Liberal Hero of the Week #88: The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart

by Stephen Tall on February 13, 2015

cf hero jon stewart

Jon Stewart

Presenter of US Comedy Central’s satirical The Daily Show
Reason: for promoting sane political discourse.

Jon Stewart, presenter of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (he really was born to present it), this week announced his retirement after 16 years at the helm. To US liberals, he’s something of a hero; to conservatives he’d be a bête noire if they could stomach the use of the foreign label.

A Democrat sympathiser, he rose to fame during the Bush II presidency, skewering the Administration’s response to 9/11 and the conduct of the second Iraq war. But that’s not why I’m nominating him as a Liberal Hero. Rather, it’s for his consistent pleas for reasoned political debate, civilised discourse.

Most famously, he did it when he confronted CNN’s Crossfire, accusing its theatrically disputatious presenters of “political hackery” and of “hurting America” by deliberately reducing news coverage to a verbal punch-up. A decade on, his arguments still hold up. Incidentally, a few months later Crossfire was axed — it never quite recovered from his pin-sharp questioning (it really is worth watching the following exchange in full if you haven’t seen it before):

But Jon Stewart didn’t stop there. Six years later, as US politics became ever more entrenched in its self-identification as a divided “Two Americas”, he helped launch the Rally to Restore Sanity, an attempt to reassert reasonableness in the public realm, which attracted some 215,000 people.

Here’s how he closed it, with an appeal not so much to some kind of mushy unity, but to respecting political differences without presuming on other folks’ bad faith. He was talking about America, but it applies just as much to our (admittedly much more toned-down) political debate here in the UK:

… we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of the main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen, or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. …

Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals, or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do, often something they do not want to do. But they do it, impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

Jon Stewart is a rare combination: an idealistic satirist, who wants to provoke politicians and the media to be better, to live up to their own intelligence, not dumb down to what they assume the public wants. I don’t think we have an equivalent in the UK, where satire equates to slagging everyone off because.

But we can hope.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

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