Jon Stewart’s Never-Neverland

When the going gets tough, the tough get ironic
Published at CJR.org

The first irony of the major outlets’ prohibiting their employees from attending this weekend’s Stewart/Colbert rally is that their effort to preserve impartiality was, in fact, an admission of bias. Unless I missed the memo, no such edicts preceded Glenn Beck’s event in August, probably because it never occurred to anyone that legions of reporters would want to take part in a conservative faithapalooza on the spot where Martin Luther King once stood.

The New York Times went to great lengths to draw the event as “a Democratic rally without a Democratic politician,” but that wasn’t the rally I saw. Indeed, the second irony of the ban on journalist participation is that Stewart’s fake rally was truly apolitical, even anti-political. (This is in contrast to Beck, who presented an indisputably political rally keynoted by a politician, Sarah Palin, while straight-up lying that the event was “not about politics.”) The only specified target of the performers’ ire was cable news, and everyone already knows radio and print journalists don’t think anything on television can be called journalism. It was left-leaning only in its satirical disdain for right-wing hyperbole. This irony may be a political critique, but its overall effect is to promote a juvenile political disengagement.

While it may be heartening to progressives that Stewart’s turnout walloped Beck’s, they should be deeply concerned about the event’s message to the people the movement must rely on to advance the causes it cares about. By relentlessly parodying the divisive tone of political debate without offering an alternative model for politicking, the event’s net effect is to make walking away from the political process seem like a rational decision. Or, even worse, a principled one.

In the middle of the rally, Stewart introduced the musician Kid Rock by saying he was going to debut a new song that uniquely embodied the spirit of the day. Here’s the chorus:

I hear screaming on the left, yelling on the right,
I’m sitting in the middle trying to live my life.
Because I can’t stop the war, shelter homeless, feed the poor.
I can’t walk on water, can’t save your sons and daughters.
I can’t change the world and make things better.
But the least that I can do… is care.

Thank you, Kid Rock, for giving us an anthem to self-congratulatory disengagement. A reasonable person finds both the right and left equally irrelevant and the problems of the world so big that he cannot affect them. A reasonable person does not “try to walk on water,” but it’s OK to sit on our couches as long as we feel bad about how much stuff sucks.

“Call us Generation I. I for irony, iPhones, and the Internet,” wrote Alexandra Petri for The Washington Post. “We know what happens to people who take themselves seriously. They become bent and broken with care and develop arterial plaques. Sometimes they’re elected to political office…. The rally exists in a parallel universe in which millennials are politically active.”

Frustration with divisive politics and distaste for the drudgery that is the bulk of political work are perfectly legitimate. But creating a “parallel universe” where satire is a stand-in for engagement is the political equivalent of Never-Never Land for citizens who won’t grow up. Stewart may be right that a reasonable person should be fed up with over-the-top political rhetoric, but they can do a lot more than “care.” The only way to change the tone of the political process—and the pundit operations that serves as its midwife—is to prove that an alternative model works. That means it’s not enough to feel bad or laugh, though it’s understandable to need a break from politics to recharge. If you want things to be different, though, you have to get involved in the process and, yes, choose sides.

And, let’s be honest, as Robert McCartney reports for The Washington Post, most of these attendees have chosen sides. After repeating Stewart’s talking points about the media’s focus on conflict over substance, McCartney quotes one rally-goer as saying, ‘“I don’t think the Democrats are really willing to stand up for their message. If you believe in something like health care, you should go out and explain why you’re doing it, and be loud.”’

For the left-leaning crowd, attending a fake rally on the eve of a real election with major issues are at stake does nothing to prevent the downward spiral of political discourse. To those who were carrying satirical signs suggesting neither side has a claim on truth—or the absurdist ones that mock the very premise of protesting for a cause—what is the alternative? And what can you do to show that candidates who use your strategy can win elections?

As The New York Times’s David Carr observed, “media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election’s closing days, and no American governing institution — not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court — seems to be above petty partisan bickering.” Is this the cause that brought some 200,000 people to the mall, or was it just a proxy for the frustration of the left who are weary of political battles who wanted to feel political without, you know, being political?

It’s unreasonable to ask Stewart to be the one to try to help his fans mature from this ambivalent frustration to constructive engagement, of course. He is valuable as a critic precisely because he’s a satirist. Maybe we should ask Barack Obama why he has failed to do it, because that certainly was what he seemed to promise to do when elected in 2008. But I think the real question is for those who feel Obama gave false hope for a different kind of politics. Were they surprised that, after Obama won, politics was still tough? Is the answer that when the going gets tough, the tough get ironic?

The Tea Partiers may propagate misinformation, but they organize and their candidates win. Messages matter in elections, and so do money. But more than anything, what matters is hard work—nothing changes minds more than volunteers talking to their neighbors on behalf of a candidate. And logging on to Facebook when you’re procrastinating at work to “like” a candidate or make a political comment is not the same as devoting time in the evenings when you could be home recovering from a hard day’s work or doing something infinitely more fun than phone banking—like watching comedians make fun of politicians.

Stewart, who regularly skewers media for emphasizing style over substance, needs to ask whether he’s falling into the same trap. And his fans, who may be fed up with “screaming on the left, yelling on the right,” need to be challenged to do more than “care.” No one’s going to do it differently if there’s not a better way to win.

