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The Servility of Token Dissidents: Jon Stewart and the Media

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Message Ross Brummet

Once, when giving an interview about the servility of the western press, Noam Chomsky was reproached by BBC journalist Andrew Marr, who demanded that Chomsky explain how he could know that Marr or other journalists were self-censoring. Noam Chomsky responded that he never suggested that Marr was self-censoring, that he was sure that Marr believed everything he was saying. It was just that, as Chomsky noted at the time: "if you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting."

What Chomsky meant, as thoroughly described in Manufacturing Consent, is that media organizations are made up of vested corporate interests and those interests have little interest in hiring people whose interests don't coincide with their interests. Often times, we forget this because some media personality seems likable, even honest. Sometimes this personality even plays the role of a dissident, criticizing relatively obvious or corrupt targets while ignoring more fundamental ones. These popular dissidents serve to reinforce the illusion that the media, while at times corrupt, is not inherently flawed. That, in fact, there remains trustworthy watchdogs within it keeping us informed and holding power to account.

Many popular journalists and stories serve this function of illusionary dissidence. A celebration of a news show questioning a witch-hunt, a newspaper exposing blatant partisan corruption, a journalist exposing a blatantly illegal act. All of these things have one thing common: they have support of some power institutions. While these journalists may have acted nobly, they acted nobly within a certain acceptable framework. Yes, powerful factions had reason to oppose these stories, but other powerful factions had reasons to support them -- the democratic party didn't want to be spied upon, few advocate pointless sadism, and even the president didn't like McCarthy. Without this essential support, these stories of crusading journalism would have been left unheard; much like the coup of Jacobo Arbenz, or COINTELPRO, or the Fallujah massacre. We are told about the evils of McCarthyism, but not the evils of coups. The evils of wiretapping those with power, but not the evils of more serious infractions on those without power. The evils of torture, but not the evils of indiscriminate bombings. We thus create the image of dissidence, while also discrediting any serious expression of it.

Perhaps the most popular token dissidents of today's American society are Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and their gang of court jesters. Occasionally this group of comics express some well-thought-out criticism of the absurdities of American society -- for instance, consider Jon Stewart's recent criticism on the lack of gun control -- but more often their shows exist to reinforce existing opinions. Because these people are genuinely funny, we often find ourselves ignoring the usual displays of servility. Consider Stephen Colbert's interview with Kathryn Bigelow, in which he repeatedly let her suggest the fallacious idea that torture played a role in the assassination of Bin Laden. This servility is so common, however, that it often goes without comment. We don't expect Colbert to confront Bigelow with facts, any more than we would expect Jon Stewart to ask a General serious questions. We accept this kind of acquiescence to power as an inevitable part of their shows. It's not that they aren't on our side; this is just an unfortunate constraint of working for the mass media.

However, whether it's Stewart apologizing for suggesting that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are war crimes, Colbert's bizarrely aggressive interview with Julian Assange, or their "do nothing" protest, we are inevitably struck by the reality that they are simple servants to the rich and powerful. The latest example of this groveling behavior can be seen in the following video, in which Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore argue that people use Martin Luther King Jr. to justify various political positions:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c What Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Would Have Wanted Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

There are two things that are particularly absurd about this video, which I will list.

  1. The suggestion that we can't know what Martin Luther King's position would have been on guns is cowardly middle-of-the-road nonsense. For instance, the day before seeing this video, I was listening to a famous Martin Luther King speech in which he proclaims, "As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems." Yes, it's true that King had some guns in the 50s; it's also true that once he became completely committed to nonviolence, he tossed them aside. Pretending -- as the mocked gun enthusiasts do -- that he would have supported guns, ignores the last decade of his. Pretending -- as Jon Stewart and Company do -- that we can't infer a position pretends that MLK Jr. didn't leave a record. Neither position is honest; both are disgraceful.

  2. Bringing up the idea that King would have supported Occupy to contrast with the loony claims that King was a gun advocate, creates the kind of false equivalency that Stewart is famous for. Martin Luther King was a democratic socialist, who advocated direct action, and was organizing a Poor People's Campaign when he was shot. Is there really a serious question as to whether he would have supported Occupy? Of course not. Which is why Jon Stewart, in his attempt to justify this manufactured equivalency, had to resort to cheap slander. Because, you see, the occupy people apparently refused to let John Lewis speak and he is obviously the only person who could possibly have shed light on what King's opinion would be. Therefore there is no difference between them and the gun nuts. 

Except there is a slight problem: that never happened. John Lewis showed up to Occupy Atlanta on his way to somewhere else and someone asked him to give a speech. While the members of Occupy Atlanta overwhelmingly supported letting him speak, a few people raised objections at letting him speak at that time, and John Lewis didn't have time to wait for this problem to be resolved. He proceeded to leave, without any harsh feelings, later saying he didn't think he was denied the right to speak. And why would he? Occupy Atlanta invited him back to speak! This furthermore ignores the idea of why someone who supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and enthusiastically supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, could possibly be relied upon to know what Martin Luther King would have supported. As previously stated, when King died he was in the midst of a Poor People's Campaign. Lewis was at that time part of a rich person's presidential campaign -- the same rich person who had once wiretapped MLK's phone. Which brings one further question: why did Occupy have a duty to give such a person a platform?

Whether the above arguments of Stewart's stem from shocking ignorance, a pitiful attempt at centrism, or calculated propaganda makes little difference. The end result is the same; the people lining Stewart's pockets receive the desired product. Some might suggest that the above are lapses of judgment, and that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert actually do give the occasional useful analysis. Much has been made of Stewart's scouring of the media on Crossfire, but he was criticizing partisan hackery and infotainment, not the more serious media issue of corporate ownership. Celebrated even more was Colbert's roast of the president, but the mockery was mostly vague and harmless. These people are clowns throwing spitballs, not great satirists, not serious dissidents. If they were, then you wouldn't have to look far very far to see what would happen. After all, even their relatively moderate contemporary Bill Maher lost a show over little more than semantics. Could you imagine what might happen to Stewart and Colbert if they actually offered serious criticisms of power? They probably wouldn't even get a future show on HBO!

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Ross Brummet is a student and writer in Los Angeles. Considering himself a utilitarian with libertarian socialist sympathies, he is fond of the views of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Peter Singer. However he finds Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas (more...)

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