Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has a new collection of essays about contemporary culture that explore what he calls “the civilization of spectacle.” The chief attribute of the civilization of spectacle, he says, is the replacement of ideas and intellectual activity in various spheres of society with mere entertainment, or a “universal prevailing frivolity.”
Vargas Llosa has something specific in mind with this phrase: “Frivolity consists of having an inverted or unbalanced scale of values in which form is more important than content, appearance more important than essence, and in which expression and self-assurance—representation—replaces feelings and ideas.” Applied to journalism, such frivolity produces gossip tabloids, 24-hour cable news, and the blog Slate.
Applied to comedic/fake journalism, it produces Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show”: a long-running exercise in form over substance, attitude over ideas, and snark over debate. The only difference is that Stewart, who steps down as host of “The Daily Show” this week after 16 years, employs frivolity not just because it sells, but because under his leadership “The Daily Show” has been transformed from an oddball fake news show into a robust political organ of the Left.
This is no small thing. Stewart has managed to convince large numbers of Americans, especially Millennials, that he is a real-life newsman and can be trusted as a news source, but also, paradoxically, that he’s just a comedian making jokes about the absurd political news of the day. In a recent survey, self-identifying liberals said they trusted “The Daily Show” more than Fox News and CNN. Among moderates, he’s more trusted than MSNBC.
Jon Stewart, Dishonest Newsman
Predictably, the mainstream media has been penning paeans to Stewart’s genius this week. Rolling Stone—in all seriousness, it seems—calls Stewart the “Last Honest Newsman,” while a blogger at Salon effuses, “Jon Stewart felt like a Messiah… He felt real in a way that people who made a living talking about politics hardly ever feel.” Over at The New Yorker, David Remnick admits that Stewart’s posture as a centrist was always “a little disingenuous” given his obvious liberalism, but nevertheless concludes, “Stewart is a centrist only in this sense: he is not so much pro-left as he is anti-bullshit.”
That’s always been the first line of defense for Stewart’s fans: he’s a fearless speaker of truth; he alone has the courage enough to call bullshit on politicians and the media (meaning Republicans and Fox News, mostly); he speaks truth to power, etc.
But Stewart is no more an honest newsman than, say, Donald Trump is a serious presidential candidate. To modify Vargas Llosa’s phrase, he’s deeply engaged in the politics of spectacle, which inures him, to some extent, from accountability and criticism. Recent news that Stewart accepted, in 2011 and 2014, secret summons to the White House and, right after the second visit, dutifully mocked Vladimir Putin during Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, will probably not shake the confidence of Stewart’s adoring fans. After all, he’s just a comedian, right? And if his bullshit-calling is predominantly directed at Republicans, then they must be more corrupt and dishonest than Democrats. Right?
Jon Stewart Isn’t Funny Because He’s a Coward
Not everyone feels this way, of course. In a recent and much-discussed interview with Salon, Camille Paglia did more than just dismiss Stewart as a hack (“I think he has debased political discourse. I find nothing incisive in his work.”), she implied that his entire shtick is a departure from the modern comedic genre because, besides hackneyed, it’s also cowardly—a break from “the old caustic, confrontational style of Jewish comedy.”
“It was Jewish comedians who turned stand-up from the old gag-meister shtick of vaudeville into a biting analysis of current social issues, and they really pushed the envelope. Lenny Bruce used stand-up to produce gasps and silence from the audience. And that’s my standard—a comedy of personal risk. And by that standard, I’m sorry, but Jon Stewart is not a major figure.”
What Paglia doesn’t say outright is that Stewart’s comedy has no element of personal risk because it’s mostly a mass exercise in confirmation bias—instinctively partisan, designed not to shock or challenge but to reassure. To do this, he flatters his audience. That’s the only way to make the show entertaining, after all.
“The Daily Show” under Stewart is remarkable for being a comedy show about politics and public policy—subjects that are rather dull, often mind-numbingly, crushingly dull. To have an informed opinion about this or that public policy, for example, one must generally spend hours trudging through dry prose, sometimes ingesting various tables and charts along the way. To set policy in its proper context, one must have a basic grasp of American politics, which of course requires some knowledge of American history. It takes a fair amount of work, much of it pretty boring. It’s certainly not very funny or entertaining. Not for most people, anyway.
Humor Based on Delegitimizing Opponents
So, how do you make a comedy show out of that? For one thing, you don’t want to dig too much into actual politics or policy. You don’t want to deal with ideas and arguments. You’ve got to make it entertaining for an audience that is, for the most part, largely uninterested in politics and ignorant of policy. To do that, you’ve got to appeal to your audience’s vanity, flatter them. Make them feel like they really get the reasons why whatever the show happens to be mocking is indeed ridiculous—outrageously ridiculous, bizarre even, and therefore hilarious.
The purpose of the show is to entertain, sure, but the purpose of the entertainment is to discredit political opponents of the Left. More or less the same is true of liberal “explanatory journalism” outfits like Vox and Politifact, which exist largely to provide Left-leaning readers with liberal talking points on the issues of the day. As Kevin Williamson pointed out last year, Jon Stewart and Ezra Klein are cut from the same cloth: “For the Left, the maker of comedy and the maker of graphs perform the same function. It does not matter who does the ‘destroying,’ so long as it gets done.”
The point of this mockery—“destroying,” in the parlance of Stewart fans—is to discredit opponents without engaging their arguments. Delegitimize them. You don’t need ideas or arguments of your own to do that, you just need to be smug and cool and snarky. Simply declare “the debate is over,” and dismiss those who disagree as obstructionists acting in bad faith.
The legacy of Jon Stewart, if he has one, is the replacement of ideas with snark, of debate with dismissal. This is the politics of spectacle, and if you haven’t noticed, it’s catching on.