Jon Stewart and the New Political Privilege

“Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too. It is the sole consolation of weak minds in this short and transitory life of ours.” — Voltaire, “Toleration”

I did not attend Saturday’s rally because, like many Americans, I could not afford to. I did not have the cash for the $60 Boltbus round trip, the $100 or so to spring for a night in a motel room, and the $40 (very conservative estimate) for food and water. $200.

Now imagine the tab if you have a kid. Factor in childcare and you’re easily getting into the $400 range if you were a parent hoping to participate in a rally that was being compared in some corners to Martin Luther King. Sure, you could blow a few hundred bucks to make a purported difference or you could put that money into your kid’s Halloween costume. Or maybe that’s a few weeks of much needed groceries. Or maybe that’s what you need at the end of the month to make mortgage or rent.

The upshot is that, in this economy, $200 is a lot of money for many people. If you are among the 10% of Americans who remain unemployed, the ones who are being told that economic recovery is just around the corner, then those two Ben Franklins are worth a good deal more. And these are the people we’re not talking about. These are the people we can’t talk about. Because unless it’s a message from the Rent is Too Damn High Party, talking about poverty and class division isn’t nearly as entertaining as an episode of Jersey Shore.

If you could afford to go to Washington last weekend, you practiced your new political privilege. This privilege was reflected in the mostly white demographic that turned up in Washington. It was reflected in Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s performance of “The Greatest Strongest Country in the World”:

Stewart: They don’t care about the gays
Colbert: That’s mostly true
Stewart: They’re terrified of Muslims!
Colbert: Well, they scare you too!
Stewart: But I would never talk about it / Folks would get annoyed
Colbert: You’re a coward
Stewart: Yes, but I’m still employed (going into a falsetto yodel)

The satirical song’s message, a sentiment also reflected in Stewart’s closing speech, is that there is no longer any room for hyperbole, extremist rhetoric, and “insanity.” If you’re lucky enough to remain gainfully employed, maintaining a Spock-like commitment to cold “logic” while others face the savage brunt of rising costs and diminishing prospects, keeping your job is more important than speaking your mind or commiserating with the hard realities of a family who has to skip a few hot meals. The message is this: It could have been you, but, hey, you’re still employed. Don’t take a chance. People might get annoyed.

And how exactly does this represent togetherness? Togetherness doesn’t mean shunning people, but listening to the viewpoints you despise. And while you may be bathing in a Stewart-Colbert afterglow, the “insane” people will be there in the voting booths on Tuesday. There will be hard and possibly irreversible developments because a bright red cluster was just told that its feelings didn’t matter. That the manner, however inappropriate, in which people responded to justifiable concerns about unemployment and foreclosure wasn’t valid. Yes, they amplified their messages until their posters turned into increasingly stranger exemplars for Godwin’s Law. But if the corporations had given them jobs as Wall Street enjoyed its best September since 1939 or someone had listed to justifiable concerns about being forced to pay exorbitant costs thanks to one of the biggest giveaways to private industry in American history, would we even have Christine O’Donnell as a candidate? Would we even be diminishing political discourse by considering the gentlemanly angles on muff diving?

While keeping atavistic sentiments out of evenhanded analysis is a worthwhile goal, there are several problems with Stewart’s overgeneralized view of the way the media and the political conversation operates — hardly limited to what David Carr has courageously and reasonably offered. As Glenn Greenwald wrote in September, where’s the space for someone engaged in genuinely independent and non-ideological inquiry? The fact that the audience applauded strongest when Stewart yodeled about keeping his job suggests that public discourse is not necessarily about the politics, but about keeping one’s privileged position. The new privilege is, irrespective of Rick Sanchez, being able to hold onto your job and being able to spend money to go to a rally. What of those who aren’t part of this illusory middle class? The ones who were left behind like the poor saps missing the rally, stuck in traffic on the “free” Huffington Post buses? Was Saturday, as Mark Ames suggested, more of “an anti-rally, a kind of mass concession speech without the speech–some kind of sick funeral party for Liberalism, in which Liberals are led, at last, by a clown?”

