Jon Stewart and Inkblots, ii

Stewart is an inkblot test, and deserves to be classified with Rush Limbaugh, Barack Obama, and Sarah Palin.

I suppose that needs some explanation. Let’s take as a given my points in the previous post, that all the commentary surrounding Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show are best understood as hundreds of people saying “feel the way I do about Stewart” rather than “I have the truth about Jon Stewart.” Again, a small difference, but an important one. If I’m going to assume one of them is right, then right away I see a problem – opinions about Stewart are all over the map. Choosing any one opinion means making the potentially and fantastically arrogant assumption that everyone else is wrong.

Mind you, most of the commentators have no problem with that, but I do. If we think with our feelings, and we do, it’s likely we’ll find an explanation for controversial topics that is self-serving, and justifies the opinion we already have. If I’m a liberal who loves Jon Stewart, I’m much more prone to summarizing the plethora of opinions surrounding Stewart with a general “well, conservatives are idiots” than anything else. Now, technically speaking, that might be true – maybe Stewart is reviled by conservatives because, in fact, all conservatives are idiots. Perhaps Stalin’s communist utopia failed because, and only because, Russian party members simply didn’t have enough faith in the communist ideal. (Again, Gates, wherever applicable.) But the fact that the explanation might “possibly” be true is too often used as substitution for “likely true.” So long as we have an explanation, no matter how far-fetched it might be in reality, we’re in the clear. Or in our own clear.

Conservatives are idiots, then. For a liberal, it’s a great explanation, at once explaining all criticism of Stewart, while simultaneously exalting Democratic thought and policy. It’s the ideal summation, in fact – it allows me to write off not only Stewart complainants, but the entire system of thought from which they originate. Now, obviously, liberals aren’t the first, only, and last to use these sorts of explanations – even well-educated conservatives like Dennis Prager feel comfortable summarizing liberals as dangerous because, where government is concerned, they simply “crave power” – but the real issue isn’t which side or the other uses self-serving explanations more. The issue, for all of us, is that we hardly, if ever, notice it when we use it ourselves.

Per that point, I’ve a simple rule, the first in a long list of rules for properly thinking without our feelings: don’t use any explanation that is blatantly self-serving.

In this case, it means that, if I’m a liberal, I can’t explain conservative disgust towards Stewart with any variation of the idea “conservatives are idiots.” It means, if I’m a conservative, I can’t explain any love for Stewart as “liberals are stupid,” or any number of iterations of the theme.
Mind you, some of those explanation might very well be true for certain people. But I’m avoiding them, not because they are automatically false, but because I can’t possibly know if they’re true or false, and because, as either a liberal or conservative, I’m automatically prone to believing one or the other, simply because I want to. Simply, mind you, because I want to.

That leaves me with this: there’s a whole myriad of differing opinions on Stewart, and I’m not allowed to make heads or tails of the whole of them with any of my knee-jerk explanations – the ones that, namely, call everyone who disagrees with me a form of stupid. I need an explanation of Stewart that can account for all differing opinions, and that does not serve my own interests, to proceed.

Luckily, as it happens, I have one.

Before I continue, however, note exactly what I’m doing, because I think it’s rather important – I’m providing an explanation for the spectrum of reaction to Stewart, one that doesn’t automatically serve the interests of any one point of view. I can’t possibly prove that this explanation is the correct one, any more than the liberal can prove his explanation of “idiot conservatives,” or the conservative his explanation of “liberal stupidity.” My explanation, however, has one advantage – it still works if I assume we are all blind to our own ideological failings. Put better, my explanation still works without the assumption of my own infallibility. Or my own side’s infallibility. Which, I should stress, is great, because – as it happens – I’m wrong far too often for my own comfort. Or self-esteem.

Anyway – the conflict of opinion surrounding Stewart is easy to explain – Stewart is new. And we hate new. Or love new, for that matter. Mostly, however, we hate those who love whatever is new, or despise those who hate whatever is new. New people, in whatever field, get the short end of the stick – half the population is waiting for them to fail, and the other half is celebrating every miniscule milestone as such a success that it’s impossible to be judged fairly.

