Monday, August 10, 2015

He Gone

In going through a weekend's worth of spam in my inbox, I just found a message asking me to sign a farewell card thanking Jon Stewart for finding "humor amid all the madness" during his sixteen year run as the host of The Daily Show on the cable network Comedy Central. The name of the network should be a tip off that The Daily Show was a comedy show; but Stewart, those involved with his show, and his fans had pretensions that it was something much more.

I'm probably not a good judge as I could count on my fingers the number of times I actually sat down and watched Jon Stewart's show, and still have enough fingers left to play a sonata for one hand on the piano. But I've sat through countless discussions about him and seen bits and pieces of his show on the Web so often that I have a pretty good idea of the man and his work.

A large segment of the population of the United States, including several friends and colleagues, tuned in to Stewart every night and boastfully claimed that the Daily Show was their main source of news. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the same group who asked me to sign the card for Stewart also asked me to sign a card wishing President Obama a happy birthday. In the same vein, it's also not very difficult to predict the political leanings of a Stewart fan.

I once in this space referred to Stewart as "the Walter Cronkite of the left" and I don't think that's much of an exaggeration. Back in the day, the avuncular anchorman was considered "the most trusted man in America". When Cronkite in 1968 announced on the air his own disapproval of our involvement in the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson knew it was time to not seek reelection, because he knew that with Cronkite gone, so was his core constituency.

Jon Stewart holds the same sway over his own core group, the vast majority of whom are white, college educated, upper-middle class liberals who vote almost exclusively Democrat. One huge difference between Cronkite and Stewart is that Cronkite managed to keep his personal agenda to himself, so much so that his public critique of the war and the Johnson administration came as a tremendous shock, and was all the more powerful because of it.

No one one the other hand would ever question Stewart's political leanings as he wears them on his sleeve. Stewart proclaiming support of any issue favored by the left is just as predictable as Rush Limbaugh expressing his condemnation of anything President Obama does. The truth is that both men do most of their preaching to the choir, so none of their work has much real impact other than as a rubber stamp, emboldening their followers to proclaim the rightness of their cause.

That Stewart is a funny, bright guy goes without saying. Part of his appeal is his ability to come up with a pithy comeback, or the cheeky quip after a selectively edited video clip of a Republican saying something foolish. His humor speaks to a cynical generation (mine) raised on iconoclastic, irreverent TV shows like Monty Python's Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live. Those shows operated on the principal that nothing was sacred, they lambasted everything, By contrast, Stewart's comedy (and wrath), is focused on a particular group and ideology whom he and his audience feel are beneath them. The contemporary social critic Camile Paglia described Stewart's tone as "smug, snarky and superior."

Personally, Stewart's smugness always made me cringe, regardless of weather or not I agreed with him, which I often did. Paglia, in a recent interview with Salon, hit the nail directly on the head with the following:
(Jon Stewart is) certainly a highly successful T.V. personality, but I think he has debased political discourse. I find nothing incisive in his work. As for his influence, if he helped produce the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives, then he’s partly at fault for the political stalemate in the United States.
If this is to be believed, and I think it is, then Stewart's influence was indeed profound, just not in a very good way.

In case you're wondering, no I didn't sign his card.

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