The Wall that Jon Stewart Builds Around Himself

on November 16, 2010

The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart has been a beacon of sanity for many of us over the last decade, but since his official Rally to Restore Sanity two weeks ago, some of the luster seems to have worn off.

Last Thursday, Stewart appeared with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow to explain why he had concluded the rally by characterizing MSNBC as the liberal equivalent of the far-right wingnuts at Fox News. I didn’t watch the interview, however.

I had been more than a bit disheartened that instead of the rally achieving mythic reconciliation with Stephen Colbert’s simultaneous March to Keep Fear Alive, as I had hoped, it had simply turned Colbert into a cardboard villain and melted him. That unconvincing triumph over the shadow self was what led up to Stewart delivering the plea for civility and moderation that included a false equivalence between MSNBC and Fox.

In the aftermath, I agreed with those who described the rally as no more than an extended episode of The Daily Show — the comedic equivalent of 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Or perhaps not even that good, because it seemed as though Stewart had missed a crucial opportunity to take on a larger cultural role and there would be no second chance to get it right with his own Wrath of Khan.

I would discover, however, that Stewart had not merely missed the chance but had actively avoided it.

Immediately following the Maddow interview, the left blogosphere lit up with pained descriptions of Stewart’s self-justification as falling somewhere between lame and an active betrayal of his own audience. I mentioned this in chatting on IM with my son Toby, and he immediately hied himself off to YouTube and came back a few hours later to say, “I just got done watching the Jon Stewart interview, and I wanted to share my one thought. … Basically the point is that Jon Stewart resists understanding his own role in the universe.”

“He sees the news people reporting the news,” Toby explained, “and the commentators commenting, and then he sees himself at a level separate from that, doing satire and making fun of both of the others. And he fails to see — or actively resists seeing — that he is himself a commentator. He rejects the fact that he and his show in some way influences the national dialog and the way we look at ourselves. And I think that’s his limit. That’s a wall that he builds around himself.”

That seemed acutely observed, and my first reaction was that “it goes along with the whole hipster ironic detachment thing. Stewart isn’t a hipster himself, but he’s the perfect comedian for an era of hipsterism.”

I’ve been trying for a while to figure out the current species of hipster, and I can’t say I’ve made very much progress. My best understanding is that they’re people who are disgusted with the prevailing order of things but who also maintain a sneaking suspicion that anything they could champion as an alternative will carry with it an odor of white middle-class inauthenticity. This ties them up in knots and means that anything they do has a air of “I’m only pretending” about it.

It may also be that they’re so afraid of seeming uncool that they’re unable to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the sort of benign obsessions that any geek would be able to enjoy without reservations.

In any case, these latter-day hipsters seem very comparable to the Hollywood hipsters of the late 50’s and early 60’s, whose laid-back cool reflected an attitude of the moment that was shunted aside as the culture entered a new phase of passionate engagement.

But there’s another aspect to Stewart’s style of detached mockery that can’t simply be explained as quasi-hipster irony.

Some months ago, I wrote about the rejection during the 1960’s of the old faith in objective “scientific” knowledge — and how that led to a widespread cynicism about the possibility of being certain about anything, but also to a new standard of knowledge as grounded in participation rather than detachment. And I pointed to the leading-edge comedians of the 1970’s, like John Belushi and Andy Kaufman, as examples of this participatory approach applied to humor.

The same dichotomy is still very much with us, and it illuminates the difference between Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Stewart is the eternal skeptic, but Colbert — who maintains his assumed persona as a right-wing commentator even when testifying before Congress — is the direct heir of Belushi and Kaufman. That is why Colbert’s comic persona has a kind of shimmer to it, a can’t-put-your-finger-on-it other-dimensionality, that Stewart’s lacks.

But there’s also another limitation to Stewart’s self-image, which came out strongly in a brief exchange during the Maddow interview that Toby pointed me to.

“The one thing I don’t have that you have is the ability to really do something about it,” Stewart says to Maddow, referring to politics. “You’re in the game.”

“You’re in the game too,” Maddow replies. “We’re in the same game.”

“I don’t think so,” Stewart insists. “I think you’re in a better game than I’m in. … You’re on the playing field and I’m in the stands yelling things. … That rally — I could have gotten on the field. And people got mad that I didn’t. But that was the point.”

“That rally was to deflate a bubble and to do what I think satire does best,” Stewart continues. “In a weird way it’s idealistic, but it’s impotent. The next thing I could do is step onto the field and go, ‘Now here’s what we’re going to do, people.’ But I don’t.”

And a few seconds later he adds, somewhat oddly, “There is no honor in what I do but I do it as honorably as I can.”

My immediate reaction to Stewart’s remarks was that he seemed to think starting a mass movement was the only possible alternative to laying back and taking potshots from the stands. And meanwhile Maddow was saying no, if you’re having an influence on people you’re already on the playing field.

But then I was reminded again of stuff that I’ve blogged in the last few months. In August, I suggested that the democracy vision — the vision of society that is now failing — has seen meaningful power as inherent only in official government institutions and not in individuals. Pressure groups may attempt to influence official policy in various ways, but there is no autonomous source of outside power.

Stewart clearly shares that vision, which is why he sees himself as not being “in the game” and describes what he does as “idealistic but … impotent.” Within the terms of the democracy vision, deliberate impotence may be the only way to remain an honorable outsider.

But Maddow is more attuned to the new concept of things that is now coming into focus. In that same August entry, I described the emerging vision of society as resembling “a relationship map consisting of a set of colored circles of various sizes connected by criss-crossing lines [in which] social groups and individuals are free to form a flexible and ever-evolving web of relationships with one another, unconstrained by any kind of central authority.”

Maddow knows herself to be an important node in that extra-governmental system — but whether he recognizes it or not, so is Stewart.

This new vision of society — which I have been describing as “multiculturalism,” although it is far broader than the usual meaning of that term — is participatory in a way that the old one was not. In it, we are no longer merely citizens, or voters, or consumers. Like participants in a roleplaying game, who are simultaneously authors, actors, and audience, we now play all the parts at once.

Like Colbert’s participatory comedy, multiculturalism draws upon the example of the holism vision to conceive of society as a system which is defined by its members and not by its supposed rulers. And that is something we desperately need at the present moment.

As our own self-appointed rulers amass more and more wealth and power and grow increasingly out of touch with the needs of the other 98%, we can no longer depend on elections or even organized pressure groups to constrain their greed and ambition. The only recourse we have left may be to define them out of existence — to identify them as damage to the system and route around them.

And as long as Jon Stewart fails to understand this, as long as he is unable to recognize that everyone with a voice is equally in the game, all he will be able to do is lay back and take potshots from the stands.

It’s rapidly becoming a “Mr. Jones” moment — and Stewart, unfortunately, is the one who doesn’t know what’s happening.


A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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