By now several million people have watched Jon Stewart’s rant against conservatives on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week: “You don’t own Patriotism! You don’t own Christianity!” etc. etc. Stewart’s tirade is somewhat of a challenge to critique because, like all really effective bad arguments, it's woven through with points that are clearly true. Is it true that many Republicans are ideologues who applaud their candidate for doing something and then demonize Democratic candidates for doing the same thing? Yes. Is it true that Sean Hannity is a shrill example of this in the media? Yes. Do first responders still suffering from 9/11 deserve help from the government? Yes. But it takes more than a few bricks to make a house. (More on this below).
Another reason criticizing Stewart’s rant is a delicate thing is that, at this point in the election season, negative comments about Democrats can quickly be taken as support for Trump. I ask the reader’s sympathy on this point. The predicament of the conscientious American voter this year is like someone on an ER gurney in need of emergency surgery with the choice of only one of two doctors. One is a woman who plans on leaving you with a few Tylenol until after her nail appointment, but changes her mind when she realizes you’ve got great insurance. And the other is a billionaire who pulls out a buck knife and says, “I’m so rich, I didn’t even need to go to medical school. I’ll fix you up. It’s gonna be huge!”
Also, it’s not hard to see why Stewart draws a crowd. He’s not just witty, but a truly gifted comedian. You can’t script talent, and he’s got it. And compared with most in his field, he has some intellectual substance. He’s like the cool, funny kid in government class, except he actually pays attention. And, as is clear by the popularity of Colbert, and Stewart’s British counterpart, John Oliver, the foul mouthed, class-clown pundit combo works. As one of them said, people used to listen to politicians and laugh at comedians; now they listen to comedians and laugh at politicians.
The problem is, Stewart's rapid-fire quips and jabs are so quick that they make it easy to miss the fact that he’s often wrong. Whether he means to or not, his comedy-critique works like philosophical pickpocketing. Caught up in the pleasure of lampooning the buffoons, no one takes time to think thoroughly about the implications of what he has to say and what’s being taken from them in the process.
There are two problems with his rant on the Colbert show. One is shockingly obvious, the other is much more subtle and much more dire in the long run. First of all, at this point it’s a real absurdity to chastise conservatives who “have a problem with those Americans fighting for their place at the table.”—“a problem with those subgroups who are being divisive.” It’s glaringly obvious who no longer has a place at the table and who constitutes the “sub groups.” Have any GLBTQ-owned bakeries been fined and put out of business because the owners refused to be involved with an event at odds with their convictions? Has the government threatened to fine any businesses for providing abortion aids to their employees? How did those states who wanted to recognize only traditional marriage do when they tried to find their place at the table with the Supreme Court? There is a statute of limitations on the victim card.
But Stewart’s deeper and more disconcerting problem is that his arguments--as sharp and hilarious as they often are--have no root. Like so many comedians on the left, most of his humor is driven by indignation against perceived injustice, exposing corruption and incompetence by being both Robin Hood and court jester. But the chivalry portrayed in Robin Hood plays out within a greater framework of truth and virtue and duty to God.
We may laugh upon delivery of the one-liner zingers and stingers because they so instantly clarify what’s wrong, but how do we know what's right? Jews and Christians have always understood (though have often failed to live up to it) that people are given power for the sake of those who don’t have it, and that all people, no matter their race or background, share an inherent dignity, all because we were created by All Mighty God. But why does Jon Stewart believe all people should be treated with dignity? And how is it that fairness is so important but chastity is a joke? For Jews and Christians these, along with all virtues, are validated by the same source. What is Jon Stewart’s source?
Since a great many on his side of the moral-political spectrum seem to think that God either doesn’t exist, or is just a vague synonym for zeitgeist, my suspicion is his source of authority is his own feelings, and that his feelings are fundamentally shaped by our unmoored, western culture.
But setting your moral compass (even a compass used by the majority of those around you) only by your feelings is like throwing your nautical compass overboard while sailing in a storm and just going the way that feels west. Certain things like rape and racism make us feel bad, but they are not wrong because of the way they make us feel; they make us feel a certain way because they are wrong. Judging whether something is right and wrong by the way it makes us feel is not morality but sentimentality, and it makes for a hellacious hodgepodge. This is clear in abortion doctors and modern warfare. Killing people you can’t see doesn’t draw tears like the last gasp on the face four feet away. But this doesn’t make it less a killing.
The reality is that Stewart and others expose some horrible things in the actions of those in power, but at the same time their ungrounded, selective moralism leaves us blind to other evils which are far worse. It also leaves us (once it’s thought through) with the empty sense that morality itself only boils down to what the cool kids are against this month.
Ultimately Stewart is a police officer with no police department. There’s a massive audience who loves to laugh as he brings down the law on the corrupt and powerful. But it doesn’t take long for that emotion opposite of laughter to set in when we realize that the law being enforced is no bigger than Jon Stewart.