Wanker of the Day: Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart’s 10/30 “Rally to Restore Sanity” has turned him into something he despises: a mainstream media creator of false equivalences. American politics hasn’t gone crazy: the Republican Party has.

Yes, that Jon Stewart.

The Daily Show is promoting the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” to be held October 30th on, of course, the National Mall.  After going through his (extremely funny) outline of the brutal craziness of American politics, Stewart proposes a series of great slogans, culminating with “Take It Down a Notch for America.”  But his take, and this rally, does make a serious point.  And it’s wrong.

Look again at some examples of the crazies that Stewart talks about: 9/11 Truthers on the one hand, Tea Partiers on the other.  Birthers on the one hand, people who want to prosecute Donald Rumsfeld on the other.  Let’s all calm down, he says.  You notice the problem?

9/11 Birthers aren’t even a fringe in the Democratic Party; they’re a fringe outside the Democratic Party.  Tea Partiers, on the other hand, are running the GOP.  Karl Rove is cowering in front of them.

Cindy Sheehan got some press a few years ago for a few weeks; Sarah Palin is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.

With this (admittedly very funny) gambit, Stewart has become precisely what he despises: a generator of false equivalences between centrist Democrats and right-wing nutcase Republicans.  There is a difference between Birthers and people who want to prosecute Cheney: there is at least credible, plausible evidence that Cheney purposefully violated American law.  His chief of staff was convicted of federal crimes in connection with Bush Administration policies. 

“American politics” has not gone crazy: the Republican Party has gone crazy.  It’s not even bothering to hide it anymore.  If the GOP takes over the House in a few weeks, the chair of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security will be none other than Louie Gohmert, who famously melted down on CNN when asked to provide evidence for his theory about “terror babies.”  Newt Gingrich, famed Republican savant, says that one of our most pressing issues is to ban Sharia law in US courts.  Sharon Angle favors “Second Amendment remedies” as a response to the administration.  Rand Paul thinks that sections of the Civil Rights Act are unconstitutional.  Joe Miller thinks that the New Deal is.  Bob Bennett, one of the Senate’s most conservative members, was thrown out because the Utah GOP thought he wasn’t conservative enough.  There simply is no equivalence here.

The Daily Show, of course, is a comedy program.  Stewart is there to make us laugh, and he does a damn good job of it.  I’m a fan. He’s under no obligation to satisfy my political leanings.  But the rest of us should keep the truth in mind.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

15 thoughts on “Wanker of the Day: Jon Stewart”

  1. People who think of the video clip reel that was showed to illustrate how going overboard with theatrics hinders the validity of your message as a straight way to condemn both the left and right wings are morons. It didn't even have to be about political ideology — whatever issue you have, calm the f%%% down, and express it like a human being, not a g%d%mn howler monkey. That's the basic gist I got out of it. Not "Birthers are equally stupid as code pinkers", or whatever.

  2. I have to take issue with Jonathan's premise that "the Daily Show, of course, is a comedy program." That's true, but it's brand of comedy is speaking truth to power. The yuks are important–they get it past the censors, and increase the audience. But it's a moral enterprise, even if it makes us laugh. Stewart is undercutting the premise of his show, when he indulges in false equivalence.

    But in defense of Stewart, I think he was trying to equate left-wing crazies (who do exist) with right-wing crazies. As Jonathan points out, this is beside the point: left-wing crazies have almost nothing to do with electoral politics. But Stewart's error was a misjudgment of context, not disrespect for truth.

  3. I think the whole point is that the left-wing crazies have no power while right-wing crazies run the GOP. He isn't creating an equivalency regarding facts (GOP says Earth is flat, Dems disagree) – he's creating an equivalency between the people everyone agrees are crazy (9/11 Truthers) and the people for whom its impolite to say are crazy because there are so many of them (Tea Partiers).

  4. This is not a surprise. I am a huge fan of Jon Stewart, but he has always had a tendency to falsely equivocate. It is not surprising — if he were to spend all his efforts on the Republicans, as a comedian he will fall into a rut and become strident instead of funny. It is understandable.

    In any case, you should take him at his word (at numerous interviews) that he is not in the business of promoting Democrats, he is only looking out for his next punch line.

  5. I think Kevin's take is right. This isn't about who is crazier, but that unreasonable, nutty, cheap politics is bad no matter who does it. Sure, it happens that the right is way crazier right now. But I think that is a different point and only takes away from the fact that this type of thinking is bad no matter who does it. And I think it's never a bad idea to broaden the tent.

  6. First, it's not a Stewart thing, it's a liberal thing, in case that matters. Liberals, God bless 'em, are too open-minded to take their own side in this argument, too, and feel obliged to apologize for the mote in their own eye even while pointing out the beam in that of their neighbor.

