Jon Stewart, Michael Moore, and the Professional Left

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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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61 Responses

  1. Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

    I gave up on Stewart a few months ago. He’s just so exhausting to watch.

    Colbert, however, I find delightful.Report

  2. Avatar North says:

    Michael has always annoyed me. He seems to feel like he should be the Limbaugh of the left but is indignant that none of the Dem politicians or significant figures of the left give him much attention.Report

  3. Avatar Kimmi says:

    here I thought the rally to restore sanity was about funnel cakes!
    (what, you say that was just a naked bribe?)

    Moore’s a total asshole (who else flips off the RNC??), but he’s braver than people give him credit for — and willing to stretch his neck out for his sources. Overall, a nice guy.

    Stewart’s a good guy too — he’s been at his best when doing investigative journalism (the takedown of Mad Money being the best example).Report

  4. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Mischief and laughter are the left’s weapons, as anger and “pulling people down to my level” is the right’s.

    Moore provides an outlet for people to smuggle information out of places. So too does Stewart, and wikileaks.Report

  5. I probably wouldn’t argue that Stewart is substantively better than Moore, but then I am not politically active (unless you count reading blogs like this or watching TV shows like The Rachel Maddow Show and Anderson 360), so I don’t much care.

    I watch Stewart because I find him more entertaining. While I was quite taken with Moore (who’s “Bowling for Columbine” I saw in theaters) while I was in college, my increasing apathy over the years has made his work less appealing to me.Report

  6. Avatar DarrenG says:

    An overweight, relatively uneducated, Midwestern Catholic is the image that most liberals mentally sketch when they consider the cultural enemy.

    This just seems completely wrong on multiple levels. It doesn’t really accurately describe Moore, and even if you accept the rather silly premise that “most liberals” share a common, cartoonish idea of “the cultural enemy,” I think the cartoon would look a lot more like Rupert Murdoch, Dick Cheney, or Ralph Reed than Moore.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to DarrenG says:

      Those guys are the strategic (non-cultural) enemy.

      The dude that wants to shoot beer cans on the weekend is the cultural enemy.

      I think.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        What if I only want to shoot beer cans ironically?Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Dan Miller says:

          Liberals don’t drink beer that comes in cans.

          I think.

          This is getting shakier as I go along.Report

          • Au contraire—you’re on a roll, Pat.Report

          • Avatar greginak in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            Liberals don’t eat cheese food products that comes in cans.Report

          • Avatar DarrenG in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            No, but we buy Keystone Light to soak our wood chips for the smoker, and those cans make fine targets, both ironic and otherwise.

            (And where did they ever get the idea that liberals don’t own or shoot guns, anyway? Even us Hollywood-snuggling, Cabernet-and-latte-sipping coastal elites often enjoy a good weekend cordite party.)

            The difference between a strategic vs. cultural enemy still eludes me, but I maintain that if you were to create a composite sketch of “the liberal cultural enemy” it would either look something like a Wall Street bankster, or a neo-Confederate, evangelical fan of NASCAR, light beer, and talk radio, not a rust belt Catholic magazine editor and filmmaker.Report

            • Avatar Will Truman in reply to DarrenG says:

              Think along the lines of that stereotype. Someone with Michael Moore’s demeanor, except put him in in Arkansas or Idaho, and you get at what I think is being talked about here. The “midwestern Catholic” inclusion was odd, because when I think of midwestern Catholic, I don’t think of someone who looks or acts like Moore. But when I think of “the Bubba vote” (if you’re familiar with the term), I very much think of a Mooresque figure with a different political orientation.Report

              • Avatar DarrenG in reply to Will Truman says:

                Doesn’t that just reduce it to “fat guy in flannel and a baseball cap,” though?

                I guess I can see a vague, tenuous connection between Moore’s dress and demeanor and “the Bubbas,” but not enough of one to do all the heavy lifting that Masciotra apparently wants it to.

                Dressing and acting like a Bubba didn’t stop James Carville, Jim Hightower, or Garrison Keillor from being embraced by the establishment left, after all.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to DarrenG says:

                Sloppy-looking, ornery demeanor, and that sort of thing. Conscientiously low-brow.

                Or, to quote Jeff Foxworthy’s definition of redneck: A glorious lack of sophistication.

                I agree that there are limits to the applicability to this (by way of your examples). Carville got to where he is by being very useful to influential people. Hightower’s got the hat and twang, but almost immediately after you hear him talking you realize that he’s got cogent things to say. I know less about Keillor, other than who he is.Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to DarrenG says:

              > We buy Keystone Light to soak our
              > wood chips for the smoker

              Bite your tongue. Real liberals soak their wood chips in home-brewed porter.

