Jon Stewart, Opiate of the Masses
by R.L. Stephens II on February 14, 2015
Jon Stewart is a charlatan. He’s also funny. Both qualities can be true at the same time, and it’s that duality that makes him such a difficult figure to critique.
As a teenager all the way through my early twenties, before I learned how to read for myself, I held up Stewart’s program The Daily Show as an example of alternative news. Not only did I think he was funny, but I also thought his caustic remarks and comedic takedowns were politically subversive. I was wrong, and I wasn’t alone.
The Daily Show was required viewing for politically-minded young people. Stewart had built a career as the populist everyman brave enough to stand as a foil to the demagogues of both cable news and electoral politics. He specialized in highlighting the hypocrisy and hyperbole of the 24-hour news cycle, passing off his smug commentary as politicized disruption. The routine worked, to the tune of millions of dollars in annual salary and one of the most cherished television programs of the last 20 years. He made us feel like the good guys simply by tuning in. Back in those days, when the Iraq war was taking off and we were too young to vote, Stewart’s performance made us feel vindicated in a time when the slightest dissent was drowned out by bellicose grunts of “USA! USA!”
And that’s Stewart’s genius, the ability to make us feel justified and content, but it’s also the thing that makes him a problem. Stewart exploits our frustrations, our alienation, that nagging feeling that something is wrong with this country, and he redirects them to benign self-congratulatory neoliberal docility. In a 2003 interview with Bill Moyers, Stewart remarked, “I think of myself as a comedian who has the pleasure of writing jokes about things that I actually care about. And that’s really it… I have great respect for people who are in the front lines and the trenches of trying to enact social change. I am far lazier than that.” This depoliticized posture allows Stewart to obscure his show’s social impact.
Jon Stewart as Liberal Ideologue-Chief
The historians Elizabeth and Eugene Genovese wrote nearly thirty years ago about the dangers of “liberal ideologues.” While the Genoveses were concerned with the rise of social history as an academic discipline, their analysis is equally applicable to our current liberal ideologue-in-chief, Jon Stewart. The Genovese’s found that despite liberal ideologues’ “usual pretense of not having a political argument,” they incontrovertibly center their politics “on an evasion of class confrontation.” Their description fits Stewart to a T.
Like the liberal ideologues the Genovese’s skewered thirty years ago, Stewart removes class conflict from the equation. Take his 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear,” where Stewart offered his most coherent articulation of his ideology. At one point, Stewart argued that corporate media presented a false image of US Americans. Speaking before thousands gathered at the National Mall, Stewart declared, “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 and racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own?” The obvious red-baiting inherent in equating Marxists with “racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own,” reveals the aforementioned class evasion in no uncertain terms. But Stewart not only sidesteps class confrontation, he seeks to evade confrontation altogether.
To conclude the speech, Stewart’s entire charade climaxed in a glorified appeal for good manners, as if a lack of civility is the source of political conflict. Stewart’s remarks amounted to a call for the general public to keep calm and stay working. Using a traffic jam on the highway as a metaphor, Stewart praised the general working public’s tendency to resign themselves to going with the flow, as if it were a virtue, marvelling at how “they do it concession by concession.” There’s no conflict in Stewart’s traffic jam because for him politics is simply a matter of personal preference and not a fundamental clash of competing group interests. Stewart’s perspective is the height of neoliberal myopia.
In 2004, Stewart spoke with the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, where he admitted “the appeal of doing the show is that it’s cathartic.” Yet, for the viewer, there is no release in watching the program, only sedation. Steve Almond, writing for the Baffler in 2012, exposed the hollow posturing that Stewart and his ilk pass of as political insight. Calling Stewart and his contemporaries’ “the peak output of a lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage,” Almond concluded that their “goal is to mollify people, not incite them.” Jon Stewart is an opiate of the masses.
Satire in Form, Not Content
It’s here where I want to make it clear that the purpose of this text is not to say that Jon Stewart is a bad person. He’s spineless (h/t Paige), but he’s not bad. Jon Stewart is, first and foremost, a TV propagandist. As the nation’s highest-profile liberal ideologue, Stewart’s neoliberal equivocating is an unsurprising inevitability. Though Stewart may object to “the way politics are handled within the media,” he’s still bound by the limitations of the very medium he criticizes. Neil Postman’s landmark text Amusing Ourselves to Death explains the paradox inherent in a news parody that reports real news.
