical and so-called heroic moments. The New York Times and The Daily Beast, among other venerated publications, generally hold these moments to be: Stewart’s response to the initial George W. Bush election, his popular post-9/11 speech, his commentary on the bill giving health benefits to 9/11 first responders, his appearance on the demotic debate show Crossfire, his parodies of Glenn Beck, his interview of Jim Cramer, and his and Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.”
The first and most obvious commonality among the selected examples is Stewart’s tendency to reduce systematic problems to particular mistakes by particular people. Stewart may have straight-out said on-air that Bush was “not elected,” but what political and economic powers oversaw his victory? Glenn Beck may be an easy target for mockery, but what specters lurk behind his rise to popularity? What deliberate forces underlie the empty but hypnotic style of Crossfire? What universal axioms of establishment journalism is Jim Cramer abiding by? What’s missing in these segments (and bear in mind that these are held to be Stewart’s most dissentient moments) is the universe of context: the system, the ruling principles, the history of the thing. These contextual truths turn out to be the peculiar blind spot of satire as mode-of-discourse, since it’s easy to mock a person but hard to mock a system and harder still to mock the epic and daedal and labyrinthine machinations of history.
In the moments when Stewart breaks from the satirical form, other methods of obfuscation emerge. Consider the speech Stewart gave when his show returned to air after 9/11, relevant portions of which I’ve transcribed:
“I want to tell you why I grieve but why I don’t despair. This attack happened. It’s not a dream. But the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized, and that is Martin Luther King’s dream. Whatever barriers we’ve put up are gone, even if it’s just momentary, and we’re judging people by not the color of their skin but the content of their character. And all the talk about these guys being criminal masterminds… any fool can blow something up, but to see these firefighters, these policemen, literally with buckets, rebuilding… that’s extraordinary. And that’s why we’ve already won. It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down. They live in chaos. And chaos—it can’t sustain itself. It never could. It’s too easy and it’s too unsatisfying. The view from my apartment was the World Trade Center. And now it’s gone. And they attacked it, this symbol of American ingenuity and strength and labor and imagination and commerce, and it is gone. But you know what the view is now? It’s the Statue of Liberty. The view from the south of Manhattan is now the Statue of Liberty. You can’t beat that. So we’re gonna take a break and I’m gonna stop slobbering all over myself and the desk and we’re gonna get right back to this. And it’s gonna be fun and funny and it’s gonna be the same as it was. We’ll be right back.”
This waxen cuirass of cliché deserves to be read in full just so you can get the full bucket of ice dumped on your head. Because there is nothing here that speaks truth to power, much less something journalistic, much less analytic prowess or actual dissent. The problem with cliché is not that it’s tired; it’s that tired phrases and sentiments often pale with overuse and, by virtue of their paleness, bestow unto experience little or no meaning. See only Orwell’s Politics and the English Language for elaboration hereby. And it turns out that this dearth of real substance—of meaningful, exacting, crystallized statements about the world—is at once the bane and the bait of Jon Stewart’s particular schtick.
To elaborate by way of example, consider Stewart’s segment on…Well, to set the stage, he’s sitting at his usual desk, which is all blue and red and has a real patriotic glow, and it’s 2010 (I think), and he makes a little crack about Cheney and then brings up Washington and takes some stabs at Congressmen, how they never get anything done. Enter clip of Republican senator describing bill to give health benefits to first responders, which sounds all merry, whereupon we cut back to Stewart who shouts:
“YES WE CAN. And what better reason to work together than on a bill providing health care to 9/11 first responders and other relief workers suffering from chronic health problems directly related to their brave service. One of Congress’s finest hours.”
So then we cut back to the senator and learn, as you may have predicted, that he is in fact not supporting the bill. Cut back to Stewart. Gaping mouth, eyeballs reaching out toward camera. Full ten second pause, which happens a lot with Stewart.
“Hey…what the what? Wait. Are…wait…are…under what…huuuu…are you objecting to this bill? How…why…what?”
“Yes, apparently this story falls under the rubric of our brand new segment, ‘I give up.’”
Upon which the camera cuts back to senate floor footage, and we discover that the reason for the nay vote is a new tax included in the bill. Back to Stewart.
