Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My Gradual Disillusionment with Daily Show Liberalism

As you may have heard, recently Tucker Carlson, Fox News' barely disguised neo-Nazi propagandist, suffered the awful fate of having protestors show up at his house. According to a reporter who--unlike Carlson himself--was actually there when the protest happened (and is presumably, again unlike Carlson, not a white nationalist), the protestors knocked on the door, chanted for a while, and left after about ten minutes. One person spray-painted an anarchy symbol on Carlson's driveway, to the annoyance and condemnation of others in the group. Carlson claims that the protestors broke his front door and that one person said they wanted to send him a pipe bomb--details that have been disputed, as there is no mention of the broken door in the police report and according to the aforementioned non-Nazi reporter (and video from the protest), the protestor who mentioned a pipe bomb was talking about the Trump supporter who mailed a number of pipe bombs to enemies of the president, not making a threat.

But a lot of people wasted no time in taking the word of a blatant racist at face value and virulently condemning the protestors. And one of those people, disappointingly enough, was Stephen Colbert, who tweeted: "Fighting Tucker Carlson’s ideas is an American right. Targeting his home and terrorizing his family is an act of monstrous cowardice. Obviously don’t do this, but also, take no pleasure in it happening. Feeding monsters just makes more monsters." It's not just the vandalism and threats (real or alleged) that Colbert seems to take issue with, but the fact that protestors would even show up at Tucker's home (perish the thought!) and just be so uncivil, failing to respect his right to spread hate to an audience of millions and then return home feeling completely safe from not just violence but even discomfort.

Like a lot of people, I couldn't help but feel disgusted by this, but my disgust got me thinking. I used to be a big fan of Colbert's, back when he had The Colbert Report on Comedy Central--and of his colleague and faux-rival, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show (Stewart has since retired and handed over the reins to Trevor Noah, a host who's been a disappointment even to a lot of people who never grew as ambivalent about Stewart as I did). I discovered both shows back in the summer of 2010, and quickly became a big fan of both. Back then, it's worth noting, I was no radical or socialist. I was a pretty mainstream liberal, happy with Obama's performance as president and enraged with the Republicans, whom I blamed for pretty much everything wrong with the country. So finding shows that satirized conservative media, and the Tea Party (remember them?), and Republicans in Congress, was gratifying and offered a sort of catharsis. Plus, the shows were both genuinely funny.

The Report and Daily Show provided a certain amount of solace for me on the night of the disastrous 2010 midterms, and in the aftermath, with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives sticking it to Obama at pretty much every opportunity. I was pleased to find out that Stewart and Colbert's programs were popular among my friends at school, too. I even got my dad into the shows. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert ascended to the level of being practically sages for me--sharp-witted, funny social commentators that could cut through the bullshit and get to the heart of the issues. And who were independent-minded, too--willing to criticize the Democrats now and then for good measure, when they did something wrong.

Starting in late 2011, however, my politics began to shift considerably to the left. I'd always had some sympathy for idea of socialism; after seeing the world economy implode in 2008, I had little fondness for capitalism--but, of course, the idea that socialism is impractical, radical, naive etc. is reinforced in a thousand little ways in American culture, which was enough to keep me from going full red for a while. Ironically, my shift to the left came after several months of interest in libertarianism and Goldwaterite conservatism--I guess challenging my old liberal dogma from a right-wing perspective ended up leaving it vulnerable to my more left-wing impulses, which ultimately prevailed. And as I read interviews and articles from Hunter S. Thompson (who, at the time, was the most prominent representation of the far left in my world) and discovered figures like Noam Chomsky and George Orwell, I ended up drifting even further from my old liberalism than I'd ever expected. By mid-2012, I was describing myself as an anarchist.

My disenchantment with Daily Show liberalism, personified by Stewart and Colbert, was not immediate. They did, to their credit, offer critiques of Obama and the Democrats from the left at times. And even as I grew increasingly dissatisfied with Obama, I was more focused on the threat the Republicans posed. We were, of course, in the lead-up to an election that could replace Obama with some maniac Republican like Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, depending on who won the Republican primaries. Even President Mitt Romney was a thoroughly grimace-inducing thought.