    Second, liberals really are in a kind of tough position here, since, in part, they want to say "Look, let's everybody quit demonizing the other guy"…but the obvious way to finish that sentence is to add the following truth: "…of course, conservatives are currently way, way worse about this than liberals are…" It sounds hypocritical, even though it's the gospel truth.

    Conservatives ARE way, way worse…though that doesn't make it permissible for us to ignore the crazies on our own side. Even just thinking strategically about it, they provide a focal point/excuse for conservative anti-liberal craziness.

  7. I agree with what you've written here and most of these comments. There is a valid argument that if you counter Republican extremism with Democratic moderation, the midpoint in that "conversation" shifts to the right. But I actually think it was a guest on the Daily Show a few years ago (I think Zakaria or someone like him) who said that part of the problem with our politics is that we have vocal extremists but nobody is in the middle screaming for moderation. I applaud Stewart's effort and will certainly be there.

  8. That same sentiment struck me as I watched the other night. What if the tables were turned, and the media was prone to film every left wing rally they could find. For example, there was one in Atlanta yesterday to free Marc Emery, the guy who sold cannabis seeds through the mail out of Canada. There are other rallies put on by PETA, Wiccans, Atheists, and LGBT groups that never make the news. But what if the craziest and most extreme of these rallies were all over the news. Democrats in office would be asked to respond, and the populace would soon get the impression that the Green Party was hijacking democracy.

    We liberals are probably better off with the right wing loonies are all over the news. I personally support many many lefty groups, and I have learned that it is better when we are perceived as mentally balanced, albeit relatively weakened interest groups.

    I like to think that this hubbub over the teabaggers is just because august is a slow news month – last august it was the health care teabaggers, remember? The WalMart people with the misspelled racist signs are a bright shiny object – they are the car crash that everybody has to slow down and watch. And they give Republicans running for office a chance to get free airtime.

    Jon means well. Most of the time he is our best friend on cable. I'll be on the Mall this Halloween.

  9. It's a brilliant gambit: we offer to marginalize Cindy Sheehan and stop putting her on all the talk shows, and they stop doing the same for Palin, Rove, Gingrich, 98% of the Republicans in Congress, 100% of right-wing pundits, etc., etc.

  10. First of all, don't complain, because Stewart and Colbert are going to get thousands of young liberal-leaning people in DC thinking about politics the weekend before the midterms.

    Second, the rally is obviously meant to be a rebuttal of Glenn Beck and will be covered that way, so I don't know why you're so worried about false equivalence.

    Third, Stewart has more of a point than you give him credit for. Lots of liberal commentators and bloggers have alternately hyperventilated about and sneered at the rank-and-file members of the Tea Party movement. They've bent over backward to find reasons why these regular people from red states are evil and racist, in a way that mirrors the scapegoating of "coastal elitists" (regular people from blue states) by Rove and the Republicans. When they're not calling them racist, they're sneering about those stupid"tea-baggers" and taking pleasure in how much smarter we are than them. And then there's the over-the-top condemnations of the current administration seen from Olbermann, Schultz, HuffPo, Greenwald, and FDL. All of these folks could take it down a notch — sticking to their policy beliefs without the nasty and ridiculous rhetoric. If you can't see anyone on our own side who needs to "take it down a notch," you need to look a little more closely.

  11. i read the post before watching the shows, and thought yes, you have a point- the false equivalency, yes yes very worrisome. then i watched and i am no longer worried. there are two rallies- stewart's in support of reasonableness, and colbert's in support of fear mongering. the media will most likely ignore the event as a stunt, much like it played down colbert's performance in front of bush at the press club. i remember hearing the press saying afterwards, oh no one was laughing, and it wasn't funny. but it was funny and brutal and, yes, brave. and it inspired a lot on the left. colbert and stewart are out for the punchline, but they are also intelligent and principled and the satire they are producing is necessary and vital.

  12. You're not often wrong, but you are on this one. The Obama Thesis is not about left vs. right, it's about agreeing to engage and not agreeing to engage. Stewart is standing on the agreeing to engage side of things. He's standing by the President. And he's doing a far more effective job of it than you or any other liberal blog I've seen that delights so much in trashing the President because you didn't get a pony after winning a single election.

    The narrative, the myths, the values, the assumptions of the past 40 years didn't magically disappear overnight, and won't. A new set of values and assumptions has to be validated by events.

    In a time of crisis it can be more important to look at what a President says than what he does. Nixon acted like a liberal but spoke as a conservative, sending Agnew out to deride the "nattering nabobs of negativism." He began a conservative era, based on conflict, that still lives. And it will live, until it's killed by something completely different.

    Again, it's not about what we do. It's about how we do it. And right now we're doing it in a dysfunctional way, to which all the Washington nattering classes (you included) contribute with your assumptions that politics is war. If politics is war democracy can't stand.

    I thought you knew that.

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