Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Defending Jon Stewart

The Red Dirt Blog recently spotlighted a National Review commentary in which Megan Basham, mirroring the curious obsession of many conservatives, assails Jon Stewart for the success of the Daily Show's "America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction." I am fascinated by the anti-Stewart phenomenon. The Right's tirades against Stewart -- one of the few comedians who knows how to offer political humor that actually elicits laughter -- strike me as weird and borne from more than a little envy. Stewart is a center-left political comedian, no doubt about it; but why do so many Republican commentators act as if he's such a threat? Could it be because he has a young audience (of, as Basham infers in a rather pissy aside, presumably nonpolitical doofuses under the age of 35) that GOPers cannot connect to? Is it because the Democrats have so few star-quality pundits that Stewart is the best they can offer?

I suspect it's a little of both.

Basham's obvious gripe is that, gosh darn it, Stewart is just too much a Democrat. After all, she concedes, portions of the Daily Show's faux textbook are "genuinely hilarious," but usually "when they have no partisan points to score." That's a bullshit way of saying she doesn't care for all the nasty jokes that the book makes at the expense of Republicans.

More disturbing is Basham's inference -- an old standard for conservatives in this day and age -- that Stewart and company must not love their country.

"No aspect of our patriotic pride is too sacred to be sacrificed on the altar of irony," Basham writes, going on to explain:

"Shredding our Puritan beginnings while getting in a little same-sex-marriage propaganda on the side, the authors [of 'America (The Book)' ] write, 'Almost four hundred years after the foundation of the [Plymouth Colony], the state of Massachusetts became the first to guarantee the constitutionality of gay marriage. This act was construed as a bold move forward in the cause of equality, but in reality was just a hilarious "F*** you" to the Pilgrims.' "

Does Basham not see some irony there?

Referencing Rush Limbaugh (now that's a credible move), Basham argues that Stewart and his ilk skewer conservatives more than liberals because "it is difficult to satirize a political group that consistently lives up to, and frequently surpasses, any exaggeration of their behavior." Not quite. First, the extremes of liberalism -- PETA, Greenpeace, ardent feminists, etc. -- have been receiving their comedic knocks for years. Basham needs to watch Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" on occasion. Maybe then she would have heard one of those Kerry's-a-flip-flopper jokes or a Golden Oldie about Bill Clinton not being able to keep his pants zipped.

Perhaps one reason so many conservatives hold themselves up for ridicule is because too many are humorless -- as Basham aptly demonstrates in her contention that the Founding Fathers and the Pilgrims are too good and pure for even mild satire. Rigidity, intolerance and humorlessness -- whether it be from the Right or Left -- have been attracting satire since Jonathan Swift whipped up an appetite for Irish babies.

Basham pretends to be baffled that "America (The Book)" was named "Book of the Year" by Publisher's Weekly, presumably unaware that it has been a bestseller for a mighty long time at this point (of course, the under-35 crowd doesn't read, so whoever on earth could be buying these evil things?). Count me skeptical of her honesty. Basham suggests that a more worthy candidate for the honor would have been David Sedaris' collection of essays, "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim." But I suspect she's being disingenuous; if Sedaris had received the "Book of the Year" nod for "Dress Your Family ..." (which is damned funny, by the way), one wonders how much National Review ink would be spilled decrying his depiction of a homosexual relationship as if it were (gasp!) normal. No, I doubt anything beyond Ann Coulter would have passed muster.

Finally Basham and her fellow Republicans short-shrift Stewart's sense of fairness. Despite his political leanings -- he made no secret of his preference for Kerry in the presidential race -- his program routinely features guests who run the ideological gamut, including a number of conservative pundits (Bill Kristol, Bill O'Reilly, Karen Hughes, etc.). With rare exceptions, Stewart is polite and gives them an opportunity to espouse their viewpoint. How many conservative pundits (or other liberals, for that matter) encourage the same level of civility on their respective programs? He caught flak for his confrontation with Tucker Carlson on "Crossfire," of course, but that show wallows in venom-spitting, which of course was one of Stewart's gripes with how such ostensibly "serious" political programs lower the level of discourse in our nation.

I don't think Stewart wants it both ways, as Red Dirt has argued. Stewart is a comedian with a point of view, but he is not -- and takes pains to make this point -- a pundit ... or a journalist ... or a politician. It's not that he should be held to a lower standard of responsibility. It's that pundits, journalists and politicians should be held to a higher standard.


At 2:03 PM, Blogger LiteraryTech said...

Wow! That was an excellent presentation! Thank you for detailing the hollow nature of Ms. Basham's presentation. I think you present a rather penetrating point in observing that the media should be held to a higher standard. One of the the most striking aspects of the recent electoral circus was the rather paltry attempts to actually report news. Much time and effort was put into the reporting of various opinions with all but Fox presenting both sides of any issue, but there was little forthcoming in the way of substance. It strikes me as the most shocking lack of news to interview Karen Hughes or James Carville. Would it be too much to ask that journalists actually learn some of the facts that help us understand the nature of the issues?

It is perhaps true that the line between Jon Stewart and other pundits or journalists is growing thin. It strikes me, however, that this is not actually because Jon Stewart over-reaches, but rather because the pundits and journalists are under-reaching.

At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your comment and agree with you 100%. It seems that every thought and viepoint other than their own is conveniently invalid. I also have noticed how little information seems to be coming from our television news lately. You have to be aggressive and do alot of reading on your own to get any information, and that includes all the networks. Keep up the good work.

At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading your comments about Jon Stewart. I suppose Stewart's critics are just jealous of him and the original concept of "The Daily Show". I think you illustrated that well in your blog. The problem with shows like "Crossfire" is that there is so much yelling and snideness. I don't think that either party gets their point across on shows like "Crossfire". I think people will always have a open mind if approached with humor. Great writing Chase!

At 9:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The REAL bizarre thing about the right attacking Stewart is the fact that his guest list of late (and basically through the election) was made up of republican voices. It seems as though they were fighting tio get on - and why not. Stewart exposed that even the most dour of people (ie: Bob Dole) can be genuinely funny when given the opportunity - and funny = human in the eyes of the voters.

Attack Stewart? Heck, he's maybe the best thing the right has going.


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