Life as an Extreme Sport

Will Stewart and others leave a lasting scar on the body politic?

Choice sections from an article running today in the Santa Barbara Independent:

At the center of this non-controversy is Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, a four-times-a-week Comedy Central broadcast that has become the go-to program for anyone selling a book or an idea in America. In the last month, Stewart”‰”””‰who performed last week at UCSB’s Thunderdome”‰”””‰has played host to Senator Trent Lott, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, political columnist Frank Rich of the New York Times, Bill Clinton, and a host of other mainstream politicians. Why would such an august body of men schlep to a seedy studio in midtown New York City? Because that’s where the smart kids are hanging.

Jon Stewart, however, is more than just an Oprah bookselling machine; he is also the leader of the loyal opposition to the Bush government. This was made abundantly clear the day after the election when Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic Party, came onto The Daily Show and told Stewart’s audience, “Thank you guys; you’re the ones who did it for us.”

So, what’s going on here? How did a B-list actor/comic become a national figure whose antiestablishment views have led him to becoming part of the culture’s elite? For starters, he’s good at what he does. Stewart has that wonderful ability to be serious but silly at the same time. He can grab a tragic issue such as Abu Ghraib and explain it to us in such a way that the absurdity of the American position is laid out for even a child to understand. Though Stewart does not come across as a smug, know-it-all purveyor of political truths, he is very smart. He’s well read, able to think on his feet, and most importantly, he’s a genuinely nice guy. He makes his guests, be they liberal or conservative, extremely comfortable, and as a result gets the most out them.

Finally, and this is critical to The Daily Show’s success, Stewart and his producers have put together some of the best investigative reporters on television. The show has become the institutional memory of the Bush administration. Each time the administration denies it has changed course, for instance, The Daily Show brings up a clip showing it doing just that. Every time the White House communications office issues talking points to its followers, The Daily Show puts together a montage of Fox News commentators and government functionaries saying the exact same thing. By doing this over and over, Jon Stewart and his reporters show their audience that Fox News and the Bush regime have become one ubiquitous propaganda machine that is often not telling the American people the truth.

So what is there to worry about with this cultural commentary?

I’m beginning to think that things are getting out of hand. I’m afraid the constant hilarious and effective bombardment of our governmental institutions by Stewart and others is going to leave a lasting scar on the body politic. I’m worried that it’s going to leave a residue of cynicism and distrust for political leadership that could become a threat to proper governance of our country.

Why? For the simple reason that if people start by laughing at their leaders, they end up by having no respect for them or the offices they represent. If the people think it doesn’t matter who’s in office because all politicians are horses’ asses, then they stop participating in the electoral process. My great fear is that Jon Stewart and his cohorts, brilliant, clever, and funny as they may be, are creating a disconnect between our government and our youth that will have long-lasting consequences”‰”””‰consequences that are not even a little bit funny.

Now, personally, while I think that Mr. Obst has written a rather interesting piece that highlights something often ignored when people talk about The Daily Show and The Colbert Report: the amazing archivists and investigative reporting they have, I think he takes it to an illogical conclusion. My feel is that Jon and company picked up the slack that our “regular” media should have been carrying those years that Bush and company were waffling back and forth, changing their script, and by doing so, has created a more educated public that is more likely to get the hell out and vote – vote locally, and loudly. And I think we just saw the result of that a couple of weeks ago – no one expected the win the Democrats had, and I think to deny the effect of the Busboys is dangerous. (Likewise, I don’t think we should give them too much credit, but they have done an awful lot the past 2-4 years to hold the Administration accountable when no one else would.)

I realize there are probably Republicans who feel we should still have respect for our leaders as they are now, but I personally don’t feel like the current Administration has done anything to deserve my respect, and I know my die-hard Republican parents agree (they’re hoping Gore runs again, so they can vote for him). I don’t think losing respect for the individuals in office means that we’re losing respect for the office, only that we want to change who’s sitting in the seat o’respect.

One comment

  1. I totally agree. This Jon Stewart = cynicism and the downfall of the nation is such a tired old line. The Washington Post floated this claim months ago, it didn’t fly then, and doesn’t fly now. I think there is real cynicism out there but it doesn’t come from The Daily Show. Jon Stewart is simply a mirror for the voices of reason that have always felt the emperor had no clothes but didn’t have the courage to say so. The mainstream media is cowed. And because people have a general sense that things aren’t quite right they are looking for answers that the mainstream media is unable or unwilling to provide. People have been cynical about government for a long, long time. I personally think it goes back to Nixon and the Kennedys. The implicit trust the body politic held in government died with the assassination of the Kennedys and the Vietnam war. I think both good and bad consequences have stemmed from this. On the one hand people are less naive about totalitarian tendencies of the government and see through the BS, but at the same time a lot of people are fashionably cynical and don’t really hold out hope for real change to come from political leaders. And this leads to a kind of inaction. I think what needs to happen is for real charismatic leadership to emerge and show people the way. The world’s problems are difficult and will take a lot of work but real leadership inspires and incites people to constructive action. We need another JFK. But I am not sure he or she is out there. And I do not believe that the burden is upon Jon Stewart to move this nation forward. Although, he has certainly enlightened us all. And Bush in 2000 with all his rhetoric about “restoring honor and dignity to the whitehouse” has done jack squat towards that end. I actually think people are angrier now and waking up to the harsh realities which I think is good, because leadership is held accountable in these times. But we can’t expect the media elite to do the work for us. I think they are running scared because they realize that they are not on the side of the people and the slumbering giant has awakened. And perhaps they are mad at Stewart for having awakened it. Stewart represents a new power center and that threatens the established order.

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