Stewart and Colbert at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (Reuters/Jason Reed)
But the cracks had started to form--so small they were almost imperceptible at first, but they were there. One of the earliest instances of disenchantment I can remember came from a Daily Show segment that attempted to skewer Froma Harrop, head of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Harrop's offense was comparing the Tea Party to terrorists because of their role in the debt ceiling showdown in the summer of 2011. The awful hypocrisy of it, correspondent John Oliver indicated, was that the NCEW has a civility project, but is run by someone who's so clearly uncivil! The only problem was that Harrop's comparison wasn't really unfair. The Tea Party members of Congress were threatening the world economy--and, consequently, the well-being of a massive number of people--with a totally unnecessary crisis for no reason other than to try to push their far-right vision for the country. The position taken by John Oliver and The Daily Show seemed to be that, because the comparison was extreme and unflattering, it must be wrong--and anyone making it is just making themselves look like a maniac.

I remember continuing to watch both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report through 2012 and 2013, but--particularly with The Daily Show--increasingly having to grit my teeth because of how often Stewart seemed to emphasize "civility" and "bipartisanship" even in the face of a Republican Party that was clearly off the rails. In their coverage of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, The Daily Show featured another grating segment in which it attacked Democrats for being too dismissive and intolerant of the Tea Party, as if a movement rife with Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia and old-fashioned racism should be given the same acceptance as members of the marginalized communities its members so hate.

In late 2012, Stewart briefly turned his attention to the political situation in Italy, saying of Prime Minister Mario Monti's austerity measures: "Italy sucked it up. They got their fiscal house in better shape, everyone's glad, they did what they did." That moment struck me then because I knew that, in reality, austerity had been disastrous for Europe, targeting benefits to the poor and working class and resulting in shrinking economies--so it was odd to see a supposedly liberal voice praising it. And Italy was no exception to the rule--Monti took an axe to Italy's pension system, earning the ire of the country's major trade unions; and, accordingly, was rewarded with a rapidly shrinking economy.

In early 2013, Jon Stewart offered some commentary on Paul Krugman's proposed trillion-dollar coin--an idea designed to circumvent another manufactured debt ceiling crisis and fund government spending that had already been approved by Congress, in a budget passed by the Republican-run House of Representatives. Once again, the Republicans were attempting to derail the world economy in order to get policy concessions, as terrorists are wont to do. Stewart responded by essentially waving Krugman's idea off as a "gimmick," after giving a wildly misleading description of the situation that had led Krugman to propose the idea. His response was so miserably bad that even Jonathan Chait chewed him out over it. In response to the criticism, he doubled down, explaining helpfully that the coin was "a stupid fucking idea."

Although at the time it actually occurred I was still too enamored with Stewart and Colbert to realize it, the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" that they co-hosted in 2010 was in many ways a perfect illustration of the particular pathology afflicting the two of them (Stewart in particular). When he announced it, Stewart emphasized it would eschew the radicals on both sides--on the right, those who called Obama a socialist; on the left, those who called George W. Bush a war criminal. In reality, of course, the "Obama's a socialist" talking point was far more common on the right than denunciations of Bush as a war criminal were on the mainstream "left." But more importantly, Bush is a war criminal. The Iraq War was denounced as illegal by Kofi Annan, not by some random dumbass in a tri-corner hat.

Stewart also promised to provide signs with messages like "I Disagree With You, But I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Hitler" and "Take It Down a Notch for America." Boy, are those some takes that have aged well--the Republicans have now elected a president who refuses to denounce white nationalist rallies and wants to revoke birthright citizenship. But, please, tell me more about how we should be polite and "take it down a notch." I'm sure that would have done the trick.

Even the name of the event basically lays out the problem with the Daily Show outlook on politics: The Rally to Restore Sanity, as if the core problem in American politics is a lack of sanity. One could be forgiven for thinking that insanity is the only explanation for, say, the Republican policy on climate change--which amounts to pointing us toward the rocky cliff of environmental catastrophe and slamming the accelerator like a speed freak leaving the scene of a bank robbery. But ultimately, it's not insanity for the people who really run the Republican Party, the megadonors and Big Business insiders whose interests determine the party agenda. They're rich enough to insulate themselves from the effects of climate change in the short-term and old enough that they'll die before the worst hits anyway. In the meantime, any serious government attempt to protect the environment would cut into their profits, so naturally they oppose it. It's cold-blooded and psychopathic, but it's "rational self-interest," to use Ayn Rand's catchphrase.