              Or they would, if they ate smoked meats other than salmon.Report

          • Avatar BSK in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            PBR? When done ironically, of course…Report

  7. Avatar Chris says:

    I’ve always had mixed feelings about Moore. I agree with him sometimes, disagree with him sometimes, and have no opinion sometimes. In addition, sometimes I am really glad that he’s highlighting issues that no one else seems to highlight, but I also hate that he can be so blatantly manipulative (by doing something like, say, taking a boat to Cuba). I learn some things when I watch Moore, though, and while I’m skeptical of his claims (see taking a boat to Cuba), he does inspire me to learn more. That’s a good thing, right?

    Stewart I just watch to laugh.

    Also, a point in Moore’s favor:

    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/sy-1240477454/rage_against_the_machine_sleep_now_in_the_fire_official_music_video/Report

  8. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    Stewart ain’t what I’d call an exemplary leftist, and his style has its drawbacks, but he does good comedy, makes needed critiques, and has over the years become a beneficial voice.Report

  9. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Here’s the best thing about Stewart (and Colbert). It’s the only place on TV besides the more obscure CSPAN channels where people will talk about books. And real books, not just 100 page large font ghostwritten hack jobs that people plug on cable news. Real 800 page tomes about Afghanistan and other complex ideas.Report

  10. Avatar greginak says:

    If there is a problem with liberals in this country that is exemplified by this piece its that we should pick a side between Stewart and Moore. WTF if the point? The two most prominent liberal voices in the media and Mascirota is trying frame it as yet another culture war battle between Good and Evil ( or close enough at least). Why is only one style correct and good? Geez, they are both good at what they do. Isn’t the tent, or drum circle if you will, big enough for different approaches and styles.

    I hear how Stewart is to moderate in interviews with guys like O’Reilly and Paul or isn’t strident enough. He does actually seem to believe in trying to have respectful dialogue with people he disagrees with which i guess means he is an elitist or not strident enough. And if he is going to get high profile people he disagrees with to come on his show he needs to give them a chance to talk and not just clown on them. His recent interview with Paul was good stuff, a lot better then the R debates.

    To much of this seems to be picking at personal styles and methods to create meta narratives and of course throw around labels like elitist.Report

    • Avatar DarrenG in reply to greginak says:

      Excellent point. Another thing that I think the article got completely wrong about Moore was the following:

      Moore, while taking all the right positions and displaying all the right characteristics for a political and cultural leader – courage, boldness, uncompromised expression of contested beliefs

      Those may be the necessary and sufficient conditions for a right-wing political and cultural leader in 2011, but doesn’t describe the sort of leader that tends to get promoted by the left.

      For one, Moore regularly gets his facts wrong and continues to push a narrative long after finding out its foundation has serious cracks. That, fortunately, is still a problem for many on the left.

      “Uncompromised expression of contested beliefs” can also be re-phrased as “isn’t afraid to fire both barrels at allies,” which tends to alienate many people who otherwise might be sympathetic.Report

      • Avatar Jeff in reply to DarrenG says:

        “Moore regularly gets his facts wrong and continues to push a narrative long after finding out its foundation has serious cracks. That is still a problem for many.”

        Are you saying that Moore getting his facts wrong, etc, is a problem for many on the left (in which, yes, far more so than those on the right who will stick with a baffon LONG after they have been discredited)?

        Or are you saing that many on the left get their facts wrong, etc, in which case, see above.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Jeff says:

          “Roger & Me” Smith created the late great corporate-union auto partnership Saturn. I always wondered if Moore’s movie made him do that.

          I’m with Masciotra/Elias’ piece here, Moore the guilty pleasure. Guilty pleasures for me—say Ann Coulter or Michael Savage—are the ones with a kernel of hard truth inside the yummy polemical coating.

          Stewart’s is rather formulaic snark and could probably be replaced by a program. Max Headroom [a program, if you recall] could cover the gig

          play a clip of a Republican saying something predictably stupid, make a bemused facial expression, and then cut it down in an exaggerated tone of disbelief or sarcastic agreement. Cue audience applause…

          I appreciate Elias’ self-criticism here, that

          More and more, the people who run the Left are like me—they come from fancy, private, expensive schools; they could afford to take unpaid internships with advocacy organizations, thus gaining priceless experience; and their pet issues are far more likely to be post-material since they’ve no personal experience with poverty.

          but contrarian-apologist that I am, I’ll defend Elias against himself here. It’s OK that folks like himself think of more than themselves. It’s the right start.