I don’t want to pin the blame on the 215,000 people who attended the rally, particularly since many conservatives are attempting to undermine this number with dubious metrics. These goodhearted people attended this exercise in good faith, seeking confirmation that there was a safer way to express their political commitment. As someone who witnessed firsthand in San Francisco the manner in which suburban people were squeezed out of the Iraq opposition rallies on February 15, 2003 (the largest global anti-war rally in history) after the protest turned bad, discouraged by the loud and loutish voices who caused their swift surrender, it was a great relief to witness a new political unity.

But if the cost of this unity involves slicing the edges off the political spectrum, if it involves ignoring the obvious facts that Goldman Sachs created an orphan month to puff up its earnings and good people had their lives changed by subprime loans and the derivatives casino rewarded the rich at the expense of the poor, then there is something seriously wrong with our priorities. It involves embracing a myth that is just as dangerous as the fabricated Reagan prosperity narrative promulgated by the Tea Party crowd.

The people who attended this rally may very well be without this Wall Street greed. But the ones who have caused our national problems have been anything but civil. The Glenn Becks and the Keith Olbermanns who fulminate hysteria are not, it is important to be reminded, selling our grandchildren into slavery.

In his speech, Stewart talked about the “selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst.” Not at all. These selfish jerks are hired in droves on Wall Street. Reason won’t deter the very insane avarice and the unremitting selfishness of the economic elite. You can’t always bring a book and a calm demeanor to a knife fight.

In fact, few have remarked upon the selfish qualities contained within Stewart’s speech. The first sentence: “I can’t control what people think this was.” Near the end: “If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence here was what I wanted.” You will not find the verbs “want” or “control” in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In Obama’s much longer and more nuanced “A More Perfect Union” speech, you will find our future President using the phrase “we want” (not “I want”) numerous times, but never “control.” King and Obama brought people together during these moments not because they dictated to their audiences what they wanted (and thus, as Stewart has done, dictated how they should respond), but because they invited their listeners to become part of their journey.

The difference is that Stewart can rescue himself from any criticisms because he can always play the “I’m a comedian” card. Yet it isn’t too much of a stretch to see that Stewart’s “I want” has now eclipsed Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Stewart suggested to his audience that “because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through this darkness and back into the light we have to work together,” but he has, rather brilliantly, sandwiched this facile notion of working together within the troubling crust of “I can’t control” and “I want.” And “I want” is a more dangerous beast than the fleeting optimism contained within “Yes we can.”

“I want” is the mantra of entitlement. “I can’t control” is the sentiment of someone whose view of the “opposition” is relegated to a quick glimpse of someone in a car, where judgments as superficial as Beck and Olbermann reduce a complex individual to a neat demographic label. The mom with two kids who can’t think about anything else. The Oprah lover. What about the people who don’t have the money for gas?

Stewart is on firmer ground when he suggests that racists and Stalinists are “titles that must be earned” and that labels should be granted to those “who have put forth the exhausting effort it takes to hate.” But what about more subtle disgraces? Systemic issues? By these standards, the cab driver who does not stop for a black man, the gay couple that is not permitted the same benefits as a married couple, or the ongoing wage gap between men and women should be given less amplification.

As John Scalzi recently noted in a list, you don’t have to worry about any of this. You can attend a rally and feel good about yourself. What you may not realize is that clowns much bigger than Stewart and Colbert — the ones who took your tax dollars during the bailouts and the ones who speculate on commodities and raise your daily prices — are laughing at you.


  1. “selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst.”

    He wasn’t referring to people on Wall Street, he meant they shouldn’t be hired to analyze the news. The entire event, as punctuated by this final speech of sincerity, was about the media and the inability of today’s politicians to get anything done.

    “What you may not realize is that clowns much bigger than Stewart and Colbert — the ones who took your tax dollars during the bailouts and the ones who speculate on commodities and raise your daily prices — are laughing at you.”