“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t know they were going to pay for the bill with a tax! My guess is it must be a very reprehensible and onerous tax to cancel out your willingness to have such a fine program. Is it a tax on babies? It is a tariff on acts of kindness? Is it a fine on parents who ask their children to retain their virginity past the age of 14? For I too would reject such a measure. Or is this just the closing of a corporate loophole?”
Clip of affirmative newspaper headline. Series of stunned facial reactions.
“You fill my heart with sadness.”
And now we cut to this video of an inflamed Anthony Weiner, who is shouting and crying on the senate floor, trying to describe his disgust with the Republican reason for rejection. Return Stewart. Series of eyebrow raises.
“You know, I used to share a vacation home with Anthony Weiner, and I can tell you: that’s exactly how he would get when you would eat his peanut butter. Did I mention that I give up?”
Okay, so now we go to this Fox News clip in which a female anchor calls Weiner’s tone a “turnoff.” Stewart does his blank face thing again for a few seconds.
“Turnoff? Is it? Is that from your playboy profile?”
Face rub. Sigh. Stewart takes out humongous automatic gun.
“I give up.”
Here we see the show’s generic template: absurd clip, cut to Stewart’s face, to the stare, to the sneer, to the comically exaggerated noises of shock.
This schtick has much to recommend it. I can’t deny, for instance, that in researching this piece I laughed a whole lot—to which laughs my neighbor would coquettishly respond, “Oh, so you like him, then.” Maybe a part of me does. The really hypnagogic allure, as best I understand it, is that watching Jon Stewart is easy. Sitting before the tube, there is something about the clips and the blank face of shock and the laughter that convinces you, or at least me, while my defenses are momentarily down, that what I am doing constitutes a political, intellectual act. I think, “Damn, hilarious, and will you look at that? The world’s fucked up, and I get it, and I’m doing my small part by laughing at Fox News.” The result is that I walk away under the fleeting impression that I understand the world. And all I had to do was laugh with Jon Stewart. It is political engagement stripped of the accompanying ethical reasoning, the big, hard ideas, the moral dilemma, the pain. It is the thoughtless self-deception of comprehension, the unidirectional artistic medium, the tearless morality. It is suffering and struggle optimized to zero. It is television.
Lacking is the real, crystallized substance of thought. This kind of logical crystallization is hard to begin with, and even harder at 11 pm, when the long day is nearly done. None of which is to suggest that we should actually expect this sort of thing out of a comedian, even one who claims that “You get into this business because you have a point of view and something to express.” The journalistic character of the show is mostly an accidental byproduct of our own involuntary reactions to it. These involuntary reactions are abetted by the medium itself: when you’re reading a book, you have the freedom to close it and shut your eyes and think about it whenever you wish. Not so with live television, which, as mentioned, is unidirectional, meaning it doesn’t afford the reader his or her own time to interact with the content.
Of course, this whole television thing is important to bear highly in mind, since otherwise I run the risk of committing the same fallacy as Stewart. Let me be clear: this isn’t just Jon Stewart we’re talking about, though all the spotlights turned his way in the last two weeks make him an easy target for stones. And I really don’t mean here to yuck anyone’s yum, to use the relevant apothegm—at least I don’t think so. I’m just trying to break the trend of ubiquitous doting with a thesis a little subtler, if maybe less important, than “Jon Stewart is a corporate puppet.” As I see it, the tide on which he has risen is the same tide that has given rise to Buzzfeed and the television-sized smartphone and the Snapchat documentary and the intellectual who gets his news from MSNBC and the actual fear one feels at the prospect of shitting without browsing Facebook: a mass lowering of the standards of intelligibility, the twenty-second attention span, the pervasive unwillingness to—on one’s own time—put more than an hour’s worth of thought into any topic, the growing unwillingness to put more than a minute’s.
Per se, this is only a tertiary problem. But when it begins to show up not only in slackening political awareness but in slackening political resolve (particularly in a time when our very civilization is threatened by the effects of climate change and the prospect of nuclear war), perhaps it is time to take it—meaning the threat of technology on thought itself—a little more seriously. Let your mind be the judge.