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Watching the Daily Show…(‘s Inaction). by wildcat

September 23, 2010

No doubt you’re familiar with John Stewart, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. While I appreciate his scathing critiques of news and politics in general, his lack of any alternatives does leave something to wish for. Of course, as a comedian, he has no obligation to present any aforementioned alternatives, but his enormous influence and relative accuracy compared to more mainstream news lends itself to critiques. It’s very likely that he offers no alternatives to increase the impact of his punchlines and to avoid the disrepute that would likely come from having a politically open stance. In fact, he often dismisses possible alternatives to mainstream political and social discourse for comedic effect. And of course, like any other participant in a capitalist economy, he must always keep profits in mind. In his case, these would correlate with ratings and expressing any view outside of the acceptable range of discourse would probably result in decreased ratings. As it is, it is fairly obvious that he is a typical liberal. My point isn’t that Stewart has an obligation to express any alternative view; it’s that you should watch him knowing there are other options.

One of the episodes that I thought had the greatest potential for an alternative view of politics was the one on June 16, during which he criticized Obama’s failure to follow through on any of his election promises. Obama had said he would eliminate the program of wiretapping and other privacy infringement, eliminate the atmosphere of fear created by Bush to push through his policies, and restoring habeas corpus, allowing indefinitely detained victims to receive a trial in court, ending extraordinary rendition, among his other campaign promises on the slogan of “Change.” Of course, as Stewart points out, Obama has essentially continued and expanded Bush’s policies, including a secret global war 1.

Stewart makes a fundamentally anti-authoritarian critique, illustrating the danger of power in any form by showing how the supposed savior of the Democratic Party, Obama, fell right into the same stride as his predecessor Bush, his antithesis in the mainstream perspective. He shows us how Obama had railed against Bush’s policies when only a candidate but now, having gained power, continues Bush’s policies of consolidating executive power. However, instead of letting this critique rest as it is, he softens it up and milks it for comedic effect by making a humorous allusion to Frodo in Lord of the Rings.

A more recent episode that further illustrates Stewart’s seeming inability to offer an alternative is that of August 4, when he describes the failure of the bill to “provide healthcare for 9-11 first responders and relief workers currently suffering health problems directly related to their brave service.” In it he describes Congress as, “somewhat ineffectual, or short-sighted, or ignorant, or a fetid pool of corruption and stupidity.” Republicans had rallied against the bill, citing tax increases for foreign multinational companies with offshore accounts. The bill would have passed, receiving a large majority, but for the sake of political expediency, Democrats had decided to use a method that would require 2/3 of Congress, hoping to avoid the possible embarrassment of Republicans attempting to amend the bill. The title of the new “segment,” “I Give Up” boldly announces Stewart’s lack of alternative solutions.

Of course, he does castigate Fox News’ pundits as is typical, implying at least that viewers should not trust Fox News. Such a critique, however, still falls within the dominant Democrat/liberal vs. Republican/conservative paradigm. His satirical campaign ad at the end of the segment which promotes people to, “call their Congressperson and let them know that they’re just fucking terrible,” does offer an implication of an alternative to conventional politics, given its preceding denunciation of both the Democrats and the Republicans, but doesn’t offer anything more than just the implication and the humorous suggestion.

What Stewart consistently lacks is an offer of any solution to the conventional politics that he so accurately critiques. While he does sometimes call for people to get educated, it rarely goes outside of the usual domain of similar calls to (in)action 2. The only exception would be that he shows the utter uselessness of conventional news. Thus, he has a typical liberal view of the world; a fear of true democracy allied with a feel-good indignation at the more blatantly obvious injustices.

As I noted before, while I don’t think Stewart has a duty to present alternatives to the mainstream political quagmire, I do think viewers should watch him critically. He does an excellent job of showing the uselessness and infuriating immorality of conventional politics and media but doesn’t suggest a solution or even an alternative to them for a myriad of possible reasons. As a viewer, it’s likely that such an incomplete breadth of knowledge, knowing the problems of modern society but not any possible solutions or alternatives, would lead to apathy and cynicism, not just with the mainstream media and politics that Stewart denounces (which I whole-heartedly endorse) but with society and humanity altogether. Thus, while I believe Stewart does a good job presenting and interpreting the news, I see his overarching stance as deadening to action. Roughly translated, this means go ahead and watch him for your news and for the laughs, but, afterward, do something with your knowledge of what’s wrong with society. Stop laughing and get mad about something new he told you about, or something you already knew and were just reminded of. Similarly to Stewart, I don’t want to indoctrinate, but I do want to say that there are other options which in my opinion, have convincing arguments both historically and philosophically. Perhaps the ideas expressed in this zine are part of an alternative that calls to you.

1 Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe, “U.S. ‘secret war’ expands globally as Special Operations forces take larger role,” The Washington Post, 4 June 2010

2 Such as voting, calling your representatives, reading or watching the (mainstream) news, signing petition

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