    Are you kidding? Stewart and Colbert talk about this every single night on their shows. They provide better information regarding what Congress has been unable to do regarding the Main Street vs. Wall Street battle than any of the talking heads on the 24-hours news networks. Stephen Colbert used his celebrity to actually make people pay attention to hearings regarding immigrant farm workers that would have been otherwise ignored.

  2. Jesse: Thanks for your comment. I know very well that Stewart was talking about media, but it’s stunningly naive to promulgate the notion that cutthroat “selfish jerks” aren’t in this business (we are talking media here), much less any business (the success of Wall Street being the example I cite). It was disingenuous for Stewart to suggest that this impulse will ever be extirpated from humanity. As I stated in this piece, I think Stewart is absolutely on point in pointing out that titles must be earned. But the problem here is that systems are bigger than people, and there needs to be a safe place for understandable emotional response. Colbert has (as you rightly point out) engaged in more satirical bravery than Stewart (Colbert’s 2006 appearance at the White House being the most profound example), but Stewart — who is normally better than he was on Saturday — dictated to 215,000 people the terms of political involvement rather than soliciting from them.

  3. Dear Ed: Your points are well taken. Increasingly, both sides of a political debate criticize each other’s viewpoints rather than directing their ire at the proper objects of criticism: policymakers in the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of the federal government (as well as state, county, and municipal governments). In days of yore, the press — even when it was highly partisan, and not making some pretense to “objectivity,” which has never existed in journalism — represented the Democratic, Republican, Federalist, or Whig (or Free Soil or Bull Moose) viewpoint in dissecting the opposing candidate’s or party’s positions. Only in recent decades have political writers begun writing about the methods and philosophies of those reporting on the candidates running for office or politicians enacting laws. (Think Tim Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus or, indeed, work by the recently deceased Ted Sorenson.) It’s a situation that is at best second- or third-hand. Pundit A1, who is a partisan for Politician A, criticizes Pundit B1 for his support of Politician B. And vice versa, ad infinitum. Essentially, reporters and pundits are covering the coverers over how well they cover the covered. Ridiculous! And a waste of oxygen, air time, and citizens’ attention.

    Great photo, by the way, of that smirking weenie Jon Stewart.

    These things said, I’m disappointed that you cite Glenn Greenwald for his supposed call for a “space for someone engaged in genuinely independent and non-ideological inquiry.” Because Greenwald is anything but non-ideological. Let me tell you a story about me and El Glenno.

    I used to read Salon on a daily basis up until about a year ago. Occasionally, I would take issue with something said by one of its writers. For example, Camille Paglia always managed to squeeze plugs of her books, articles, and appearances in her early postings. (She has since ceased for the most part, thank you very much.)

    When Greenwald came aboard at Salon, I became increasingly agitated by the inflammatory headings to his posts. When I read further, I became enraged by the half-truths, outright falsehoods, omissions of fact, blatant biases, misrepresentations, selective quotations, lack of historical knowledge and perspective, and vast ignorance of American culture, all in the service of a repellant anti-American left-wing agenda.

    Now, I’m no flag-waving, America-love-it-or-leave-it kind of guy. However, my college degree is in American studies, and I’ve spent my entire adult life reading American history and literature and keeping abreast of American thought and culture, present and past. It is no exaggeration to say that I am an EXPERT in American culture, and I’ve occasionally advised and written for American studies publications. I also have the benefit of having lived in a few red states in my lifetime, and although I may not agree with a lot of the notions that issue from these places, I at least understand how their grievances and prejudices arose. When I opine on American culture, I’m usually right.

    So I began to comment on Greenwald’s posts:

    1. I pointed out the stupidity of his pronouncements, which usually resulted from his imperfect knowledge of American history, his incomplete understanding of political science (especially as to how politics have traditionally been practiced in the United States), and his profound naiveté about America’s relations with the rest of the world, which always have oscillated between realpolitik and exceptionalism.