Consider, if you will, Rush Limbaugh. Rush inspires the same cascade of differing opinions as does Stewart, from adulation to outright hate. His every word is scrutinized and used, if possible, as the center of a new controversy. But as far as talk radio hosts go, Limbaugh is hardly the most offensive. His compatriots are often far worse. Consider fellow conservative talk radio host Bill Cunningham, and imagine if Limbaugh, instead of Cunningham, had said of Barack Obama, “his father was a typical black father who, right after the birth, left the baby. That’s what black fathers do. They simply leave.” Or if, instead of Mark Levin, he had said, “well I don’t know why your husband doesn’t put a gun to his temple. Get the hell out of here.” Or if, instead of Laura Ingraham, he had, on his show, ended a recorded speech of civil rights leader John Lewis with a sound far too similar to a gunshot, echoing the assassination of civil rights leaders throughout history. I think it’s safe to say – and keep in mind I’m no fan of Limbaugh – that Rush would be out and out crucified in the media. And yet Limbaugh has, for some reason, been subjected to far more intense scrutiny than his successors.

The reason is simple – Rush was the first. Limbaugh, love him or hate him, made AM talk radio what it is today. He was the example by which others began to form their own shows. At the time, nothing like Rush Limbaugh had been attempted before – several hours a day of exclusively conservative news commentary, with an eye to entertainment, tapped into a huge and practically virgin market. And the mainstream news sources of the day had little to combat it. The key element for controversy, though, was that Limbaugh wasn’t exactly classifiable – he was kind of a newscaster, but not exactly, and his medium of choice wasn’t traditionally used in the way he was using it. Everything about him was new. No one knew what to call him, or how to think of him. It is difficult to explain just how difficult this kind of situation is for people in general – for me, you, and everyone. Properly classifying things and people is a considerable comfort; people on the fringes of definition are almost always the centers of unusually intense controversy, and Limbaugh was no exception. Once his genre became well-defined, however, the controversy stops – today, when we think of “talk radio,” we assume it’s talk radio with a conservative bent. All the precedents Rush set are in place. His successors can get away with far more inflammatory statements, simply because that’s what’s expected of AM talk radio hosts, and, because the expectation is there, we aren’t as offended, or even paying as much attention, when the expected happens.

Pull this back to Stewart for a moment, and compare Jon to his successors. Any quick search of comments made by Trevor Noah or Larry Wilmore reveals a substantial gap, in both offensivity and public reaction – had Stewart proclaimed that “All Lives Matter” is offensive in and of itself, like Wilmore has, he would have been roasted on a spit in conservative media. Yet the outcry amongst conservatives for Wilmore’s comment is substantially less than it has been for Stewart’s tamer comments. We expect comments from comedian journalists to be more offensive to conservatives. It’s only when we do not that we can expect a controversy.

Stewart, and Limbaugh – and Palin, and Obama, and any number of people subjected to greater scrutiny because of their novelty – are inkblots. When we can’t define them according to a predetermined standard, our definitions become overly reliant on how we feel about whatever we’ve heard them say, or heard others say about them. This first impression is usually, and oddly, the defining moment in our judgment of them, and our standards thereafter are slaves to our first impressions. That first impression, however, isn’t really a proper summation of that person. It’s a summation of our own reaction to whatever we’ve decided that person stands for.

It’s a Rorschach Test. When we don’t have a framework for understanding someone, our emotions usually fill in the blank. If we like what they say, and do, we might end up adulating them. If we don’t, we might end up with an unusually strong level of contempt, one which is not carried over to the person’s often more offensive successors.

Stewart wasn’t a complete journalist, and, despite his many claims, wasn’t completely a comedian. He was both, and neither. And he probably would have gone without all the scrutiny had journalist/comedian been a classification Americans were used to. But, since it was new, Stewart’s journalist/comedian status was the routine cause of very different reactions among the Left and Right. Conservatives thought Stewart was cheating – his deference to liberal politicians and liberal issues could be dismissed with a simple claim, “I’m not a journalist,” that at once gave him the power of a journalist when he wanted, and the freedom of a comedian when he wanted. At any one point, Stewart could simultaneously claim that his opinions deserved journalistic merit, and also that he was exempt from criticism wherever he disavowed journalistic integrity. Conservatives were right – Stewart was cheating. But the cut goes both ways. If Jon Stewart were to be judged by strictly journalistic standards, critics would, in addition to his failings, be obliged to acknowledge the moments in which he demonstrated outstanding journalism – say, when he alerted Americans to flaws in the USG’s treatment of veterans’ health care, resulting in an almost overnight change, or when, with a similar focus, he alerted Americans to similar flaws for the healthcare of first responders to 9/11, resulting in a similar overnight change. It’s impossible to call the man a journalist without recognizing these achievements, and impossible to call him “just a comedian” without minimalizing them.

