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September 19, 2011

Esquire Writer Rips Jon Stewart, And For Once, I Find Myself On Stewart's Side

If you think I write long and am badly in need of an editor, read this guy.

I pretty much hate this article because it's written in such a cutesy, I-think-I'm-funny way. It doesn't state its thesis simply or directly. It's a lot of affected stream of consciousness, questioning and halting stuff like this:

He is only one man, after all. It may even be said — if we may say so — that he is just a man. May we? We may, because that's how Stewart likes it. But we all know that some men become more than men by how they respond to their times. Such a man is Jon Stewart. He has stepped up. He might have started out as a great comedian, but when he saw that the times were no laughing matter, he became also a great man. He transformed himself, and so was himself transformed. Even as the media and politicians he mocked so relentlessly lost their moral compass, he found his. He saw wrong and tried to right it; saw suffering and tried to heal it; saw war and tried to stop it; saw his old friend Anthony Weiner's penis and tried to make jokes about it...

Pretty much it's 15,000 words to say not a great deal more than Jim Treacher did so long ago: "Clown nose on, clown nose off."

Occasionally there's a halfway decent point...

Was he funny? Well, there is a sound that comedians know is always there, waiting for them. It's not laughter. Nor is it the sound of booing or catcalls. It goes like this: Whooooo ... and American audiences make it to signal not that they find a joke funny but that they get it and agree with it. Comedians fear it, because they know it's easy to get. They know that it's the end of something and the beginning of something else — the end of comedy and the beginning of "humor," in which they get no more laughs but bask in the applause of the audiences whose prejudices they flatter.

Jon Stewart has made a career of avoiding "Whooo" humor. He has flattered the prejudices of his audience, but he has always been funny, and he has always made them laugh. At the Juan Williams taping, however, at least half of Stewart's jokes elicited the sound of Whooo! instead of the sound of laughter. He's been able to concentrate his comedy into a kind of shorthand — a pause, or a raised eyebrow, is often all that is necessary now — but a stranger not cued to laugh could be forgiven for not laughing, indeed for thinking that what was going on in front of him was not comedy at all but rather high-toned journalism with a sense of humor. Which might be how Jon Stewart wants it by now. But outside the building there's still a giant version of him standing with clasped hands, and he looks ready to take the piss out of anyone, including the gray-haired man inside, talking seriously to a Fox News analyst about starting a network something like Fox, without the laughs.

... which is just a wordier way to say "Stewart does a lot of clapper humor and seems to take himself too seriously."

I think Stewart is dishonest -- he is at the very least dishonest with himself, as he makes very thin distinctions in order to claim he's not himself ideological. But the writer of the Esquire piece does not fault him for that. Instead, the Esquire piece faults him for seeming "self-parody" in faulting Rachel Maddow for being too ideological.

That last clip is pretty interesting, as he mostly defends Bush from the most outrageous "He lied us into war" claims and punctures Maddow's self-flattery of herself as an unblinkered, unbiased Searcher For Truth.

That's what I think the Esquire writer objects to-- because, in his better moments, Stewart does occasionally fault the left for its un-nuanced, black-and-white, smug self-righteousness. Stewart's chief fault, in this view, is spoiling the left's good time. The left wants to pat itself on the back for being qualitatively different than (by which I mean: superior to) the mindless, conspiracy-mongering partisan hacks on the other side. It tends to not enjoy having it pointed out they are, actually mindless conspiracy-mongering partisan hacks most of the time.

Now, Stewart's a hypocrite and willfully blind to his own biases, and he looks like a total jackass in that Wallace clip. Still, people tend to be better critics of others than of themselves, don't they?

When Machmoud Abbas was revealed to be a Holocaust denier, apologists pointed out a sad fact about Palestine: Holocaust deniers were the moderates of Palestine.

Holocaust enthusiasts were the extremists, in that nasty little land.

Similarly, Stewart might deny his own bias, and general bias in the liberal media, but at least he knows enough to wish to disassociate himself from the partisan hackery of MSNBC, rather than celebrate it as "liberals finally having the courage to hijack media 'news' shows towards ideological ends.

Which, if I understand Equire Writer's thinking (and I might not -- he doesn't seem to understand his thinking, either), is really the central complaint made about Stewart here.

Eh. Writer fail on that Esquire piece. He took a guy I don't think is funny or particularly thoughtful and wrote such a long, meandering, pointless, and archly smug piece about Stewart I'm actually inclined to defend Stewart.

Jon Stewart's Problem Is That He's Committed To Stopping A Trivial Problem. What most distorts politics?

Media bias which favors one ideological agenda, while claiming itself to be non-ideological? Not only does that result in an unfair advantage for one ideology, it breeds cynicism: Conspiracy theories flourish because few actually have an authority as straight-shooters. And that's the media's fault, because it has given up all but the thinnest pretense of objectivity.

Stewart does not think that is a problem. He denies the media even has such a problem at all.

Rather, he thinks media has a bias towards "conflict" and "simplicity." This, he thinks, causes us to view each other with more suspicion and hatred. It coarsens the dialogue and tends to reduce the chances of good compromises.

That's true but that is a rather minor problem compared to the first. And, in the scheme of things, someone might be justified in noting that both are comparatively minor problems to obsess about; that media criticism is, necessarily, a relatively trivial pursuit. Add into that that among the various ways one could engage this relatively minor topic, Stewart's chosen the least important way, and that means that for all his influence, his mission itself concerns the most trivial critique in a field that is already rather trivial.

And men who pursue trivial goals are generally not afforded the honorific of Hero, even if they're relatively skilled in pursuit of those trivial ends.

Although media bias is a problem, it is a proceduralist concern. And right now, at this point in history, proceduralist stuff is pretty thin gruel.

If Stewart wanted to achieve a mighty purpose, he could weigh in forcefully on substantive matters -- like the Democratic Party's attempt to demonize reforms that virtually everyone who is not running for office in 2012 admits are necessary.

But instead he contents himself with the easy crap, the nothing-burgers, small worries about the indirect effects of putative "coarsening" of our debate and the speculative erosion of supposed possibilities to achieve hypothetical (and viewpoint-dependent) political outcomes.

Stewart may appear large in his self-defined field, but that is only because the niche he's created for himself --the problem that so consumes him -- is so tiny.

If you want to criticize Stewart, then do so by noting that while he occupies a space in the public mind not seen since Walter Winchell or Walter Cronkite, his animating belief is the trivial "We ought to be nicer to each other and not demonize each other so much."

It's a nice thought, certainly, and hard to dispute, but then, no one ever gave the writers of Blossom a Pulitzer Prize for Very Special Episodes containing the same basic message.


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posted by Ace at 06:31 PM

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