    2. I pointed out the shortcomings of his methodology, which consists of writing overlong posts of at least 100,000 words (that’s how they feel, anyway), containing multiple verbatim quotations from the web the sizes of which push if not exceed the boundaries of fair use. There is very little that betrays an original insight in Greenwald’s writing. To paraphrase Capote on Kerouac, “That’s not writing, that’s cutting and pasting.”

    3. I pointed out his highly circumscribed list of source materials, which are almost exclusively taken from an extremely limited range of mainstream web, print, and video outlets: The New York Times, Washington Post, Face the Nation, Meet the Press, etc. In my comments I would refer to and quote from publications from the left (The Nation, The American Prospect), center (New Republic, Slate), and right (National Review, Weekly Standard). Only then can you have a complete understanding of a controversy. “Yes, Glenno,” I said, “if you continually read mainstream newspapers and compare their perspectives to reality, of course they will come off as ‘lamestream.’ Duh.”

    4. I pointed out the distance from which he is located from the centers of power in the world. He lives in Brazil and receives his news from satellite TV and the Internet. He is not reporting from the corridors of the Capitol, he is not personally interviewing Afghanis and Iraqis, he is not attending Pentagon press conferences, he is not talking to the unemployed auto worker in Michigan. He is too far away to absorb the current American zeitgeist, and he certainly would never brave reporting first-hand from a Middle East war zone. (I once facetiously suggested he go up the mountain to the favelas, unarmed, and ask the man in the street what he thought about things.) Basically, Greenwald sits in front of a monitor, pontificating on that whereof he knows nothing, a caipirinha in one hand and his dick, which he’s continually massaging, in the other.

    One day, I discovered that my comments were disappearing from Salon. When I questioned Greenwald about this, he confirmed that he himself was deleting them, because they weren’t “adding anything” to the dialogue. More like it, they were correct in calling him out on his bullshit. Far from providing a “space for someone engaged in genuinely independent and non-ideological inquiry” (practice what you fucking preach, Glenno), he makes it a practice to stifle dissent from the Greenwald party line. And, moreover, what is up with Salon for letting him edit and/or delete the comments to his posts at whim? That’s a helluva lot of editorial control to give to a hired blogger.

    In short, Glenn Greenwald reminds me of another Bozo named Glenn: Glenn Beck. Both are intellectually dishonest, personally hypocritical, and ethically challenged. Both are fuckwads to the max. Love, Tim

    P.S. David Carr is a total douchebag, too, but I’ll save that rant for another day.

  4. “I know very well that Stewart was talking about media, but it’s stunningly naive to promulgate the notion that cutthroat ‘selfish jerks’ aren’t in this business (we are talking media here)…”

    Can you explain this further? Either you are misrepresenting what he said or you got turned around on the joke itself, that the people in his tunnel analogy are normal folks who shun the jerk while the media embraces that exact person…

    Also, considering that the majority of people who attended the rally were from DC or the Washington area and spent 10-20 bucks (at most) to travel on a Saturday afternoon to the National Mall for three hours, what’s the point of your opening math problem?

    And largely boomer? You may want to strike that from the post if you’re concerned with the actual facts of the case.

  5. Shane: Thanks for pointing out the “largely boomer” mistake. I’ve removed it from the post, largely because we are talking about the class divide here. It was widely observed that many older people came to this rally — including those typically in boomer range — as reported by the New York Times.

    And I’m not misrepresenting Stewart’s speech at all. You’re confusing the part about the funhouse mirrors (that is, the media) and the point where he said, “Look on the screen. This is where we are” (that is, the “real” metric). What was on the screen is just as much of an illusion as what the media offers. THAT’S the cruel joke. And America bought it as sincerity.

  6. Thanks, Ed. Though I don’t understand talk of class divide. If the majority of those in attendance lived in the DC area, and the majority of them were 30 or under, how are these people defined by class? Because they’re white?

    Footage of cars going into the tunnel is not a real metric of how we live and live together? That is an illusion? Maybe I’m missing your larger point here so sorry in advance if I’m just being dense, but we do in fact deal with each other on a reasonable human level when we’re not defined by pundits. That is his point and I think it’s an important one to make.

