Jon Stewart’s lonely crusade

At my daughter’s urging (she’s well aware of my concerns and complaints) I watched the 12/08/14 episode of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, specifically a segment where he vilifies the largely “right-wing” media for taking a factual error he made on a previous show and allowing outrage over this mistake to overshadow the larger issues he was attempting to address. While I sympathize with his dilemma, sadly, both Stewart and his show are part of the reason, yet again, for the rush to over-simplification and polarization of opinion, even if Stewart himself might wish it were otherwise.

Specifically, Stewart was calling attention to what many, myself included, believe is the racial profiling and extremity of response evident in a number of widely publicized deaths of young black men at the hands of police in the US. He listed some of the prominent examples and, among the list was one young man who, in fact, had committed a burglary and later died as a result of an overdose, drugs he had consumed before the commission of the crime.

Sadly (but predictably – I think Stewart and I clearly agree on that), the larger issue regarding police and black men was overshadowed entirely by Stewart’s error of including this example with the other, valid ones. Fox News was provided with an opportunity to vilify Stewart for his smugness and his seeming willingness to play loose with the facts if it served his own agenda, the very thing, of course, that Stewart attacks Fox for a great deal of time. The term he coins to describe what he does – “counter-errorism” – is pithy and sure to get a laugh, as indeed it does.

And make no mistake, Stewart’s point is well-taken: we do need to be willing to address the complexities that underlie the apparent injustices and propensity for violence that circle around the dynamics of race and policing in America. Unfortunately, what I believe Stewart himself needs to acknowledge, is the contribution his show makes to the very over-simplification and polarizing which he decries.

In some ways, the problem is not of Stewart’s making – his contributions are inherent in the medium he occupies. How much complexity and subtlety can be built into a 22 minute television show composed of segments that might be 5 minutes long? Further, it doesn’t take viewing many episodes to realize that The Daily Show can be slotted into a very easily identified (yet far from clearly defined) “left-wing” slot.

What makes this especially regrettable is that further viewing reveals that Stewart (and his team of writers, I presume), really does try to play fair. It is not uncommon to see the show reveal the ineptitude and/or hypocrisy of many different players in the public forum. While his general sympathy for President Obama is evident, Obama and his administration can be taken to task if the situation warrants.

That being said, perhaps comedy precludes the possibility of balance. By its very nature, comedy directs its attention to the foibles, failings and absurdities of the human element and the comic attack on all facets of life and society is nothing new. Consider Jonathan Swift as but one example of such efforts in the political realm.

But, today, television largely stifles debate. Secure in our living rooms, we listen and chuckle and nod (at Stewart, Fox News, CNN, CBC or whatever we find most appealing) and then go about our business. We tend to engage with those things which confirm our view of the world. The challenge for Jon Stewart is to find a way to defeat the “us vs them” mentality which has poisoned so much of public discourse. More than confirming our positions, we need avenues that will cause us to recognize and to challenge the assumptions we make about our times, our world and ourselves. The Daily Show can be part of that but it shouldn’t be seen as the lone provider of balance and insight, however much it might be more so than Fox News.

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