“His message was that America is fine”

by zunguzungu

Andrew Sullivan thinks this is a good thing:

…it was the first actual ironic rally I’ve attended. Most of those in this movement were clearly ambivalent about being in any movement, but at the same time seemed to be acting out of some shared civic duty. “One man can write a pun, but every man must try.” Almost every poster and placard was ironic, or undercut the ego or seriousness of the protester…the point, it seemed to me, was that politics isn’t all there is to life, there is something slightly off about those who think it is, and that political ideology has come to define us culturally and personally far too much.

But I think it’s a very bad thing; if not the cause of it, then at least its manifestation. Americans who want to emphasize that “politics isn’t all there is to life” are people who don’t feel very keenly the sting of injustice or the anxiety of uncertainty or the horror of what this country does in our name. When you lose your job because of politics, or can’t afford to go to school because of politics, or are denied full citizenship because of politics, or die because of politics, the idea that “politics isn’t all there is to life” will be cold comfort to you.

Someone like Stewart has a vested interest in emphasizing concord and minimizing discord because he and his audience are comfortable. Stewart can bring Obama onto the Daily Show and ask softball questions because it makes him feel good to have a president that’s smart and reasonable, who makes a war where we kill innocent people constantly and for no reason seem smart and reasonable. As Dennis Perrin puts it:

…as clever as Stewart, Colbert, and their writing staffs can be, they are at bottom corporate mouthpieces, part of the very distraction Stewart bewailed in his closing monologue. Indeed, Stewart’s focus on cable news channels and their corrosive influence on the body politic proved how disconnected he truly is. The vast majority of Americans don’t watch these channels, so their lives and public behavior aren’t coarsened by blather and sensation. Daily American life batters them enough without O’Reilly and Olbermann screaming in their faces.

Stewart’s main audience are white, college-educated/age liberals with deep self-regard. For them, politics is basically voting Democrat and little more. This was seen on the faces in the crowd, and on several signs, celebrating superiority to Tea Partiers and the ability to spell correctly. Looking at them, you felt no sense of alarm, no anger about present conditions, no effort to make their desires (whatever they are) reality. Just solipsism, smugness, waving at the cameras like they were at a ball game. Afghanistan? The economy? Boring! Appletinis after the show? Sweet!

Dan C. made the interesting point in comments that creating a “crypto-leftist” fetish of civility is a better thing than the crypto-conservative fetish of “America!” that the Beck, et al employ:

…he has at least taken a step to relocate sanity as he restores it, creating a fetish of civility or moderation or common sense or whatever that is crypto-leftist instead of the usual crypto-conservative normalcy. His fumbling attempts to wave away the difference between problems of mediation and problems of social justice are, of course, problematic, but I admire his effort to wrest the imperative to chill out from the psychos who are scaring us. Intellectual honesty in the public sphere would be lovely, but a fetishized yet somewhat progressive discourse of normality does not strike me as something to be dismissed

During his speech, Stewart made several attempts to disentangle the material conditions of our present moment from the image of same projected by news networks and political pundits, speaking of the former (the real deal) with a vague sense of fatalism while positioning the later as the main site of his intervention, such as it is. His posture of pragmatic humility (otherwise perceptible as unbearable smugness) depends upon the notion that there is some political real that would seem less scary if we could only represent it more reasonably. One might object (and several already have, by the looks of it) that there comes a point when talking and thinking in public constitutes a political situation rather than describing it, which is where I think his call for calm starts to sound fishy (with no intended reference to dear old cranky Stanley).

My gut response is to viscerally distrust the appeal to a bi-partisan, objective, and non-political “real,” as Dan puts it, but I think he’s right that this is precisely what Stewart is doing: by condemning both ideological “sides” equally for the crime of being ideological, he implies or explicitly claims that the truth is to be found in a “Real” that is outside those ideological filters. This comes out most clearly in his press critique, because he frames the work of the press — by the hoariest of clichés — as simply and objectively presenting the news as they see it, without comment or filter. So easy! From Stewart’s speech:

The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems and illuminate problems heretofore unseen, or it can use its magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous-flaming-ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything we eventually get sicker. And perhaps eczema. Yet, with that being said, I feel good. Strangely, calmly good, because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a funhouse mirror, and not the good kind that makes you slim and taller — but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass like a pumpkin and one eyeball.

