Jon Stewart, Michael Moore, and the Professional Left
David Masciotra’s got a piece up at Popmatters that takes on a liberal sacred cow in service of defending someone else who is not quite a pariah, but certainly a guilty pleasure—at least for the kind of liberals who would even use such a phrase. The cow is Jon Stewart, the guilty pleasure is Michael Moore; and the core argument Masciotra makes is that the lionization of the former and the shunning of the latter tells us all we need to know about why it is that the American Left often finds itself alienated from much of the country’s white working class. He implies that if one wants to answer the What’s the Matter with Kansas? question, all they need to do is turn on Comedy Central at 11 PM:
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 – represents everything that the modern, educated liberal casts as inferior. Moore is obese. His appearance is consistently sloppy and working class. He’s a college dropout. He has an apartment in New York City, but continues to spend most of his time living in Michigan. He’s devoutly Catholic.
An overweight, relatively uneducated, Midwestern Catholic is the image that most liberals mentally sketch when they consider the cultural enemy. Stewart, on the other hand, is the physically fit, son of a physics professor, a college graduate, and an avatar of the intellectually superior style of yuppie political communication. His format allows him to express it perfectly – 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…
The cost of Stewart’s cleverness, however, is that to those who do not accept his soft liberalism and to those who do not share his cultural formation, he makes himself, in the words of cultural critic Lee Siegel, a “superficial fool”.
Stewart was at his most superficial and most foolish when he marshaled the disorganized and incoherent parade of politically lost souls known as the “Rally to Restore Sanity”. The event had its supporters and detractors, but it was difficult to find anyone who could give a precise summary as to what it was about. There were vague and borderline meaningless calls for people to behave more civilly and reasonably, but there weren’t any serious policy proposals or substantive sociological suggestions.
The majority of Stewart’s acolytes are under the age of 30, and through nightly viewing of The Daily Show, they are able to find their hero – a man who, with only one or two exceptions, will insist he is merely a comedian when pressed to answer any questions about his politics, agenda, or purpose. “Rally to Restore Sanity” succeeded as a cultural gathering of a band of jesters, who are frivolously amused by mockery of easy targets, but refuse to sacrifice the easiest of objects to surrender – the appearance of aloof hipness. Aloof hipness trumps emotional attachment for the Stewart generation.
Masciotra’s not the first left-winger to take a shot at Stewart, but his take here still definitely represents the minority opinion among his cohort. As far as I’m concerned, I think much of his criticism of Liebowitz is right-on, although I must admit that I’m myself a bit too much of the elitist to get so worked up about Stewart’s posturing—or, for that matter, find so much to celebrate in Moore’s work.
But even though I think a lot of the criticism of Moore’s films is far (I really do wish he’d make them less about him), I’ve got a lot more admiration for the fat man than the urbane late-night host. Because, say what you will about the tenets of Michael Moore-ism, dude, but at least he cops to being what he is. He doesn’t pretend to be unbiased or centrist or uncertain; he’s a dirty hippie agitator, and damn proud of it! Stewart, on the other hand, has constantly tried to play it both ways—being clearly political at one turn and then, when called on it, retreating behind his sieve-like defense of simply being a comedian. Go ahead and either re-read or re-watch his keynote address at the almost unbearably self-amused “Rally to Restore Sanity”—it ain’t too funny. And for once it’s for a lack of trying.
Of course, Jon Stewart’s enormous popularity among left-wingers is symptomatic of a deeper dysfunction. And that dysfunction is the incredible transformation of the advocacy Left over the past generation from being the province of the working and middle class—unions, churches, neighborhood councils, etc.—to being that of the professional (or, if you’d prefer, upper-middle) class. Although the Left’s coalition in the United States has, along class lines, remained largely the same [see pg. 41], the background of the people who do the real nitty-gritty work of bothering politicians, sending out mailers, organizing events, and spreading propaganda has not. 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.
All in all, this leads to some really funny protest signs and some very clever ways of reducing your carbon footprint by recycling your old iPhones rather than simply throwing them away. But the overall benefit for the less privileged—the people the Left is ostensibly supposed to be of and for—is up for debate.