The Imperial Presidency
November 8, 2010

My latest Salon column was prompted, at least in part, by a post Conor Friedersdorf wrote last week, in which he asked why “the Daily Show left” seemed to have lost so much interest in protecting civil liberties now that they had their Democratic president. I question some of the premise — I have no idea who counts as part of the Daily Show left, nor do I think it’s Jon Stewart’s job to grill the president on matters of policy — but Freidersdorf’s point still struck a nerve. I can’t speak for the rest of the Daily Show left, but I am on the left, I watch The Daily Show, and for the past two years I haven’t been treating these issues with nearly the attention I think they deserve.

Anyway, I’ve made a resolution to rededicate myself to this The more people who do, the better.

The Rally
October 31, 2010

As a piece of entertainment, it wasn’t quite as funny as your average episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Nor do I think it could have been. Stewart and Colbert were working in an unfamiliar format for a crowd of unprecedented size under the watchful eye of a commentary class hungry to jump on anything they could paint as inflammatory. The result was a program that was silly and lighthearted but also scrupulously inoffensive. I think the presence of Sheryl Crow and John Legend, two people who have made a career out of being competent and inoffensive, says it all.

Plus there’s the fact that 99.9% of the crowd could have gotten a better view of the proceedings from their living room. I was about halfway through the crowd, and even at that distance my arms were pinned to my sides by the people around me. The stage wasn’t visible, and the nearest jumbotrons just barely. Behind me, every once in a while, I could hear a crowd roughly the size of two packed football stadiums chant, “Louder! Louder!”

That was more striking than the show itself: the size. Estimates put it at around 200,000, or roughly 2.5 times the size of Glenn Beck’s “Restore Honor” rally. I think most people who showed up were there mostly to see each other all massed in one location. It was certainly something. Unsurprisingly, the assembled masses weren’t all, or even mostly, stoned hipsters or shrieking Code Pink members. For the most part they seemed to be polite, reasonable, middle class people with generally leftish political leanings and similar taste in late-night comedy. I wouldn’t call them the silent majority, but they’re certainly the silent statistically significant demographic. When the rally disbanded, there wasn’t a single restaurant in downtown DC without a line leading out the door. I’ve never seen a crowd of comparable size anywhere in my life, and it seems possible that I never will.

But why? Was there a point? Yes, and I was a little too glib yesterday in suggesting that this was just a piece of entertainment upon which others had impressed their own views. Jon Stewart made the point in his earnest closing remarks, which turned out to be the least showman-like and most worthwhile part of the entire program. Here’s the video:

And here’s the transcript.

I’m not so sure that this will one day, as Charli Carpenter suggests, ”be considered among the greatest political speeches of our country’s history,” but I was certainly impressed. “Jon Stewart gets serious for a moment” could easily have been a grievous miscalculation, an unfunny piece of pseudo-messianic sermonizing from an ex-funny funnyman who let the high ratings get to his head. But Stewart didn’t lose his sense of humor, least of all about himself, and that saved the entire speech.

Good thing, too, because he’s absolutely right. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m more wholly in the tank for Jon Stewart than for virtually any pundit or political figure, but this speech, I think, vindicated my unreserved admiration. Beyond that, I’m unsure what else it did. One event like this certainly won’t restore sanity, if we ever had it in the first place. But the message was impossible to ignore. The audience who turned up to hear it was too big. Maybe, for that reason, we can look forward to just a sliver of contrition and self-examination from some of the people Stewart, directly or indirectly, called out.

Honestly, though? I sort of doubt it. Instead, I’m just going to keep my fingers crossed that their reaction is so misguided and indignant that it finally persuades a chunk of their audience that Stewart was right all along. If we can’t convert them, maybe we can hit them in the ratings.

“He’s a Necessary Branch of Government”
September 14, 2010

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is a news sati...
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From a review of philosophy Kwame Annthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen:

“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments,” he writes. “Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.” What was needed in each of those cases, he suggests, was the awakening of a nation’s sense of honor, an awakening that caused people actually to act. Mr. Appiah writes well about how shame and ridicule, often delivered through a free press, have consistently been sharp moral motivators.

Emphasis is my own. And here are a couple choice passages from NY Mag’s great profile of Jon Stewart from a couple days ago:

“Jon has chronicled the death of shame in politics and journalism,” says Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor who is a frequent Daily Show guest. “Many of us on this side of the journalism tracks often wish we were on Jon’s side. I envy his platform to shout from the mountaintop. He’s a necessary branch of government.”

And Stewart himself:

Yet as appalled as Stewart was by the politicians, his greater scorn was increasingly aimed at the acquiescent and co-opted news media. “I assume there are bad actors in society,” Stewart says. “It’s inherent in politicians to be disingenuous. And a mining company wants to own the company store—as it is in SpongeBob. Mr. Krabs just wants to make more money. He’s not concerned with SpongeBob’s working conditions—although SpongeBob is putting in hours that are not humane, even for an invertebrate. I assume monkeys are gonna throw shit. I get angrier at the people who don’t go ‘Bad monkey!’ or who create distraction that allows it to continue unabated. The thing that shocked me the most when I first met reporters was the people who would step aside and say, ‘Boy, I wish I could say what you’re saying.’ You have a show! You are a network anchor! Whaddya mean you can’t say it?”

So to recap: large swaths of the press, in the interest of impartiality and in response to various other professional, social, and economic pressures, have largely avoided publicly shaming unjust actors in our society. Appiah seems to conceive of the press as an outside force that can wield shame as a way of forcing justice and progress. But our Fourth Estate has been so wholly swallowed up into the apparatus of power and the cult of the process, that it falls to people like Jon Stewart to shame them.

Williams’ quote is pretty telling. Stewart is “a necessary branch of government” only to the extent that he keeps chiding Williams and others for dereliction of duty.

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