If you believe there is a “real” that binds us together, then this makes a certain sense; if you believe the problem is that “we” have been convinced to think that “we” aren’t a “we” by malevolent/misguided ideologues (but really “we” are actually a “we”) then this is not stupid, and all we need to do is put aside the hyperbolic hysterics of the media and put our trust in sober civil discourse. Which is why Stewart is so invested in convincing us that this particular “funhouse mirror image” needs to be replaced with a different image, the real one, a real he imagines into existence by playing footage of the Lincoln Tunnel and building an elaborate metaphor out of the ways each car stops to let the other car go before it as the traffic merges. This, Stewart wants to tell us, is the real America:

These cars — that’s a school teacher who thinks taxes are too high…there’s a mom with two kids who can’t think about anything else…another car, the lady’s in the NRA. She loves Oprah…An investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah…a Latino carpenter…a fundamentalist vacuum salesman…a Mormon Jay Z fan…But this is us. Everyone of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear — often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers. And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile-long, 30-foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river…And they do it. Concession by concession. You go. Then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go — oh my god, is that an NRA sticker on your car, an Obama sticker on your car? Well, that’s OK. You go and then I’ll go…” Sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst.

It is a compelling image. But what if, for example, you look out into the world and see not a basic normality of everyday justice and brotherhood and comity and happy cookies but, rather, a massively inequitable system getting both steadily worse and more deeply enmeshed into our everyday reality? An America which has, for example, rendered it normal to be conducting military operations in multiple theatres for no publicly acknowledged or agreed upon purpose? Where 10% unemployment is normal? Where immigrants are presumed guilty until documented innocent? What if you think things actually are completely fucked up?

If Beck/O’Reilly/Palin have a vested interest in obsessing their viewers with crypto-socialism, godless secularism, and creeping sharia law, it’s because it allows them to produce, package, and profit from selling hatred. That’s their business and business is good. But because Stewart speaks to a diametrically different audience, he has a diametrically different vested interest: obsessing his viewers in an imaginary America in which everything is actually great allows him to produce, package, and profit from ironic detachment, comfortable passivity, and quiet self-satisfaction that now, suddenly, scans as a virtuous acceptance of the real. If things are actually great, and the real threat is demagogues telling us that it’s not great, then we Daily Show viewers — we who quietly chuckle at Stewart’s sarcasm each night or nod knowingly at Colbert’s satirical performance — are the real heroes here: by doing nothing, we reinforce the status quo. Which, in Lincoln Tunnel America, is a good thing.

Stewart began his speech by saying that we live in bad times, not end times. This is dangerous bullshit. To pick only one example, there is an almost complete scientific consensus that global warming represents an existential threat to the existence of human life on earth. The Obama administration has done virtually nothing about it, because petty politicians in places like Kentucky don’t want him to do anything about it. And so he hasn’t. Certainly a news media that is beholden to energy companies is part of the problem — NBC is owned by General Electric, for example — but the more basic problem is this: if you accept that Global Warming is a big fucking deal, then you have to acknowledge that our system of dealing with that problem is broken. The image Stewart gives us of American citizens nicely deferring to their fellow man in order to get through the tunnel is dangerously wrong, on this issue at least. But you can make a similar point about all the other completely unacceptable elements of the status quo that our system has not so much failed to solve as it has refused to address or admit exist: health care, civil liberties, war, Wall Street, the “war on drugs,” etc. When Jon Stewart pretends the system isn’t broken — or presents us with a false choice between insane irrational panic and satisfied liberal quiescence — he hides this fact under comfortable illusions. The rational response to the state of the nation might not be panic, but the fact that so many people who are panicked are also reading the situation wrong doesn’t mean they’re wrong to panic, it just means they don’t understand why the system is fucked. Because the system actually is pretty fucked.

I wish that Stewart was right when he tells us that “the selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute…is rare and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst.” But give me a break. The people who destroyed the economy made a lot of money doing it and have continued to have comfortable lives even while the rest of us have watched our futures get a lot worse as a result. Selfish jerks thrive in the system we have.