The crazy people in the government are there not because they managed to worm their way in somehow, but as Useful Idiots for the party's real base: Big Business and the super-rich. Genuinely fixing politics requires not just a purge of the lunatics but also a merciless scorched-earth campaign to take down their masters, which didn't quite make it into Stewart and Colbert's rally, as far as I'm aware. And it's a task their fundamentally kumbaya mentality is hardly well-suited for.

And we can't forget Stewart's frenemy-ship with Bill O'Reilly, with whom Stewart discussed having "sexual tension" with and defended against accusations that he was "evil." It all led up to a very pally debate between the two where, as the Tampa Bay Times put it, "O'Reilly and Stewart attacked each other's arguments but not their personalities, armed with facts and a fair bit of passion." Maybe Stewart should have focused on attacking Bill O'Reilly's personality more, given that, as it turns out, multiple women have accused him of sexual harassment and his own daughter has accused him of abusing his ex-wife. But, you know, how could you expect that a constantly belligerent right-wing hatemonger wouldn't be a nice guy personally? Sure, O'Reilly did make insanely homophobic and blatantly racist comments to his sizable audience, but we can't assume he's evil just because of that. That would require you to think that a person's politics actually do reflect on their character, and we all know you can't have that!

Aside From Stewart's obviously shaky understanding of fiscal policy and economics and the above-mentioned both sides-ism, one of the major flaws in the brand of liberalism put forward by The Daily Show et al. was always a desire to paper over the very real divides that exist, and have always existed, in America. "Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives," Stewart preached at his rally. "Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make." When it was becoming increasingly apparent that Trump would be elected president as the returns were coming in, Stephen Colbert--now hosting The Late Show--talked about how Americans had overdosed on politics, and that it "used to be something we thought about every four years...and that's good that we didn't think about it that much," then proceeded to list a number of (light-hearted) things Americans can all agree on to show that we're not so divided after all.

This is an appealing narrative; it's also wildly misleading and dangerous. There are a lot of people, for one thing, who have never had the luxury of only thinking about politics every four years. For instance, poor people who are dependent on government aid in order to survive. Or undocumented people who live in constant fear of deportation. Or LGBTQ+ people who have had to deal with the government denying them basic rights. Or black people who have suffered as a result of neo-Jim Crow policies, racist cops and employment discrimination. Or any of the people living in the multitude of countries we've bombed over the years. These people have never been able to go for four years without paying attention to politics because it affects their everyday existence. And encouraging people who do have the luxury of doing so to put aside politics except during election season doesn't do the above-mentioned groups any favors.

For another thing, many of the conflicts in American society are a lot more structural than this narrative recognizes. You're not going to rid of racism, or sexism, or homophobia, etc. just by emphasizing what we all have in common, no matter how romantic the notion may be, because there are people who benefit from the systems that uphold these ideologies. Republicans have been exploiting these prejudices for decades to get elected, for one thing, and when one of the two major political organizations in the country is devoted to upholding these ideologies deliberately and for its own advantage, they're not about to disappear because we emphasize some ethereal notion of unity.

But furthermore, it is, in a gross and unpleasant way, to the (at least short-term) advantage of white racists, straight homophobes, sexist men, etc. to uphold the societal structures that are based on these prejudices. After all, those systems are designed to benefit them: racism makes it so white people are more likely to be trusted than black people, wealthier than black people, likelier than black applicants to get the jobs they apply for. Homophobia allows straight people to feel good about themselves because they aren't gay, gives them someone to look down on, someone to feel superior to, and makes it so their opinions count more in society than those of their gay peers. And so on with the other forms of bigotry. It's not shocking that, while plenty of white people are sincerely antiracist, plenty of straight people support equality for LGBTQ+ people, etc., plenty of others aren't and don't. After all, dismantling systems of oppression based on racism and other bigotries asks the privileged groups in each case to make a sacrifice: to abandon the privilege they've been given in the form of increased wealth, social status, and whatever else. It's the right thing to do, but not the easy one. Anodyne messages about what we all have in common and how we shouldn't get too focused on politics won't solve these problems any more than they freed the slaves or got women the vote.