Entertainment is the supraideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to ‘join them tomorrow.’ What for? One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights. We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the ‘news’ is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
As Postman notes, we already don’t take the news seriously. Television’s reliance on images and performances over substantive and serious thought is what ensures that television news — all TV news and perhaps especially TV news parodies — becomes amusing and little else.
In this context, Stewart’s insistence that he’s just a comedian would make sense. “There’s a difference between making a point and having an agenda. We don’t have an agenda to change the political system,” Stewart said in a 2004 interview with the Washington Post. Stewart went on to claim that he and his team “have a more selfish agenda, to entertain ourselves.” However, this claim doesn’t absolve him because, as Postman argues, “a news show… is a format for entertainment.” All newscasters are entertainers. Stewart’s program is a continuation and not a departure from the standard.
A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis… There is no conspiracy here, no lack of intelligence, only a straightforward recognition that ‘good television’ has… everything to do with what the pictorial images look like. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
The Daily Show’s style is a satirical take on the news format, but its content is totally conventional. The Daily Show’s stylistic twist on TV news is not an elevation of the discourse. Instead, it’s merely a continuation of the medium’s well-established norms. Plus, it’s not satire if all you do is say conventional remarks in a silly tone. Stewart and his comedic progeny preach ideology without politics, but if we peel back the surface, we get little more than the status quo with a smile.
Excerpts from his 2004 bestseller America: The Book show us that the restrictions of the television medium can’t fully explain Stewart’s liberal ruse. The book is a send-up of the textbook format, much like The Daily Show parodies TV news. However, despite its over-the-top approach, its underlying ideologies typify neoliberal convention. For example, his section on Africa argues “blame for Africa’s modern-day ills can be laid squarely at the feet of two oppressors: white people and black people.” On its surface this is a false equivalence, which would be fine if that were the joke. It’s not.
While the text acknowledges European colonialism’s debilitating impact on the continent, it argues that colonial exploitation is over. Instead, it’s the contemporary Africans themselves who have made Africa “so dreadful.” There are a few tongue-in-cheek comments thrown into the mix, but overall the story is a lucid and unironic articulation of the typical Western view of Africa. Again, it’s not satire if you just say racist things with a silly tone.
By playing up the silliness, there are no longer any stakes and thus no accountability. Just this week former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver sparked a beef with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. He chastised Correa for responding to media smears during his presidential addresses, and ridiculed Correa’s attempt to confront a Twitter user who made a death threat against the leader.
The bit plays into the conventional narrative that labels socialist Latin American leaders as dictators. It’s also funny. Oliver paints Correa’s responding to Twitter death threats with dialogue to be irrational and egomaniacal, but in the United States we send people to prison for threatening the president on Twitter. Using force over Twitter beef is the real absurdity, but if Correa were to do the same, then the US would be the first to call him a dictator and liberals like Oliver would run a media campaign against him. It’s easy for Oliver to treat Twitter as meaningless because he’s just an ideologue with no politics, and thus no consequences. But for Correa, a man in the midst of a real political struggle, the stakes are high.
In Latin America, right-wing press, emboldened by US support, uses disinformation to destabilize socialist political projects. The 2002 US-backed coup in Venezuela is a good example of the natural consequences of this type of media. A Twitter death threat is much more dangerous and proximate when we take recent history into account. Perhaps in this context we can also begin to understand why Correa would take the time during his presidential address to tear up a newspaper — which Correa writes-off as ridiculous. But Oliver, like Jon Stewart, is just a liberal ideologue unconcerned with political context, and so the very real danger that right-wing media poses to socialists like Correa is ignored for the sake of a few laughs. The fact that the spat between Correa and Oliver is being used to frame Correa as “the bully president” doesn’t matter. It’s all in good fun, right?
This self-righteous aloofness is what Jon Stewart’s reign hath wrought, and that’s okay. It may surprise you, but I’m not saying we should stop watching a la Suey Park’s ill-fated #CancelColbert campaign. It’s okay to be entertained by TV news, that’s why it exists. But, we ought to employ the same scrutiny to Jon Stewart and his pals that we do for all other presentations of corporate newstainment. They are not truth-tellers, and they don’t deserve half the legitimacy that we so freely grant them.