Here, in a nutshell, is the moment where Stewart destroys his credibility as an analyst, speaking through a straw man argument in order to vigorously demolish it:

Why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true of course our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own? We hear every damn 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, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day! The only place we don’t is here or on cable TV.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out this morning, “it should never be forgotten that Bill O’Reilly is serving an actual audience, one that would surely invent O’Reilly if he didn’t exist. Indeed they’ve invented him before.” Or Mike Barthel:

…people who don’t watch Fox News or CNN or MSNBC wouldn’t know about these outrages of incivility if they didn’t want to know about them.  The only reason they – well, let’s be honest here, we – do know about them is because some people make a very good living off of telling us about the awful things other people have said. We like hearing about them!  It feels kinda good to be angry, right?  That’s why we read blogs and watch satirical shows and seek out media criticism.  It’s not because we want to hear about the good things that are going on, for heaven’s sake.  It’s so we can read about the trash.  We want the tabloid version of politics – not in the sense of sleaze and sex, but of scandal, error, gaffe, public indiscretion, mistake; the political version of “stars without makeup” or “worst beach bodies.”

The biggest growth sector in the media right now is talking about the media, and as much as Jon Stewart would like to pretend he’s above the media, he is very much a part of it.  How would his audience be aware of offensive ads in a Congressional race in a state they don’t live in unless he and his team (or people like them at other outlets) spent all day searching around for the worst examples of political discourse they can find?  All the Daily Show is about at this point is notifying us of uncivil, awful things that have no real impact on anything and would remain relatively obscure if Stewart didn’t tell us about them.

But this isn’t even the main point. The difference between “Marxists actively subverting our Constitution” and “racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own” is that, not to put too fine a point on it, the first is an utter fantasy and the latter is all too true. There are no marxists in a position of power to do anything in the United States. But there certainly are powerful bigots and homophobes in congress and the media. Yesterday, Bill Maher suggested that Muslim babies are a threat to civilization. Also yesterday, David Broder, an absolute pillar of the corrupt respectable DC pundit class, suggested in the Washington Post — not Fox News or something — that Obama should start a war with Iran because that would make it easier for him to get elected.

It is hard to overreact to that kind of evil. Juan Cole’s measured response — that a war with Iran might destroy America — is dead on in several important ways, but the larger point for me would be that killing hundreds of thousands of people in order to win an election is one of the ost odious and immoral ideas it’s possible to think. People like Broder and Maher say and think deeply evil and inhuman things. They seem to consistently see and speak about no one’s humanity but their own, and those like them. If that’s doesn’t panic you, it might be because you don’t care. And they’re only the media figures, who flatter and emulate the people who have the power  to actually do such things.

By contrast, as Chris Hedges puts it, “The American left is a phantom”:

“It is conjured up by the right wing to tag Barack Obama as a socialist and used by the liberal class to justify its complacency and lethargy. It diverts attention from corporate power. It perpetuates the myth of a democratic system that is influenced by the votes of citizens, political platforms and the work of legislators. It keeps the world neatly divided into a left and a right. The phantom left functions as a convenient scapegoat. The right wing blames it for moral degeneration and fiscal chaos. The liberal class uses it to call for “moderation.” And while we waste our time talking nonsense, the engines of corporate power—masked, ruthless and unexamined—happily devour the state…

The phantom left took a central role on the mall this weekend in Washington. It had performed admirably for Glenn Beck, who used it in his own rally as a lightning rod to instill anger and fear. And the phantom left proved equally useful for the comics Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who spoke to the crowd wearing red-white-and-blue costumes. The two comics evoked the phantom left, as the liberal class always does, in defense of moderation, which might better be described as apathy. If the right wing is crazy and if the left wing is crazy, the argument goes, then we moderates will be reasonable. We will be nice. Exxon and Goldman Sachs, along with predatory banks and the arms industry, may be ripping the guts out of the country, our rights—including habeas corpus—may have been revoked, but don’t get mad. Don’t be shrill. Don’t be like the crazies on the left.

(By the way, I’ve been reading — at Rohit Chopra’s suggestion — Antonio de Velasco’s really smart book on Clinton and the rhetoric of centrism, which is incredibly a propos, and I’ll post on it when I get around to it. But if you have access to a university library that has a copy (or are the sort of person who would pay $48 for a book), I highly recommend it.)