My sister thinks I’m too mean to people on Facebook. She’s probably right – or maybe definitely right. I’ve told her so. I’ve been trying to do better. But this is a story – in fact, it’s part one of a two-part story – about a Facebook argument. This will only sound boring to those of you who have never watched any of mine.
It has been brought to my attention that I’m not likely to convince anyone of anything by brutally smashing them with rhetoric and facts, but I am aware of this. I don’t engage in such uncouth behavior for the purposes of winning hearts and minds; my motives are much more pedestrian. On the one hand, such an outlet for fun aggression provides me with a strange sort of therapy. I know, I can hear the cries now, “That is so unhealthy!” Yes, indeed. Probably. But I’ll let you know when I decide to be the paragon of health. Until then, I find this unconvincing.
My other motivation is to entertain. While I’ve received much feedback to the effect that my relentless trolling turns them off, I’ve received even more from those who eventually admit to lurking silently, at the edge of their seats, every time it’s time to throw down. In any case, the true significance of this point won’t be known until the end of all of this.
So I have strong feelings. This rubs some people the wrong way, but those who know better know to laugh about it. I realize it doesn’t come across well on Facebook to those who don’t deal with me regularly in “real life,” but even I am always laughing at my own strong opinions. Nobody who knows me, in any case, would be surprised to learn I have strong feelings about comedian and longtime Daily Show host Jon Stewart. And that those feelings are negative.
Why do I pick on Jon? How can I hate Jon Stewart, man? Sure, sure, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve laughed along and enjoyed the show dozens and dozens of times over the years. I also recognize that what he’s throwing out there, in the context of the American mass media, is better than 99% of what is out there. And, yes, the guy still pisses me off. In the simplest possible terms, I wrote the guy off back in 2010 after the “Rally to Restore Sanity.” I don’t think I’ve ever been angrier at fucking liberal stupidity. Here’s this guy who gets hundreds of thousands to rally in Washington and we’re all sitting at home what he’s gonna do or say and he does and says…nothing. It’s nothing short of outrageous. What a colossal waste!
Now, there are apparently some who blame the 2010 midterm election results (Republicans crushed it) on Stewart’s (and Colbert’s) failure to lead, but I’m not that much of a dipshit. All I’m saying is, life only gives us between zero and one chances to gather hundreds of thousands of people in the nation’s capital, and when that moment comes, you’d better be prepared to stand for something.
The same, in my view, applies to having a cable television platform that reaches millions.
Besides, man, don’t you just feel like he’s a little…2004? 2004 was a big year. We thought Dean was cool because fuck war, amirite, and then we settled for Kerry, who fucking lost. So George W. Bush is reelected, and we’re all hopeless. Seriously. I went into a dark hole and looked into moving out of the country (you gotta be rich or at least have a college degree to even think about it, guys). We all needed places to turn. So we read the Nation, its antiwar screeds misleading us into thinking its viewpoint was ever any further than lefty-center-left. We tried to listen to Air America Radio, even though it was never any good. MSNBC decided to be pretty liberal, so we were safe, there. And then, at the end of every night, to whisper us off to sleep with a mischievous smile on all our faces, was Jon Stewart and his Daily Show. We needed that then, and it was wonderful.
Much as I have many really great life stories from that year, however, it is no longer 2004. I mean, like, who still reads the fucking Daily Kos and shit? Time marches on, and if we are wise, we swim with the current. If the same shit that comforted us yesterday is still our go-to tomorrow, we haven’t grown or progressed.
When Stewart announced that he would retire from the hosting chair later this year, the endless hagiography, accompanied as it was by so much weeping and gnashing of teeth, drove me insane. It was time to start trolling. I threw out one flippant post about not giving a shit about Jon Stewart – just to make sure everyone knows where I stand, and followed it up later with this article from the Baffler (from all the way back in 2012). “This is why I won’t weep for Stewart or sing his songs,” I trolled.
The article is relatively long and provides many examples of Stewart’s cop-outs on important issues, his ability to pass off passive crypto-nihilism as radicalism, and comparing his satire with the more take-no-prisoners style of South Park. The main thrust:
“Our lazy embrace of Stewart and Colbert is a testament to our own impoverished comic standards. We have come to accept coy mockery as genuine subversion and snarky mimesis as originality. It would be more accurate to describe our golden age of political comedy as the peak output of a lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage.”
