"I feel like what we've built here is a monument to evisceration," said Jon Stewart this week on one of his final segments as host of The Daily Show. "We demolished, crushed, we annihilated things," he quipped of his 16-year tenure at the parody news show. These were all words used in headlines about the host during his 16-year tenure. In riffing on them, Stewart offered up a most apt review of his work: an admission of impotence. "Have my efforts come to nought?" he sighed, theatrically holding a Yorick skull.
Stewart professed he is no "Destroyer of Worlds" — institutional racism, banking foul play, and even Fox News are as fierce as ever. What the host failed to note — or perhaps even see — is his role as an Upholder of Worlds. I will miss the talented host and comedian, but I happily bid farewell to our most notable liberal reactionary. This is not Stewart's fault. Satire is by its nature reactionary; the target sets the fulcrum. But the richest satire makes the chuckling audience challenge their own positions, not just that of the chosen target of ridicule. All too often, Stewart's comedy — and Stephen Colbert's — has suggested to a liberal audience that, to be on the correct political plain, it is enough to laugh along.
No event highlighted Stewart's problematic polemics better than his 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, D.C. Over 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall to watch a high-end production comedy, music and pathos-peppered variety show. I was there as a reporter. It was pleasant, and it was everything I dislike about Stewart as a political actor. The pop concert iteration of a Keep Calm and Carry On poster, Stewart said the rally was for the 80 percent of Americans who don't share the "radical" political stances of the Capitol Hill blowhards who control the national debate. The wake of the financial crisis, with the Iraq and Afghanistan War ongoing, and equality lacking on every front, was no time for calm. The eruption of Occupy the following year reflected an angered zeitgeist. We wanted rupture — we still do — Stewart wanted an Oprah-endorsed pop rally.
It was Stephen Colbert's truthy counterpart who struck a better satirical tone. He joined the rally in typical polemic opposition to Stewart's liberal, calling for Fear. "Now is the time for all good men to freak out for freedom!" he said. And, for reasons opposite to his parodied conservatism, he was damn right. The rally's message, though, was that America needed outrage, not rage. Liberals could come together in a vast act of identity affirmation, lacking all force or content beyond, "well, at least we're not those crazy guys on Capitol Hill." In the church of liberal outrage, Stewart is high priest. But outrage, as writer Willie Osterweil has noted, is "distinct from anger and rage, [and] has always been a week political position."
Osterweil argued that outrage is the "politically impotent mode of expression that defined the left under President Bush." It during this time that Stewart ascended — the master of the exasperated sigh and handwringing into a camera, as if the sources of his outrage were watching, instead of the millions of fellow hangwringers who actually were. Stewart's outrage machine was not spluttering over neo-conservatives alone, of course. He has skewered President Obama and Hillary Clinton, although with a legibly more deferential tone. But the limits, even the danger, of Stewart's outrage politics was made clear in a comment from Fox News host Howard Kutz. After Stewart announced his retirement, Kurtz wrote, "One dirty little secret is that pundits – and politicians – love to be mocked by Stewart."
I'm not sure it's much of a secret. But it does highlight how Stewart's role repeats the very polemics he mocks. He manifests the symbiotic relationship between the liberal and conservative, perpetuating that other dirty little secret: that the two positions rely on each other in a feedback loop, which pretends that the political field is largely exhausted by Democrats and Republicans. Which is not to say that I don't often agree with Stewart. He has been fantastic, for example, in his critique of police racism and impunity. I was pleasantly surprised when he commented with understanding, not condemnation, of the Ferguson and Baltimore unrest. He really did eviscerate CNN's appalling, racist coverage.
Equally, he has done more than generate outrage and shore up liberal identity. His focus on the 9/11 first responders' healthcare bill arguably helped end the GOP congressional block on the important legislation. He also shed new light on how disgracefully long veterans had to wait to receive care, and other Department of Veterans Affairs failings, prompting policy change. This is advocacy beyond comedy, to be sure.
I've seen two articles in the last two days carrying the headline "how Jon Stewart changed the world," which, of course, while offering rightful praise, back up no such grand claim. But Stewart wasn't in the world-changing business. His tendency towards reactionary outrage was completely appropriate for a liberal comedian. It is our mistake to elevate such a position into the pantheon of world-changers.
But there's grounds to also question whether he was a good satirist. In his critique of Charlie Hebdo's Muhammed caricature, Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan Tim Parks wrote for the New York Review of Books, "the worst case is when satire reinforces the state of mind it purports to undercut, polarizes prejudices, and provokes the very behavior it condemns." Stewart's satire took aim at deserving targets, but, in framing himself and his fans as the righteous, exasperated voices of good sense, he reinforced the cheap us-versus-them polemic he claim to decry. Better satire would make it more uncomfortable for all of us to laugh along.