    I’d also like to point out what I consider his most salient line- We live in hard times, not end times.
    Our fear that tea partiers or communists or racists or “The Left” are actually destroying this country is, in my opinion, a self-destructive point of view and was the crux of the entire rally.
    But I don’t want to stray too far from your article. If I have my own independent points to make I should enunciate them in my own arena.

  7. Fair enough, Shane. And I’m glad we can respectfully disagree. Let me know if your independent points become available. I’ll only say that footage of cars going into the Holland Tunnel is a bona-fide metric for the working class, I urge you in the strongest possible to investigate and understand the TOTALITY of the class divide. From my vantage point, based on the people I see and talk with every day, it’s absolutely an illusion. Any movement that doesn’t include the truly impoverished is most certainly self-destructive.

  8. Sorry Ed, you are really confusing me. The Holland Tunnel is a metaphor (I should have said this before instead of using your term “metric”) for how political ideologies don’t interfere with normal everyday interactions, which I believe is undeniably true. Almost everyone in this country, regardless of their economic stability or standing in the modern class hierarchy, has a modicum of human decency that is functional regardless of the political belief system they espouse or apply to others. And unlike the media, those who do the opposite in real life are not elevated. That was clearly his point and I don’t see how this “Totality of the class divide” has any relevance.
    I almost feel like The Dude asking Walter what all that shit was about Vietnam.

  9. Gas is $4 a gallon. The toll to enter New York through the Holland Tunnel is $8. Do the math and maybe you might understand that Stewart’s metaphor is exclusionary and does not reflect the totality of the the class divide. The bums lost, Mr. Lebowski. My advice to you is: get a job.

  10. Most people could not initially afford to attend the rally. Thankfully, the “Rally to Restore” sanity offered free buses from all around the country (mostly up and down the coast), and held the rally for a brief couple of hours on the National Mall so that people didn’t necessarily have to make a day trip of it.

    I am near the poverty level, but I requested half a day off work a month in advance and paid $4 for a Metro ticket. I was lucky to live in the vicinity of the DC metro, admittedly, and that $4 could have paid for a lunch which I forewent (I had an inexpensive snack before I left and shared a large dinner with my roommate later).

    Most of the people at the rally brought food made at home (I saw several families with a bag of apples and a small stack of PB and Js). Many brought reusable water bottles filled with tap water.

    This wasn’t some elitist gathering. The crowd that I was in seemed extremely diverse. It was full of students living on Ramen who carpooled with six other buddies to attend. It had people who worked swabbing down floors in government buildings in DC taking a 15 minute break to check in on the excitement.

    The signs were diverse, many tongue in cheek, but with very different intentions. Some were there to condone compromise. Others were there to incite the crowd to be loud and impactful. Still others were there merely to enjoy their freedom of speech.

  11. Ed,

    I appreciate your commentary on the rally, but as you began your post you made clear that you weren’t there. From someone who was, and had the good fortune to SAVE money (opposed to frivolously using an AMEX) to travel from San Diego to attend, I never got the impression that people should keep their mouths shut to keep their jobs. I never got the impression that he was dictating how people should respond when he asked the question “IF you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you.” The entire 2 1/2 hour performance prior to Stewart’s speech was satire. “The greatest, strongest country in the world” is a satirical song. These views in the performances were not Stewart’s and Colbert’s, they were the views that have overtaken this nation being put on stage for laughter. The crowd understood that.
    The most powerful element of Stewart’s speech was the message that Americans can and do work together. We are not the people conveyed in the media. “We live in hard times, not end times,” Stewart said in his speech. He was imploring the media to stop chasing ratings by blowing everything out of proportion. And when Colbert challenged with the idea that the media can’t be controlled, Stewart offered that the control is in the people’s hands, literally, by picking up the remote and turning it off.
    If you’d like to read an Op-Ed piece about the rally from the impression of one who saw its beauty, check out this story:

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