Hilariously, the very next line is, “Fans will find this assessment offensive.” Enter Gregory Jacobs-Roseman, acclaimed composer, oft-heralded writer, and comrade of mine from an era few still among us can even remember. “I’m going to regret getting into this with you, but this article is total horseshit,” he said.
Well, at least he knew enough to regret it ahead of time. Shots fired!
Pressed to explain, he launched into the argument that the article and me were discounting the possibility of comedy for comedy’s sake, repeating the nauseating mantra that Stewart is just a comedian and has always said so and therefore shouldn’t be held to a political standard. My response was that this argument is nonsense. The man is known for humor based almost entirely in the political sphere. His popularity is not the result of bad puns and onomatopoeia, it’s because of his politics jokes – mostly making fun of republicans. Because the content of his production is essentially political, expectations can therefore be political – and there’s nothing praiseworthy, for a radical at least, about taking self-satisfactory solace in cheap smarmy political humor. Leave that to the liberals. Like Greg.
He tried again to lower the goalposts, pointing to the fact that the show is on Comedy Central and that it’s political satire. Referencing the Baffler, I point out that South Park is also on Comedy Central and that I have rather high expectations for political satire. Greg then made a dramatic leap, declaring himself to be “looking at this as an artist, writer, and fan of comedy.”
Embracing the slight (or major) topical shift – for entertainment purposes, of course – I pushed his buttons. “Yeah yeah, art for art’s sake, and all that bullshit. Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Predictably, he got mad and accused me of believing myself above the rest of the people. (Well.) “Sometimes,” he said, it’s just a free expression holding up the mirror to the world in which we live. And isn’t it wonderful that we can all channel our experience in this world into a form of expression that gives others joy? Isn’t that what being a human is about?”
It devolved predictably from there, him accusing me of hating art, me denying it, him accusing me of hating Stewart’s liberal viewpoint (presumably because I’m such a commie), me denying it, him apologizing for being hammered, etc. I told him I would go ahead and stop having standards and things, and he claimed that “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
“That would be very cool,” I said, “if it were true.”
I hope my sister takes note of the fact that we then ended the discussion very amicably and professionally. But, of course, I wasn’t content to let it die just yet. The next day, I found another article, this one on Salon, which I felt more directly addressed Greg’s points – the piece is much kinder to Stewart than its predecessor in the Baffler – while speaking to my conclusions.
Today, a clear majority of our citizens—of every ideological persuasion—share the same haunting suspicion: that we are somehow powerless to fix our broken systems, and adrift in a fog of frantic material distraction that has led us astray from lives of deeper civic engagement…
For those of us who loyally watched Stewart over the past 15 years, perhaps the time has come for us to feel the anguish he and his staff dependably converted into laughter. How else might we begin to confront the very real existential threats to our country and planet?
In other words, sometimes, guys, there’s more important things than feeling good or comfortable. Sometimes, when we care about justice in the world, feeling good and comfortable is actually counter-productive. Greg agreed it was a better article, but repeated his arguments regarding the expectations being placed on Stewart, espousing a view that the show was essentially Stewart’s creation and, ergo, inherently his from top to bottom. Being slightly more than half-sincere and also really in the mood to troll that week, I decided to declare I don’t have that kind of respect for private ownership of creations. Greg responded with a meme from Futurama.
But it’s true, though. I don’t believe in disenfranchising artists or that writers and content creators should be anywhere close to the top of the expropriations list. I still, however, believe that the public interest always trumps the interests of any creator. Reiterating this for Greg in much more colorful terms, he declared socialism to have no place in art.
My problem, though, isn’t that we have to socialize or homogenize art, that all creative work has to have productive political value, or that art and expression are not desirable. When faced with disasters, from the small to the large, from personal tragedy to the omnipresent economic and political oppression to nothing short of our extinction itself, I believe intellectual honesty demands that my thoughts trend toward the stoic. The notion that our feelings and expressions objectively matter in any grand scheme seems rather arrogant and privileged to me. As I said to Greg, the only thing that truly matters – objectively – are material conditions.
