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Last Men And OverMen

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Is Jon Stewart Past His Expiration Date?

     When I first came across this title question in a Slate piece my first reaction was while not exactly ‘getting my gun’-as in the old saying ‘when I hear the world culture I get my gun’-at least to reach for my bullshit detector. I mean often you get this alleged for liberals from a friend-presumably a liberal too-who seems to be trying to help not liberals but conservatives.

      What made me rethink it and at least give the post a chance was that this was also a suggestion of Barney Franks-that liberalism needs to ‘get over the snark’ of Stewart and Stephen Colbert, et. al.

       “Barney Frank spent a whopping 32 years of his life as a U.S. congressman, and retired at a time when his party’s chances of retaking the House majority looked pretty grim. So when the onetime representative of Massachusetts’ 4th District announced in 2011 that he was calling it a career, I couldn’t really blame him. All the same, I must admit that as I read through his recent interview with Reuters — a wide-ranger in which Frank’s in his usualwitty, incisive and cantankerous form — I felt a bit melancholy over what the federal government, and liberalism itself, has lost.”

      “The whole thing is worth your time, but if I had to pick one section of the interview that seemed the most distinctly Barney Frank-esque, it would have to be the moment when the former congressman takes aim not at favorite liberal targets like Chris Christie or Jeb Bush but at two liberal heroes: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. “The press is very different today,” Frank told Reuters, comparing the current media landscape to the one of 20 years ago. Calling it “a major contributing factor to pro-right-wing, anti-government feeling,” Frank argued that the media had anything but a liberal bias. “[E]ven the liberal press is anti-government,” Frank complained. “Ever watched Jon Stewart say anything good about government?”

     “According to Frank, Stewart and Colbert go wrong by letting a general weariness of the corruption and plasticity of American politics blind them to recognizing the difference between the left and the right. Using Bill Maher as a contrast, Frank said that the HBO host is “very funny, but also has good and bad guys on the show.” As a result, Maher’s viewers, Frank argued, can determine for themselves which side they found more persuasive. On the other hand, Frank said, “You come away from Stewart and especially Colbert” believing that all politicians are “assholes.” Both sides are terrible, in other words, so why bother?”

      I think there is something in that possibly, though I actually prefer Colbert to Stewart. I think Stewart in particular really has this attitude of ”their all assholes’ and I agree with Frank that watching it one might just conclude ‘why bother?’

      Colbert-is great. Of course, he’s gone in any case, but I really miss him. That time he roasted Bush in front of him at that correspondence dinner is just pure gold-The No-Fact Zone!

      Stewart on the other hand can actually be a real downer.

      Not Colbert-listening to him all I do is laugh. Listen-it’s up to people if they want to still watch Stewart. I have no real horse in that race. I often have enjoyed him but unlike some of the young people out there I don’t get my news primarily from him. In many ways the format is more palatable and less forbidding to what you might call the post MTV generation. I love MTV don’t get me wrong but I remember the time before MTV-which admittedly wasn’t so much fun. When I want to seriously know what’s going on I don’t go there.

      However, the fact that Frank-who I have a very high regard for-makes this complaint makes me think a little more about it. I think I got tired of Stewart after 2009. I’ll admit it’s partly because I’m an Obama supporter and I feel that while he’s obviously a on the left-liberal said of the spectrum he seems to think that he has to criticize Obama as much as he did Bush because that is honest.

     You’ve heard ‘a pox on both your houses?’ Well Stewart seems to just be a pox on all houses. Plus I didn’t like the time he took down Jim Cramer. In all fairness, I think he came from the stand point of someone who doesn’t know anything about the market and how it works. He came at it in some hyper fierce moralistic terms but that’s not what the market is.

     It’s interesting actually to ask the Zizekean question: ‘what does Stewart want?’ A sympathetic book calls him ‘the angry optimism.’ I think I agree with a quote of something he himself says in this book: ‘I’m probably too critical.’

     Yet, I think that you have to understand what the function of his show is. It’s not just a straight news show but it’s aimed at people who feel themselves to be disenfranchised. Looking at the world this way doesn’t really appeal to me but there are a large market of such folks. Maybe the folks at Slate or even Frank thinks it’s run it’s course but does the Stewart audience think that? If it did it’d be over.  We’ll see if and when that happens.

     UPDATE: My idea of the audience are kids who never cared about the news before as it’s too boring and smarmy but find that Stewart makes it cool. As they, like Stewart, feel themselves disenfranchised in some deep social way they enjoy his throwing all these rhetorical spitballs-while of course it;s just for a comic effect.

    Look there are many things that other people like that I don’t like. A lot of people don’t like Rush and wish he were off the air-I don’t like him but I don’t spend time wishing him off the air. This will happen if it does if his fans ever start agreeing with his critics just like with Stewart. I mean I get that there’s a market and there’s no use in spitting into the wind.