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4 comments

  1. Kristen Hicks

    I’m quite surprised that there aren’t more comments on this. It’s a very well though out and written point you make, but as one of people who feels like this rally is a great representation of where I stand in the midst of current issues (I’d have been there if I could have afforded the vacation time/airfare), I don’t feel like I have many good options for enacting change.

    I watched the mass protests of the Iraq war accomplish nothing. I’ve tried contacting my representatives with my opinions on key issues, only to receive form letters in response with only a tangential relationship to the points addressed in my original letters. Never having lived in a swing state, my votes in large elections have always tended to feel meaningless.

    As far as taking a more active role in helping to promote a particular political party or candidate, I don’t see myself represented in either party and whenever I do happen upon one I like, many of their positive attributes are pretty quickly undone by the campaign process and/or the drudgeries of political life that make it nearly impossible to get anything done without great compromise and/or corruption.

    I know this just sounds like a long list of excuses, but I feel fairly out of ideas and don’t really see a good way within the system that we have now to better respond to the issues that trouble me. Ideas?

    • Lester Feder

      You do a nice job of laying out the dilema, and I also share your frustration with politics. (I live in DC, and not only are most of our elections not competitive, we have no vote whatsoever in Congress.)

      I wish I had an easy answer, and, truth be told, part of my frustration with the Stewart rally is I feel like someone better come up with a good one soon or a lot of people who care deeply are just going to check out of a broken process, which will make it even worse.

      I guess I’d turn the question around on you, though: if you stop participating because you find the system unresponsive, will it become more responsive? Ninety percent of politics is showing up, just like life. The politicians, activists, and voters who show up in the largest numbers and with the greatest frequency win. For better or worse, we go into elections with the system we have, not the system we might want or hope to have at a future time. If you opt out, know that you’re making a decision to let other people dominate the process.

      That’s a hard truth, I guess—if we care about changing stuff, we have to do the work because we want to see it accomplished, not because it feels good most of the time. I think that’s what made me angry about the Stewart rally. Politics can be fun, but it often isn’t. Change can happen, but often it happens slowly. Mature political engagement means accepting these facts and doing the work anyway because not doing it means things get worse. We’ll lose a lot of the time, or well get a congressman who only partly represents us, but winning sometimes will keep us going, as will the effect that we elected the mediocre guy instead of the total douche-bag. And, sometimes, we might even elect someone who truly deserves our vote.

      Your goal needs to be accepting these reality, and then finding a way to keep your sanity and your energies. First, think sustainably—you don’t have to go whole hog in every race. Put a lot into causes and candidates you believe in, do civic work and volunteering that addresses problems outside of elections, give money to candidates, PACs, and advocacy groups who are encouraging the kind of politics you support or a cause you care about when you don’t have the time or passion to do it yourself. Work hard in some cycles, sit some other cycles out. Don’t just think about federal elections, also—maybe there’s a candidate for local office who you can believe in. Today’s state senator may be tomorrow’s president, and promoting different kinds of candidates can change politics down the line. Local politics can lay the groundwork for big change, too. The Christian Coalition started out by encouraging religious conservatives to run for school boards, and a decade later had transformed American politics.

      And, if you think you can stomach it: if your representative doesn’t represent you—on the local, state, or federal level—run yourself. Maybe it’s an insane long shot, but you might change the debate, or meet like-minded people to work on something else, or, as many Tea Party candidates are discovering this election, pull off an improbable victory. Even when you lose an election—even when you lose it badly—you can still make a difference. Look at Barry Goldwater—he got creamed in 1964, but from the ashes of his campaign came the modern conservative movement. Or Barack Obama, who got creamed in his first congressional bid and then became president.

      I guess this is activist answer by way of Avenue Q, which is perhaps the best story of how becoming an adult redefines idealism for people my age. “You’ll be faced with problems of all shapes and sizes,” the grownups in the musical sing to the idealistic college graduate worried about finding his “purpose.” “You’re going to have to make a few compromises … but only for now.” You may never find your political purpose, but even if you make a few compromises for now, things may turn out a lot more to your liking than if you wait for the system to change on its own.

      Not a very satisfying answer, I know. But it’s the only honest one I can think of.

  2. Jess

    I think Lester’s point that “change can happen, but often it happens slowly” is a great one. We live in a RIGHT NOW culture but we do not have a RIGHT NOW political system. I work on reproductive rights in southern states, God knows I don’t see a lot (or any) big victories. I’ve just tried to come to terms with the reality that victory is going to take longer than my lifetime. But I’ll be damned if I don’t hold the line as best I can, because the alternative terrifies me.

    The war protests didn’t end the war immediately, but we eventually elected a president who ended combat operations in Iraq. And I don’t think even the most politically active among us fully realize what we accomplished with healthcare reform–not perfect, of course, but still, transformative. People put their hearts and souls into getting someone elected, and something actually changed. There’s lots left to do, but that shouldn’t be demoralizing, it should be inspiring.

  3. Kristen Hicks

    Those are all good points and I just love seeing discourse of this level on the internet. Thanks for your work, Jess, and you’re right, health care reform did accomplish a lot. I’m actually newly insured on account of some of the small business incentives built into that bill.

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