The Rally To Elevate Tone of Voice Over Substance

So Jon Stewart had his rally yesterday. From what I can tell, it was a great promotional event for his TV show and a great party for a lot of college-educated people. Don't get me wrong; I love Jon Stewart, love the Daily Show, and I love the fact that people who are not bat-shit crazy were willing to turn out for a quasi-political event (even if ironically). I don't have any problem with a comedy show holding a rally, no problem with lampooning the 9/12ers, and no problem with centrist liberals holding field day on the D.C. mall.

But something about it irks me. Perhaps it's the inauthenticity of Stewart pretending he's just a really topical comedian while hawking a crypto-politics somewhere between a librarian's shushing and a classic elitist "let the serious people talk now" attitude. Yes, we've all seen him rip Tucker Carlson a new one by pointing out that he's just a comedian and you can't pin him down on political opinions because, after all, you're just going nuts over a joke you don't get while shirking responsibility for your role in the political discourse that's destroying this country . And of course it's absurd that people prefer getting their daily news from a thirty minute sketch show rather than from a show run by credentialed journalists. And of course that should be embarrassing to credentialed journalists everywhere.

But I'll tell you what's really absurd and embarrassing: critiquing our political culture because, in the midst of all the death, destruction, and suffering it's causing around the world and at home, the big problem is that the rhetoric is too uncouth. The rhetoric! My poor, virgin ears! As if that's the major problem with politics right now. Not innocent men, women, and children dying every day because of drone attacks by this supposedly calm and concerned President. Not peaceful people being jailed everyday for political crimes connected to what they choose to do with their body. Not the economic crimes committed by the corporate-government cabal destroying any wealth and future security. No, it's the tone of national discourse we should really be concerned about.

Here's the thing, though: the only people who care about this stage show called the "national discourse" are the elites in media and politics who actually get to manufacture participate in it. It's natural for Stewart to linger on that topic as somebody who has a job in the media, but I can't see why the rest of us should care too terribly much. Not that he's necessarily wrong - sure, I'd like to see more thoughtful reporting and commentary on TV - but he exemplifies the same superficial, fashion cum politics that pisses off dumb ass right wingers about "Hollywood". Neither the image of politics on TV nor the scripts read by those on it are the most important things. The televised stunts of a comedian, or even the broadcasted bloviating of a talking head stroking his own ego, is not the most important thing. What matters are the lives of people being affected by these government and corporate policies. But of course, these are the policies on which people inside and outside the beltway - in spite of how it appears to Stewart - "work together to get things done every single day." I suppose only a loudmouth boor would point out that these policies kill, maim, imprison, plunder, and deceive people everyday - but really, we should keep our voices down! For the country!

I hate to say it, but Stewart appears so disconnected from the genuine tragedies affecting (God help me) regular people in the real world that he thinks the superficial, artificial, abstract idea of a "national discourse" is worth holding a rally about. It's a figment of our collective imagination with no material reality, which is why it's so risk-free to write jokes about. Yes, redneck conservatives pretend they participate in this manufactured discourse by watching news programming straight out of Idiocracy. But hipster liberals pretend they participate in it, too, by watching ten minutes of commercials and twenty minutes of skits four times a week. Aren't both scenarios sad? Is either really helping? And hey, if you point out any flaws in this punditry-on-the-sly, then why so serious, man?

For example, take the tepid, meek interview Stewart gave Obama. Did he call Obama out on the shallowness of the hope and change rhetoric a year and a half into the term? A little bit, sure. But reasonable, sane journalism - or cutting edge comedy, take your pick, I suppose - means letting the President get away with not answering questions or addressing the concerns you claim to be raising, so long as he does it in an articulate and calm manner that gives you time to set up a joke. See, what matters is the tone, and hey, look at all these young people interested in the news! It's as if the only problem with politics is that it's not entertaining enough. But have you seen FOX and Friends? There's entertainment besides comedy.

Look, Jon Stewart would be the first to tell you he's not the answer to these deeply rooted problems in our national politics. And I commend him for that. But at the same time isn't he kind of exploiting the fact that we don't have a viable answer, using this gap in credible political leadership to market his brand of "What ever are we going to do?" comedy programming? It just further proves the point that what we need is not a courtly return to respectful national conversation around the banner of the D.C. status quo but radical leadership that motivates people to face our problems head-on.

But Jon is just a comedian; he's made it clear we can't expect that from him. And, after all, his ability to serve as an outlet for popular frustration with the media he lampoons actually works pretty well for him. Reveling in his status as court jester who can point out the emperor's nakedness, Stewart is content to land on the volume of conversation in the court as some sort of pressing concern. But I've probably taken him too seriously, now; I guess the joke's on me. Wish I was one of the cool people who could crack wise while the country goes down the toilet.

Written on Sunday, October 31, 2010 | Tags: journalism, jon-stewart, comedy, current-events