Yeah, that seems a little extreme. But it’s no secret I have a difficult time doing anything resembling relaxing and while I’m absolutely a hypocrite for needing more solace than I myself believe appropriate, I still refuse to endorse it. It’s not 2004 anymore, guys. It’s time to stop wrapping ourselves in blankets and try to actually set some shit on fire. This is a key issue if you consider it in the context that liberals as a group can never be counted on as reliable allies of the true Left while they cling to fluffy superiority lullabies. The (truly) great Mark Ames later tweeted a link to an article of his written immediately after the 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity – the thing that really pissed me off and turned me off in the first place. With his typical biting prose, he lays it out there:
That’s what makes this rally so depressing and grotesque: It’s an anti-rally, a kind of mass concession speech without the speech–some kind of sick funeral party for Liberalism, in which Liberals are led, at last, by a clown. Not a figurative clown, but by a clown–and Liberals are sure that this somehow makes them smarter and less lame–and indeed, they are less lame, because they are not taking themselves too seriously, which is something they’re very, very proud of. All great political struggles and ideological advances, all great human rights achievements were won by clown-led crowds of people who don’t take themselves too seriously, duh! That’s why they’re following a clown like Stewart, whose entire political program comes down to this: not being stupid, the way the other guys are stupid–or when being stupid, only stupid in a self-consciously stupid way, which is to say, not stupid. That’s it, that’s all this is about: Not to protest wars or oligarchical theft or declining health care or crushing debt or a corrupt political system or imperial decay—nope, the only thing that motivates Liberals to gather in the their thousands is the chance to celebrate their own lack of stupidity! Woo-hoo!
Ames is a dark guy, but that’s why we love him.
And this is why I am not a liberal – well, it’s one of dozens of reasons, but it’s a good example for the sheer fact that it illustrates a key difference in post-Hope-and-Change political approach. Liberals, without a proper Republican demon in the person of Dubya, and unable in their fragile hearts to bring themselves to criticize the bloodthirsty business-lover Obama, are reduced to impotent self-satisfaction.
Stewart, of course, was also derided by those of my persuasions for being dismissive and utterly smug and patronizing toward the Occupy protests a year after his own weird non-protest circus march. I’ll be the first to tell you that I have massive criticisms about Occupy – way too much faith in anarchist-rooted non-hierarchical process and utter messaging failure, just for starters – I would never for a moment deny that they represented the most legitimate and threatening protest movement to emerge in the US in at least a couple of decades. The concerns being addressed were, more or less, the correct concerns. The message, muddled as it was, was generally anti-capitalist. And the refusal to give up and disperse was courageous and effective in many ways. To Stewart, however, these were spoiled kids who needed to get a job.
Politically, that’s important. If you care about justice, that should say something to you.
I believe there are sides to be chosen, battles to be fought, and our feelings and personal dreams to come only afterwards. There are few things, in my mind, worse than centrist consensus (in a lot of ways, I find it even more insidious than plain old bald conservatism), and that’s ultimately what Stewart represented. We can go a few nod-and-wink steps in a certain direction, whether it’s for edginess, laughs, or feelings of superiority, but never too far – and we’ll always walk back to the center before long.
The Daily Show is soda – and I say this as someone who likes soda. It’s tasty and pleasurable. It’s not really the worst thing in the world. But it’s ultimately not good for you and in the long run can make you dead.
* * *
“Am I getting a little hippy-dippy here?” Greg asked, as we wound down our debate for that day. “Maybe. But I do believe it to be true. It’s how humans exist in a communal society.”
“Humans exist in a communal society,” I responded, “by sharing resources, not feelings.”
“I think thoughts are materials,” he said.
“I think Arthur Fiedler’s stone head can talk to me, but that doesn’t make it any more real or material than your feelings about thoughts.”
“Brain power is a resource. And we share it by expression.” He then lamented that he’d written his weekly blog post already, about Beyonce, and now he wanted to scrap it and write about this instead. (Good choice, Greg, honestly.) He thanked me for keeping him sharp.
“No problem, Deepak Chopra,” I said, with a winky face. I knew that was mean, but that’s why I winked. I couldn’t resist.
In the days that followed, Greg not only wrote this exquisite piece for his weekly Crazytown column, but he posted this wonderful picture from, you guessed it, 2004.
Gentleman that he is, alongside the picture he declared me the best, stating I had been keeping him honest since 2002. I’m proud to say I have – and I have to say the same right back at you, buddy. Even if Jon Stewart still sucks.
But for those of you avid fans out there watching, don’t count Greg out just yet. We’ve still got part 2 to think about. Coming up next…me arguing with me.