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Jon Stewart's Plea for Political Engagement is Too Smart for Today's Liberals
Liberals flooded the streets in jubilation when the Presidential election was finally called for Joe Biden. After four anxious days of counting returns, major media organizations declared the winner on November 7, a Saturday, at about 11am - serendipitously, right around brunchtime. Alas, they thought, the Trump era was over.
In one sense, this assessment may have been premature, seeing as the 45th President never fully exited campaign mode, and is currently gearing up for a likely 2024 run. In another, it proves itself wrong every single day, as the effects of the Trump presidency on the liberal psyche demonstrate on a regular basis their stubborn resiliency.
Among the many ways in which Trump broke the liberal brain (their fixation with Russia, their embrace of murderous Bush-era neocons, and their addiction to corporate media networks), their impulse to disengage from discussion and debate with anyone they perceive to be a political adversary is perhaps the most troubling psychological affect they’ve developed since November 2016.
Enter Jon Stewart, who this week on his new show, The Problem with Jon Stewart, weighed in on the Neil Young/Joe Rogan Spotify conflict. Much to the shock and chagrin of mainstream liberals, he described the pressure campaign on Spotify to remove Rogan as an “overreaction” and a “mistake,” and that the media’s portrayal of Rogan as an anti-vax crusader is “overblown.” He also made the excellent point that Fox News, a network clearly committed to blatant misinformation and propaganda, is carried by all of the major cable providers. He then posed the question that if musical artists are forcing Spotify to choose between them and Rogan, why shouldn’t any actor, performer, or personality on any TV station give the giant cable companies who host their content this same ultimatum regarding Fox?
Now before Alyssa Milano gets any ideas, I should clarify that the point of Stewart’s thought experiment was that to make such a demand would be absurd. Existing in the same “tube,” as Stewart put it, with those you disagree with, or even feel are dishonest bad actors, is part of living in a free speech society. Threats of de-platforming might not violate the First Amendment outright, but they certainly are antithetical to the spirit of it.
He further argued that Rogan is not an ideologue, but rather “someone you can engage with,” and that engagement is the very point of political discourse and is always preferable to cancellation and censorship. This sparked a predictably negative reaction from liberals online. Stewart saying that he’ll “never give up on engagement” puts him irreconcilably at odds with modern liberalism, which “gave up” on engagement the instant it appeared Donald Trump had won the 2016 election.
From that moment on, liberals were committed to viewing their political opponents as mortal enemies with whom no engagement could possibly be productive. Worse yet, they came to view anyone who didn’t toe the mainstream Democratic Party line on every single issue to be one of these political opponents. If you asked the wrong questions about Russiagate (and by “wrong questions” I mean “right questions,” as has been proven time and again), you were a Putin stooge. If you found the impeachment trial a distracting waste of time, you were a closet Trumper. If you criticized the Democratic establishment too harshly, you were a water carrier for alt right fascists.
Come January 20, 2021, Trump was gone, but liberals’ habit of accusatory knee-jerk hysteria as their default mode of political argument proved impossible to kick. Even with the Orange Man out of Washington, their lizard-brained reactions to any sentiment remotely out of step with party orthodoxy only grow more intense as time goes on. This explains their uninformed insistence that Joe Rogan is some kind of Alex Jones-adjacent loudmouthed crackpot, as well as their hostile response to Jon Stewart’s calm and rational assertion that he isn’t.
Stewart is a bit of an anachronism in the sense that in his heyday, during the Bush administration, being a liberal meant actually having an analysis of material reality and a cogent critique of tangible real-world events: opposing an illegal war that was murdering soldiers and civilians on a daily basis, decrying the government’s effective drowning of a major American city after a catastrophic hurricane, lambasting big banks whose greed and recklessness caused the worst economic crisis in nearly a century, and, here’s a doozy - defending the First Amendment against the Patriot Act and other formal and informal encroachments in the aftermath of 9/11.
In the Trump era, liberalism took on an entirely different character. Trump’s obvious and odious character flaws made it easy enough for liberals to espouse their resistance without doing the arduous work of educating themselves about politics. This laziness wouldn’t fly during the Bush years, when Stewart was at his peak. To “resist” that administration meant to think for yourself about the threat (or lack thereof) posed by Saddam Hussein and whether or not it warranted the “shock and awe” campaign against it.
Stewart, during the Bush era, was a satirical counterweight to establishment media narratives, which, for the most part, parroted White House talking points. Nowadays, the late night comedy scene, from Stewart’s former colleague, Stephen Colbert, to his Daily Show replacement, Trevor Noah, is just a sillier and more absurdist version of the mainstream corporate media. They’re less serious in tone than CNN and MSNBC, but their message is exactly the same: Trump is bad and his supporters are dumb, and you, dear viewer, are good and smart for feeling that way.
To offer any deeper insight than that, as Stewart always does, is to challenge today’s liberals in a way that makes them deeply uncomfortable. Their brains have become incredibly indolent since Trump descended his escalator, and Stewart’s commentary is just too much for them to handle. Like an overzealous personal trainer to someone who hasn’t exercised in years, Stewart demands more than their shiftless minds are capable of at the moment.
And so it’s no surprise that his plea for engagement and dialogue has provoked such backlash from those who, back in 2015, would have been his biggest fans. At the time, many, myself included, regretted his resignation from The Daily Show, as it came just as Trump’s candidacy seemed poised to usher in a golden age of political comedy. As it turns out, it did the complete opposite, lowering the bar to such an extent that Stewart’s decision to hang it up when he did feels exactly right in retrospect.
Now that Trump’s gone, Stewart is back and as brilliant as ever. “The problem” (see what I did there?) for him is that his audience has gone stupid. He’s George Bailey trapped in the Pottersville scene; he went away for a few years, and while he was gone, his town went to Hell.
I’m still here for it though, and you should be too. Stewart is a relic of a bygone era when being a liberal meant questioning authority and defending the First Amendment. If there’s no longer an audience for that, we’re in a lot more trouble than we think.
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