But then again, while I don't doubt their hearts are fundamentally in the right place, Colbert and Stewart--both rich white guys--have never exactly shown they're that "woke" when it comes to marginalized groups. In 2003, Stewart mocked the idea of a transgender person on the Supreme Court as "Justice Chick With Dick". According to Daily Show writer and correspondent Wyatt Cenac, when he complained to Stewart about an Amos 'n' Andy-esque impression Stewart did of Herman Cain, Stewart responded by repeatedly screaming at Cenac to "fuck off." And of course, last year Colbert had his own controversy when he made a gay joke about Trump and Putin, for which he only offered a tepid non-apology apology.

A common defense to all of this--and one that Stewart notoriously relied on--is that Stewart and Colbert are comedians, not political experts, and they shouldn't be expected to give a profound, serious analysis of politics. That's true enough, but it's not just that Stewart and Colbert offer an unsophisticated analysis of politics, it's that they offer one that's actively wrong and misleading. And the reality is, they certainly weren't "just comedians" to a lot of their viewers. I know I definitely didn't just regard them as funnymen--I viewed them as sources of the sort of real political insight you wouldn't get from mainstream TV news, as sharp and incisive social satirists. So the excuse just strikes me as lazy and disingenuous. If you focus that extensively on talking about political and social issues, you're obligated to at least not give an actively misleading analysis, whether or not you're "just a comedian."

Ultimately, the rise of Donald Trump so viciously ripped to shreds the Stewart-Colbert view of politics that it seems remarkably quaint anyone could have ever taken it seriously. Not that there's any indication that either of them have reevaluated much. We already covered Colbert's response to Trump's election and denunciation of the Tucker Carlson protest. As for Stewart, this summer he made an appearance on The Late Show that reveals how little his thinking has changed. He faulted Trump's family separation policy, but noted that Trump "could have absolutely made a more stringent border policy that would have made [his] point about enforcement." The Obama administration's policy was denounced by Human Rights Watch for traumatizing families who spent months in detention--it's hard to imagine how any policy more stringent than this wouldn't have displayed "a Dickensian level of villainy," in Stewart's words.

He complains that Trump is devoted to humiliating his Republican critics, but doesn't mention that Trump's "critics" like John McCain (whom he alludes to) are, in fact, major enablers of his most destructive policies. He notes, correctly, the "extra layer of gleeful cruelty and dickishness" that characterizes Trump's policies, but nowhere mentions that this cruelty is inherent in the ideology the Republican Party has supported for decades and that Trump merely represents an undisguised, unapologetic personification of this ideology. Trump, Stewart seems to think, is just a member of the 15 or 20 percent of the country whose extreme rhetoric he claimed had dominated the political conversation, back when he announced The Rally to Restore Sanity--rather than an unvarnished representation of what the Republican Party (and its voters) stand for.

It took me a remarkably long time, in retrospect, to come to terms with how dangerously wrong the Daily Show view of politics really was (and is). I guess my residual fondness for and my good memories of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report got in the way of a completely honest reevaluation. Both Stewart and Colbert seem like good guys who are sincere about what they say; and both can definitely be very funny, and make good points at times. To Colbert's credit, his satirical conservative persona allowed his show to generally avoid the smarminess and both sides-ism that made The Daily Show so irritating in its worse moments. Perhaps that's why the most egregious comments of his I've cited here have been from the post-Report era of his career.

But in any case it's hard to imagine how Stewart and Colbert's brand of liberalism--and accordingly a great deal of their commentary--could be more thoroughly discredited. Whatever complaints one may make about the notorious Chapo Trap House podcast, their brand of satire is far better suited for the realities of politics, particularly nowadays: Ruthless. Unsentimental. And remorselessly partisan. Throw your so-called "sanity" out the window for all it's worth--the world is only getting crazier anyway.

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