Written by Abu Rahss and Marcella Susa
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a link to an episode of “The Axe Files with David Axelrod” featuring Jon Stewart, the liberal icon who’s kept somewhat of a low profile since retiring from his incredibly popular satire show, “The Daily Show.” The link advertised that in this hard-hitting episode of “The Axe Files,” Jon Stewart calls Donald Trump a “man baby” and Hillary Clinton “inauthentic.” It was a quintessential Stewart response to the current political climate, suddenly reminding me of his absence from the scene at this critical juncture in American politics, prompting me to take a trip down memory lane and watch the almost 90-minute interview/Q&A. I was immediately struck by how forlorn and worn out Stewart appeared. It was sad, like seeing Jordan on the crying-face memes when he used to be an invincible, untouchable phenom in his heyday. Stewart’s humor and style was the same as always, but there didn’t appear to be much joy or exuberance left.
You see, I used to love “The Daily Show” and at one time it was one of the only things I watched regularly on TV. As a Palestinian-American millennial who grew up in a news-addicted household, Jon Stewart was the ultimate breath of fresh air. After a lifetime of choosing between CNN, Fox News, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, Stewart’s fresh tone, approach, and vantage point to American politics “gave me life,” so to speak.
Throughout the end of high school and into my college years (2004-2010), I eagerly watched Stewart and Colbert almost every night, filled with much-needed joy and laughter as they savaged the Bush administration, Fox News, and conservative America in general. Many people will agree that “The Daily Show” was glorious in its early days; a long overdue cathartic release after decades of mainstream media and politicians growing out of touch with the reality of most Americans. “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” tapped into this massive gulf between the news media and the American people, and skyrocketed to superstardom. After I graduated college and began working, I stopped watching “The Daily Show” as much, for no reason in particular. When I did occasionally catch an episode, I noticed it didn’t fill me with the same joy it used to. Maybe it was because Obama was in office and they didn’t have the material of the Bush years, I thought, or perhaps I had grown older and my sense of humor had shifted. Whatever it was, something just didn’t feel right about the show anymore. I hadn’t given it much more thought until this episode of “The Axe Files” made me reflect.
Stewart’s talk with Axelrod was depressing, the sad end to a movie that began triumphantly 12 years ago when Stewart infamously appeared on CNN’s show “Crossfire.” In that classic exchange, Stewart slayed the hosts James Carville and Paul Begala (and CNN as a whole) and eventually “Crossfire,” which encapsulated much of what was wrong with the mainstream American media, was removed from the air. “The Daily Show” had entered its golden age and there was real hope among the young and progressive that something was finally going to change. So where did it all go wrong? How did Jon go from being a hero of mine to exemplifying the problem with white liberals? I believe the answer lies in the failure of Stewart to confront the limitations, contradictions, and issues that exist within America’s establishment left.
Stewart, like white liberals in general, is effectively oblivious to the implications of his privileged place in the country and in the world, and thinks he can absolve himself of any complicity in American empire and crimes by snidely making fun of Republicans.
But when you, as a privileged white American, are the active beneficiary of those crimes, making condescending jokes about Republicans just doesn’t cut it. And after a while, the cognitive dissonance of this stance takes its toll. To truly reflect on the failures of Jon Stewart and the modern white liberal, it helps to try and take the viewpoint of one of the marginalized groups directly affected by American empire: Black Americans, Native Americans, Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, and many, many others.
I’m going to draw a rough analogy of 10 housemates in a college frat house who have a foreign housekeeper. Five of the roommates are “conservative” and five are “liberal,” but they are all essentially in the same boat – white and economically privileged. In this frat house, the five conservative housemates treat the foreign housekeeper horribly. They beat him, they work him non-stop, they don’t pay him nearly enough, and they isolate and intimidate him so that he never seeks help. Meanwhile, the five liberal housemates have discussions amongst themselves about how they don’t feel good about what’s happening to the housekeeper. Finally, they say, “That’s it! We’ve had enough!” and they start openly stating their opposition. Every night, they call out and make fun of their conservative housemates, condescendingly tearing them apart for their abhorrent character. At first, this change seems like a step in the right direction, a movement toward justice. But after a while, it begins to ring hollow, not least of all to the housekeeper. And after an even longer while, you could start to consider the liberal housemates worse than the conservative ones. They’re benefitting just as much off of the housekeeper’s mistreatment, are doing nothing to stop it, and most nauseatingly of all, they want pats on the back for their moral stance on the issue.