    The question of the impact of Stewart is a different question. Actually I like the way the Slate writer-Elias Isquith-took Frank’s comments:

     “I’m not sure Frank’s setup here can withstand strict scrutiny (if Maher’s establishing “bad guys,” can it really be said that he’s letting his audience make up its own mind?); and I definitely think it’s a mistake to lump Colbert and Stewart together as he does. But at least as far as Stewart and “The Daily Show” goes, I believe Frank’s got a point — and a good one at that. I’ve written previously about why I find Stewart’s habit of saying he’s “just a comedian” whenever he’s challenged so annoying. But what Frank’s getting at is different, and is more about Stewart’s overall approach. More than “The Colbert Report” or Maher’s stand-up and HBO series, “The Daily Show” tends to inspire glib cynicism more than outrage or understanding. But I’d argue it’s the show’s utter dependence on Jon Stewart, Media Personality — not an “anti-government” inclination — that explains the reason why.”

     So he agrees with me that Stewart and Colbert are different-and that this criticism is more suitable to Stewart. I find Stewart on that link above where he ripped apart the old CNN Crossfire show as interesting. He plays the very same ‘I’m just a comedian’ game and it does seem a little disingenuous. After all, it enables him to criticize others and when they point out that it can also apply to him his answer is ‘But I’m just a comedian, what’s your excuse?’ This is both a cop out and kind of literally makes him ‘rubber and his opponents blue.’

       This question fascinates me: why is he so critical? His hypercritical posture makes one wonder if he’s indeed ‘just a comedian.’  In that Crossfire show the Zizekean question comes to us: What did Stewart really want from these two hosts he battered so much? i

       I think here, Isquith makes a very good point: Stewart’s actual political analysis tends to be very superficial-which may be another reason I don’t bother to watch him regularly. He kind of reminds me here of Saturday Night Live where the opening segment gives you hope in the show but by the end you realize it never really delivered on your hopes.

       “But much more often, the result of “The Daily Show’s” reliance on Jon Stewart, Media Personality, is to leave its audience with an understanding of politics that suffers from Stewart’s weakness for the superficial. Sen. John McCain, for example, may support myriad policies that Stewart finds objectionable — most especially those involving the killing and maiming of other people — but because McCain is witty, personable and seemingly forthright, he’ll always have a spot in “The Daily Show’s” heart (albeit one that’s less luxurious than it used to be). Along the same lines, Stewart has a penchant for sneering at political activists who promote all the same causes as he might, but do so without his signature (and glib) ironic distance. By focusing so heavily on the style of politics rather than the substance, Stewart leaves his audience with the mistaken impression that, ultimately, none of it really matters.”

       This may be why he has often praised Fox News and treated Bill O’Reilly respectfully. It’s funny as I mentioned Limbaugh previously but in a way Stewart’s game ‘I’m just a comedian’ is sort of like what Rush does when he claims his job is to entertain-that you shouldn’t take him for what he isn’t. 

       Then Isquith touches on a central think I don’t like about Stewart-besides the fact that he’s really just too critical; I really find him to be personally quite unpleasant-he plays the ‘both sides do it game.’

       “It’s the shallowness of Stewart’s politics that leads to his other notable weakness as a political pundit (which, “just a comedian” protestations aside, he clearly is); namely, his tendency to fall prey to the trap of blaming “both sides.” As the journalist Sasha Issenberg once snarked, there are times when Stewart’s desperation to maintain his cooler-than-thou remove from the political process ends up making him sound like “a David Broder column with punchlines.” Like Broder, the now-deceased legendary reporter who became known as the “dean of the Washington press corps,” Stewart can be so worried about sounding partisan, and thus losing his straight-shooter credibility, that he can make arguments and jokes that are insincere on their face. Predictably, this tic has been more obvious in the Obama years — like when he tried to give the conservative (and thinly veiled) Obama-needs-a-teleprompter meme a “Daily Show” spin.”

        “Take a look at Stewart’s interview with President Obama in 2010 as a case in point. Aired around the same time as Stewart was organizing and starring in his “Rally to Restore Sanity” —  which asked tens of thousands of “Daily Show” fans to congregate in Washington in order to … ask both sides, politely, to adhere to an ill-defined, ahistorical standard of reasoned discourse —  he was venting to the president about all of his frustration and disappointment. “So here you are, you’re two years into your administration,” Stewart complained at one point, “and the question that arises in my mind [is]: Are we the people we were waiting for or does it turn out those people are still out there and we don’t have their number?” It was a decent zinger, hoisting Obama’s famous 2008 campaign slogan on its own petard. But coming as it did from a guy who mocks activists, ridicules earnestness and downplays the sincerity of the left and right’s political differences, it was annoying as well as hypocritical.”

       UPDATE: Still, I have to say-having said all this-that Stewart did do a good job with those Bill O’Reilly; debates. They were interesting and informative-probably better than most real debates between politicians.





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