People want to have their cake and eat it, too. Stewart is no exception. When he gave a very soft, gloves-on interview with John Kerry during the 2004 presidential run, the common defense among both himself and his admirers was “Stewart’s just a comedian.” When his reporting exposed flaws in Fox News, or shortcomings in the USG’s approach to veterans’ health care, he was an intrepid journalist. For conservatives, where he criticized conservative news and politicians, he was simply a stupid comedian. Where he didn’t criticize liberal politicians, he was a failed journalist.

Either choice, however – comedian or journalist – left some moments to be praised, and some to be condemned. But Stewart was both, and neither. He was ambiguous, and ambiguity, more than anything else, is generally used to prop up our own preexisting opinions. And, mind you, all of us use it. The problem wasn’t that Stewart was terrible, or great; it was that people who already hated or loved him could use his ambiguity to justify their feelings, switching standards of judgment whenever it suited them. And him, frankly.

Now, consider, for a moment, that this explanation of Stewart predicts almost exactly what we get – a slew of wildly diverse and emotional reactions. It explains those reactions without claiming that one half, or the other half, are simply wrong, and it explains them without having to conduct an exhaustive study of Jon Stewart’s run at The Daily Show, which, as I pointed out in Part I, would be necessary for making the kind of conclusions people have been making about Stewart. In short, this explanation is neither self-serving, nor reliant on a thorough knowledge of an unwieldy and tedious body of data.

Why – why, indeed – would you want any other kind of explanation? I don’t have to watch each episode of The Daily Show, and I don’t have to assume I’m infallible. What’s not to like?

This explanation works for a number of controversial figures. Consider Barack Obama. Racism, and criticism of the nation’s first black president, were a prominent theme in media at the start of Obama’s inauguration. Obama was a first, after all. Now, I’m certain many people are quite racist, and opposed his election because of his color, but I can predict a great deal of the resistance to Obama’s presidency without assuming racism at all. Suppose the Left suspects the Right of being racist – the Right, in an attempt to prove they’re not racist, will double down on scrutiny of Obama’s presidency, finding anything out of the ordinary in an attempt to discredit a presidency without the use of race. The Left, in their suspicion of the Right, will consider all attempts to discredit Obama as racist attempts, even the ones that have a great deal of legitimacy. The entire debate surrounding Obama’s legacy will center on race, even if no one debating the question is actually racist. The Left will dismiss any and all criticism, no matter how valid. The Right will latch onto any reason, any at all, to discredit him. And, in the eight marvelously entertaining years of his presidency, we’ve had birthers coexisting with a stubborn refusal to recognize the rise of one of the greatest surveillance states in our history. Nonsense, alongside a serious issue, both either ignored or put forth as evidence of the other side’s blindness, depending on the side you pick. Nothing about that juxtaposition computes, but that it’s the expected reaction to someone new.

There you go. An accurate description of public response to Obama’s presidency, one that doesn’t assume one side is racist or blind (or, perhaps, that both sides are racist and blind) and that doesn’t require a day-by-day analysis of everything Obama has done in office since his inauguration.
As far as Stewart is concerned, I suspect the following happened – his new blend of comedic quasi-journalism inspired a great many followers, and detractors, based on the fact that he was both roasting uncomfortable topics and was himself indefinable. Any one person, liberal or conservative, could find a reason to both feel strongly about Stewart and even more strongly about those with differing opinions of him. If I can choose the standard by which to judge Stewart, I can certainly pronounce judgment on those that don’t use my standard. And I probably won’t notice that I’ve picked my standard, rather than having it previously hewn in stone.

I picked it – not liberals, not conservatives, but me. Because I think with my feelings.

(Update: an earlier version described the Obama dichotomy as “conservative birthers vs. a liberal refusal to see the rise of one of the greatest surveillance states in our history.” Thanks to a friend for pointing out that my wording implied that a disgust for surveillance states was strictly a liberal issue, which is hardly the case.)

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One thought on “Jon Stewart and Inkblots, ii

  1. Great post, Nathan. And that’s without having read part 1. Are you going to publish your posts via medium.com as well? There’s a tonne of good conversation there and I think you have a lot to add to it.

    Like

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