          I keep thinking of Adam Smith’s other book, The Theory of the Moral Sentiments lately, the core being that we don’t credit any good that anyone does unless we admire their motives.

          Elias puts the Left [himself!] under the moral microscope here, and that’s proper. But perhaps we should back off judging motives a bit and try to see the good that people achieve, just by deciding not to act evilly or amorally.

          We humans are such a pathetic bunch; I don’t ask for much before I start dealing out props.

          Provocative piece, Elias.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to greginak says:

      Yeah, agreed greginak.Report

  11. Avatar RTod says:

    I do not understand the tendency, when Stewart says hat he is a satirist and not a left wing pundit, to declare “but he is because he I think that he’s one but he doesn’t do it right so he has to be different.”Report

  12. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    It’s weird how well this post goes with the one about the televised debates below, since we’re discussing the importance of the political left siding with different media personalities. That’s not a slam against you Elias- it’s just weird that American culture has gotten to the point that we lack recognizable leaders of political movements, outside of competing televised avatars. Do you watch the comedy skits of John Stewart or the reality programs of Sarah Palin? It’s a bit odd how much mobility there is now between Washington DC and the TV pantheon. The important thing is to remember that it was not always this way.Report

  13. Avatar BSK says:

    I think Moore makes some good points. When I hear him speak legitimately, on talk shows and the like, I like him far more than when he makes movies. His movies are shit. Even he says they aren’t documentaries. Which is a cop out, especially when he accepts Oscars for “Best Documentary”. I have no issue with his weight or his hometown or dress or any of that. The elitism of the supposed “open minded” liberal is one of the things that keeps me from fully allying myself with folks who I otherwise tend to agree with. My biggest problem with Moore is that he often substitutes style for substance, ultimately weakening his initial argument because his detractors have so much to go at him for.

    Stewart? I think he’s funny. I tend to agree with him. But he goes for the low-hanging fruit. He mocks the easily mocked. He does it well. But that is about all he does. Plus, what I’ve seen and read about him from him outside “The Daily Show” indicates that his persona there is a bit more of a character than he lets on and that he is actually a lot more conservative in real life. Not sure how true it is, but that is the impression I’ve been given. Making the love affair with him all the more… peculiar.

    So, yea, do I “prefer” Stewart to Moore? In general, yes. I find Stewart infinitely more entertaining. Though I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that Moore is the intellectual superior and, when the rhetoric and talking points are cut out, Moore is who I would more likely ally myself with politically/ideologically. Even if I didn’t agree with his policies, I’d still probably consider the one I would take more seriously as an opponent.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to BSK says:

      It takes a lot of talent in improv to be a good comedian. It also takes a ton of research to make news funny — that show is stressful as heck to write for.
      Particularly (as is OFten) when they play the game “make the straight man bust out laughing.”Report

      • Avatar BSK in reply to Kimmi says:

        How much improv is he doing? He acts like he is improving, but most of it is scripted. He is just good at having “natural” reactions. The interviews are certainly more improv, but I’m sure he also has certain jokes he would drop one way or another and lines he tries to elicit so he can drop a well placed “response”.

        I’m sure the writers of TDS are smart. But, again, there is a team of writers. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been impacted by the writers’ strike. Stewart is good at what he does and probably smarter than the average comedian. But he is a comedian first and foremost. He’s still the guy who dropped the “You know that Canadian beer is like moonshine” line in “Big Daddy”. Yes, THAT “Big Daddy”. The Adam Sandler movie.Report

  14. Avatar Pendulum says:

    I perceive the difference between Moore and Stewart as being that Stewart values respectful debate, intellectual honesty, and stands for the principle that our human commonality ought to dwarf our political disagreements (which was the transparent point of the Rally to Restore Sanity, as well his utterly misguided attack on Crossfire).

    Moore, on the other hand, is mendacious to his core, untrustworthy with facts, and paints caricatures of his opponents in the service of inflaming passions, fostering hatreds, and making more interesting movies which put money in Moore’s pocket. He’s a devious bastard, and if he’s become a cultural goat, it’s hard to think of someone more deserving of that fate.

    It is fruitless to debate their respective merits as a comedian and a documentarian, because such . I think Stewart and his writing staff are outstanding comedians, especially considering the sheer volume of new material they are required to produce.. I think Moore’s a good documentarian in that his documentaries are engaging, funny, and crisp. However, given his gleeful willingness to twist facts, I think it’s more apt to call him a good progpagandist.Report

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