Jon Stewart and other white liberals have never fully accepted their role in the American empire. If they did, they’d understand that a lot more is needed than jokes, condescension, and righteous advice. Which, not surprisingly, is exactly the strategy the left has taken in attacking Donald Trump over the past year. There are daily Gotcha! articles on Trump from the white liberal press. This line of attack exactly mirrors Jon Stewart’s line of attack on Republicans, exhibited perfectly in his recent surprise return to “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” where he dropped such doozies as, “Hannity hated when Barack used teleprompters but he praised Trump for it! Ha!” as well as, “Hannity questioned Barack’s Christianity, but then accused the pope of being out of line for questioning Trump’s Christianity! Ha!” This old script has gone from refreshing and hilarious to tired, ineffectual, and infuriating. Unfortunately, Stewart and white liberals seem determined to keep their heads in the sand and ride down this path until the wheels fall off. And for them, the wheels falling off means having a Trump presidency. It wouldn’t be nearly as big of a deal for everyone else, who, as Tef Poe recently put it, have been living in Trump’s America for a long, long time.
At the taping of “The Axe Files,” Axelrod reads an old quote from Stewart: “I assume there are bad actors in society. I assume monkeys are going to throw shit. But I get angrier at people who don’t go ‘bad monkey!’” Stewart is talking about responsibility — not just the responsibility of powerful leaders, but the responsibility of all of us to take part in creating a better society, in part by critiquing those “bad monkeys.” Stewart has skewered countless “bad monkeys” over the years, but the record shows that he falls short in taking the type of responsibility that he believes is critically important. After ridiculing and bashing Trump/the right in front of Axelrod and his audience of young white liberals, Stewart offers up a watered down and de-politicized critique of Hillary Clinton: she is “inauthentic.” And all he has to say about the Democratic Party is: “For whatever you want to say about the Democrats, at least they’re fucking trying.”
But after eight years under a Democratic administration, “at least they’re fucking trying” isn’t a good enough excuse, especially for the marginalized groups suffering the brutal injustices of American empire. As Jill Stein recently put it in an interview with AJ+, what we have now is , “massive expanding wars, the meltdown of the climate, the offshoring of jobs, mass incarceration, rolling back of Welfare programs, all under the watch of Democratic presidents and congresses.” In other words, the housekeeper is being treated worse than ever after 8 years of the liberal housemates leading the frat house.
There are deep, deep grievances both past and present that establishment liberals haven’t come to terms with. The Hillary campaign churns out the left’s classic and ultimately fatal line of argument: “Yes, it sucks that income inequality is at an all time high, and that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were just executed, and that Palestinians live under a brutal US-backed Apartheid regime, and that Obama just issued raid squads at our border with Mexico, and that millions of people have been deported under Obama, and that drones are killing innocent civilians all over the Middle East, and that we’re backing repressive and vicious dictatorships all over the world, and the police don’t ever get indicted, but relax. Now is not the time to discuss all that, let’s deal with the real issue: Trump! If you don’t, he’ll win!”
The Hillary campaign’s entire strategy is fear-mongering around Trump and guilt-tripping people into voting for Hillary. Trump represents the ultimate boogeyman to white liberals, but to most people in the world, the boogeyman isn’t Trump and the Republicans, but American empire, American exceptionalism, and white supremacy. The failure of white liberals to comprehend this is what’s “fracturing” the left, not Bernie-or-Busters or marginalized groups being defiant. The latest banal election time discourse from the left — currently circulating in the tune of hundreds of think pieces — is trying to show people that Hillary Clinton is in fact not as bad as Trump and how you are just plain insane if you think so. And sadly, this line of attack can be effective in bullying people into supporting Hillary.
Why have we on the Left allowed the bar to be set so low for our political representatives? This is what Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic calls “the bigotry of low expectations.” Why do we continue to accept any piece of liberal scrap that is thrown our way? It’s this acceptance, the repetition of these types of banalities, and a failure to deal with the reality of our broken system that has led to the mess we’re in — not the boogeymen. If you know anything about psychology, you know that the only way to get better is to first acknowledge that there’s a problem, commit to fixing it, and then to put a plan in action. Stewart and white liberals haven’t even gotten to the first and most critical step of acknowledgement.
Liberals continue to put all their focus, energy, and blame onto the evil Republicans, Independents, and “true” progressives — this is certainly no path toward recovery. It’s high time for Jon Stewart and the modern white liberal to turn the mirror on themselves, and admit that we’ve fallen woefully short, instead of continuing to act as apologists for politicians. We on the left have some long overdue spring cleaning to do.