Monday, November 1, 2010

America's funniest moral scold

I ended up showing Jon Stewart's closing rally speech to both my classes today. While I disagree with Charli Carpenter that this will someday be seen as one of the Great American Speeches, it's a very good speech, and one whose content merits some reflection.

The speech was very much in line with some of Stewart's earlier reflections on needless partisanship in the media, particularly his epic Crossfire appearance.  The main argument, that people who disagree should still be nice to each other, is hardly controversial.  But he goes beyond that, saying that we really do need more comity in government, that excessive partisanship is hurting the country. As he said on Saturday:
We hear every damned day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. The truth is, we do! We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don't is here [the Capitol] or on cable TV!
But Americans don't live here, or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done--not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.
He then goes on to draw a rather creative metaphor of cars entering a tunnel, who still manage to merge from 20 lanes to two despite their various disagreements.  But this is a false analogy.  Liberals and conservatives can merge lanes, or work together in an office, or live together as neighbors because those tasks have very little to do with being liberals or conservatives.  Those philosophies are governing philosophies.  We should not expect liberals and conservatives to get along when making governing decisions the way they do in other aspects of life because those decisions are essential to what it means to be a liberal or a conservative.  Compromises are, in some sense, betrayals.  When a liberal adopts a conservative policy stance, she has made herself less liberal in the process, and she has disappointed or even betrayed her cohort.  Yes, sometimes governing requires compromise, but it's quite another thing to suggest that ideologues should compromise for the sake of creating a more agreeable work environment.

A friend of mine (Hans Noel - see comments) also pointed out that the Jon Stewart at the rally would have some real disagreements with the Jon Stewart who interviewed President Obama last week.  The latter Stewart was criticizing Obama for compromising too much on health care reform and other policy matters.  He apparently wanted Obama to be more confrontational, regardless of how that affected the tone in Washington, because he thought the outcome was important.

And there's the rub.  We always want politicians to be nicer to each other, until they're arguing about things we hold dear, and then we want them to fight tooth and nail for those things.

So, okay, he's being a little ideologically inconsistent here, but he's no worse than the rest of us.  And I'm willing to grant some slack to the guy who created a battle of the bands between Ozzy Osbourne and Cat Stevens.


Hans said...

Great post Seth.

As the friend who wanted to introduce Jon Stewart to himself, I feel compelled to amplify. Three points.

1. One of the the things that bothered me about the whole rally/march business from the beginning was its asymmetry. Colbert stands in for the activist right, and he cleverly satirizes them. But Stewart represents the sensible middle. Where is the activist left? There are those who say the left has disappeared this election cycle, and if you take the sanity vs. fear pageant seriously, they disappeared from Comedy Central, too. But of course, we know they haven't, because Stewart is one of them (which we saw on Thursday). Maybe Stewart is saying that the activist left IS the reasonable middle. He wouldn't be the first to claim that the Democratic Party's base is more moderate than the Republican Party's. That would be an interesting claim, but I'm not sure it's really there.

2. Stewart's "pox on both your houses" rant about Washington is nauseatingly trite. He says, "We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don't is here [Washington] or on cable TV! But Americans don't live here, or on cable TV." Actually, real Americans do. (As a District resident, I'm reminded of Stewart's own (and awesome!) F-you to Sarah Palin about "real" Americans not living in New York.) Americans -- real Americans elected by real Americans to represent the real Americans in the rest of the country -- do work together in Washington D.C. every damned day. Yes, they fight over issues, sometimes in petty and ugly ways, but yes, they also hammer out difficult compromises. Every. Damned. Day. But that compromise leads to things like, well, the health care legislation that Stewart is so disappointed in. Whining about "those fat cats in Washington" who "don't get it" is banal and stupid and so far beneath Jon Stewart that it's surprising every time he goes there, which is not infrequently.

3. I think we shouldn't cut Stewart too much slack just because he's funny. He is funny. Very funny. The rally was great fun. But Stewart is aspiring to be something more. And good for him! Comedy is politics by other means -- or it can be. Richard Pryor and George Carlin and Bill Hicks didn't need to hide behind their status as comedians to do political material. I'm not saying Stewart has to decide whether he wants to be Mark Twain or Henny Youngman. I'm saying he's already decided he's going to follow in Mark Twain's footsteps, and Mark Twain doesn't get a pass because he's funny. He also doesn't need one. And frankly, neither does Stewart. If he confronts these contradictions, he'll be doing the left a huge favor, because many on the left have the same problem.

Seth Masket said...

All good points, Hans. One thing, though: when Stewart said "Americans don't live here," I thought the "here" he was referring to was the Capitol building. It's a little hard to tell from the video footage, but it looked like he was pointing to the building. I'm pretty sure no one actually lives in the Capitol, unless Strom Thurmond is being kept alive on machines in there somewhere, which I wouldn't rule out. Of course, if he just meant Washington, DC, then your point is totally valid.

marc said...

The closing speech seemed trite to me too, and I was trying to figure out why. I came to the conclusion that Stewart's much better when he's going after the media than when he's going after the government, and the speech was a weird halfway animal. But he's in such a complicated situation. Previous satirists, like the old SNL Weekend Update, when it was so great, had a functioning media against which to play. You can't imagine a sitting President going on Weekend Update in the 70s. But Stewart is a journalist, and the place you need to go to discuss current books, and media critic, apparently for lack of anyone else wanting the job. So I read the closing speech as a necessarily grasping attempt to demonstrate that massive lack of normal conversation. I can't imagine why anyone thought it was a great speech though. It seemed to me more of a kind of frustrated scream.

Hans said...

@Seth: I couldn't tell where Stewart was pointing on the jumbotron, but if he means the building, it's still trite, because the people working there may not live there, but they are still real Americans, working on issues. It really isn't until they get on cable TV that they act like, well, like they're on cable TV. (Several other times during the day he referred to "Washington" in a "inside the beltway" sort of way. )