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.

Mothlight and the WGA Strike

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America’s troubled soul snaked around two building corners on a late Monday afternoon. It read books. It offered quizzical pikers when WGA strikers handed out pink papers containing the phone numbers and emails of eight Viacom head honchos. It took pictures of the fourteen placard-holders as if on holiday. But there were no visible signs that it was registering the hypocrisy of standing in line for a show that was allegedly progressive (and pro-union) in tone as strikers quietly expressed their rights with signs. Maybe the strikers were performance artists or buskers who had escaped the subway. I kept vigorous watch, hoping that a few audience members would feel disgusted and walk away, only to be readily replaced by those in the standby line. But they held onto their tickets like hard-won candy.

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The eager audiences waiting to see Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lob a few unscripted bons mot about the state of politics remained uninvolved. They were there to be entertained. A bald man in his early forties disseminated circulars. He told me that the strike had been a success.

“Is it?” I asked. “These people are still standing in line.”

He didn’t give me his name and he declined to be interviewed at length. But we did talk for a few minutes.

I was interested in this man, because I had seen him trying to quietly persuade people in the Daily Show standby line, who appeared to take these flyers more readily than those who had tickets. One young man told him, “If we’re close in any way to the front, we’ll do what we can.” “Do what we can.” It essentially amounts to nothing.

To be fair, The Daily Show admitted its audiences at the pre-determined time, permitting its audience to see the WGA strike. The Colbert Report, by contrast, shuttled in their audiences well before the 5:00 PM start time so that the strikers would not be seen or, at least, endured as infrequently as possible. “What a mess!” proclaimed a plump woman standing protectively near the Colbert Report doors. She complained that there had been no progress in two months. The strikers were gnats to be swatted away on a wintry day.

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With the exception of a funny interviewer from Associated Press TV who quipped to one Colbert Report audience member, “Enjoy the show,” shortly after challenging his need to be entertained, the media was, for the most part, out to lunch. A New York Post reporter spent most of her time talking on the phone. “Sorry, I’m so spacey!” she said as she talked with WGAe President Michael Winship. The outlets who came included CNN, NY1, and me — if I am indeed an outlet.

“It’s only ten after four?” bitched one reporter. “I thought I’d been here for a day. Jesus.”

He had arrived only fifteen minutes before.

I was extremely saddened to see that nobody waiting in line really cared. There was no reaction from these audience members. No acts of dissent. The pink flyers were folded inside newspapers, deposited on the sidewalk like stray trash. Just as American audiences had chosen Leno over Letterman, despite Letterman busting his hump to cut a separate agreement with the Guild, the audience here opted for entertainment over integrity.

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The strikers silently holding up placards circled up and down the queue, appearing to be mostly comprised of WGA members from other productions. (One writer I talked to was from All My Children. There’s a podcast interview below.) If there was a Daily Show writer in the bunch, the writer did not announce himself. I asked a few strikers if there was anyone here from The Daily Show and they told me they did not know. One gentleman declined to answer. Perhaps answering involved a confession of failure.

Since the bald flyer man refused an interview with me, I approached the WGAe publicist Sherry Goldman, asking if I could interview her. She wouldn’t talk to me on tape, snapped at me, and turned briskly away to answer her cell. I had seen her talking in front of a camera. I approached her again and said, “Excuse me. You’ll talk to CNN, but you won’t talk with me?” She then very kindly led me to WGAe President Michael Winship. I also talked with All My Children writer Kate Hall. You can listen to the podcasts below.


Winship: And let me say that all of these guys have been very supportive of the strike thus far and that we are not protesting them as people. They’ve been great. They’ve been supportive of the strike. They’ve been supportive of their writing staffs. But their companies — the big companies, the media conglomerates, the penny-pinching producers if you will — will not allow them back on the air because they won’t bargain a fair and respectful contract.

Correspondent: Now do you consider Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to be hyphenates. Are they actually, by going back to work, kind of going against the nature of the strike here?

Winship: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are both members of the Writers Guild of America. They have both been given copies of the strike rules. They know the kinds of work that they’re not allowed to do. And they know that there are penalties that can take place if they, in fact, perform what we consider struck work.

Correspondent: But if The Daily Show were to show a clip in advance, if they were to design it in advance and have Jon Stewart comment on it, would that constitute an act of writing in your eyes or…?

Winship: If Jon is spontaneously ad-libbing and responding to a clip that’s on the air, we don’t consider that struck work.

Correspondent: What would you consider out of the boundaries of what he can do today?

Winship: Well, in terms of things that he can and cannot do, one of the things that he could not do is to write a monologue in advance or go on the air with material that appear on cue cards or a teleprompter.

Correspondent: Yeah. Gotcha. But anything else pretty much? Ad-libbing, he’s fine then.

Winship: Well, the rules are pretty specific about things that he can and cannot do. He cannot write questions in advance for interviews, for example. He cannot write the monologues, as I said. He cannot write any kind of sketch material for the show.

Correspondent: But let’s say that there’s a guest who appears, who has like a book or something like that. He’s going to have to read it in advance. Does that constitute writing or preparation?

Winship: I don’t think reading constitutes writing. If he was writing down his questions in advance and so forth, that would struck work. But if he has a guest on the air whose book he has read and he asks questions off the top of his head, that is not struck work.

I was fascinated by Winship’s criteria about what “writing” entails. One cannot prepare a show entirely in one’s head. There must be the need to write words down. And nearly all of Jon Stewart’s clips feature those trusty blue pieces of paper. Or are these sheets mere props?

As it turned out, the January 7, 2008 episode of The Daily Show did indeed have a guest: conflict resolution specialist Ronald Seeber, presumably a friendly nod to the WGA strike. But did Stewart take notes before this interview? Did Stewart prepare his questions in advance? And if he did, is there any real way for the WGA to enforce this?

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It’s also important to observe the distinction put forth by WGA. In the WGA’s eyes, Jon Stewart is not the enemy. Viacom is.

From my interview with Kate Hall:

Hall: We’re not striking The Daily Show or Jon Stewart. I think everybody here for the most part — I can’t speak for them, but I would imagine that they’re all big fans of his and the show. So we support him. We just won’t support Viacom’s decision to put him back on the air without the writers.

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But if the WGA wasn’t striking The Daily Show, what were they doing in front of The Daily Show building? Is not Viacom providing the resources to run The Daily Show? And is not Jon Stewart, in going back to work, complicit in allowing Viacom to continue running The Daily Show? It seems to me that he gets off on a technicality.

But let’s take a look at the strike rules, as Mr. Winship suggested.

Since Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are hyphenates, Rule 12 applies to them:

The Guild strongly believes that no member should cross a WGA picket line or enter the premises of a struck company for any purpose. Under applicable law, however, the Guild may not discipline a hyphenate for performing non-writing services. This legal restriction only extends to services that are clearly not writing services. (Emphasis in original.)

If Stewart or Colbert write so much as one word on a sheet of paper, either before the show, during the show, or after the show, then they are in violation of the agreement.

It is impossible to imagine either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report succeeding in any way without writers or a scrap of paper.

However things ended up, the moths were there, attracted to the light. Unconcerned with who provided the electricity.

(Many thanks to Sarah Weinman for assisting in this report.)