Jon Stewart surrounded by, clockwise from top left: Donald Trump, Megyn Kelly, Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson (Credit: Comedy Central/Fox News/Reuters/Brendan McDermid/AP/Mark J. Terrill/Salon)
Post-9/11, critiquing the right meant you hated the country. Stewart was the perfect foil for that false patriotism
As we enter the final days of Jon Stewart’s tenure as host of “The Daily Show” there has been a flurry of information about Stewart’s impact. Beyond top 10 lists, we have also learned that Stewart had two meetings with President Obama, suggesting, to some, that he had enormous influence over the White House. The unreported meetings were covered by Fox News as though they were proof of some sort of scandalous collusion. Stewart, of course, mocked the Fox News hyperbole by saying, “It was a roundtable meeting with the President, Elvis, still alive, Minister Farrakhan, and the Area 51 alien. We opened with the traditional Saul Alinsky prayer, sucked on the blood of the righteous, and took turns f*cking a replica of the Reagan eye socket. The real Reagan eye socket is kept in the Smithsonian and is only f*cked on Christmas.”
While Stewart schooled Fox News, yet again, we were reminded of why Stewart really posed a threat to Fox News and its viewers: He refused to let them define patriotism. As the joke above proves, Stewart repeatedly went after the overblown, hysterical ways in which the extreme right wing characterizes progressives as “moonbats” who hate their country. Not only did he remind his audience again and again of the ways that the right misrepresents the politics of the left, he, along with Stephen Colbert, offered viewers a chance to support their country on their own terms. And that may well be one of the most important legacies of Stewart’s “Daily Show” career.
Think about it. When was the last time anyone associated with left-leaning politics was heralded as a national hero? Even Obama’s message of “hope” was mocked by Sarah Palin when she famously quipped: “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out?” Imagine a Democrat doing the same thing to a Republican candidate. Now imagine what Fox News and its army of trolls would do to them.
As Geoffrey Nunberg proves, beginning around the Vietnam War, the country became divided over what it means to support our nation. As those on the left protested the ill-conceived war, they were branded as unpatriotic, as hating the troops, and as the source of the decline of all “traditional” American values. From there it just got worse.
In the post 9/11 era, those on the right effectively monopolized the definition of U.S. patriotism. George W. Bush immediately imposed an “us versus them” rhetoric that made it impossible to question his administration and not be accused of treason. Consequently, the GOP took its ownership of patriotism to a whole new level. Remember when John Kerry “reported for duty” at the 2004 Democratic National Convention? Remember how dumb that sounded? Even a decorated vet could have his patriotism seem almost comical.
Thus patriotism and right-wing values became merged as one and the same thing. If you critiqued the right, you hated the country. This rhetoric was spun up into full-blown hysteria on Fox News and via the ongoing din of conservative pundits who all claim that they know the secret to saving our nation from oblivion. We have pundit after pundit on the right authoring books that suggest that they and they alone know what it means to support the country. From Ann Coulter to Glenn Beck to Bill O’Reilly each pundit tells us the nation is falling apart, its values are being forgotten, and they have the solution to fix it.
That’s where the satirists come in. Stewart and Colbert worked together to create one of the most powerful attacks on GOP patriotism we have seen in decades. They reminded their audiences that it was not just reasonable, but, in fact, patriotic to question our role in an unjust war. They showed us that the best way to support our troops was to have them avoid unnecessary wars and to make sure that they were well taken care of upon their return. While Fox News covered such pressing stories as a “ground zero mosque,” Stewart advocated for a First Responders Bill and fought for better healthcare for veterans — stories that were noticeably underplayed in Fox News coverage. Even more important, Stewart didn’t just cover the stories; he is credited with playing a major role in helping effect policy.
Colbert and Stewart worked together to educate citizens on campaign finance when they created their own super PAC—a move that helped the average citizen understand the consequences of Citizens United, which allows the wealthy to have undue influence on campaign contributions. Certainly it would seem that defending the rights of voters is a pretty patriotic act. More important, it is one we rarely see taken up on the right. Instead we learn of redistricting and voter ID laws, both of which work to disenfranchise voters rather than defend them.
But Stewart and Colbert did much more than fight for policy change and educate citizens; they showed us that it was time to reclaim the meaning of our national identity from the GOP. They used satire to explain that we had lost our language of national values. Mocking the “wishy-washy” way that progressives can favor tolerance over the aggressive imposition of their ideas, they reminded us that being tolerant was, indeed, a founding American value—and it was one we needed to fight for. That was exactly what they did at their 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity” on the National Mall. There they advocated for a return to core American values like reason, tolerance, civil rights and democracy.
Of course that is not the version of patriotism on offer by Fox News. In the Fox News world, patriotism often overlaps with conservative Christian values and includes a lot more fear, intolerance and outright hatred than was ever any part of the mind-set of our nation’s founders, regardless of how hypocritical they may have been. In an era when flying the Confederate flag can be taken as a sign of patriotism and when defending the right to own a gun is considered more patriotic than defending the life of a fellow citizen, it becomes clear that the GOP definition of patriotism has little to do with democracy or basic rights.
But perhaps the real way that Stewart and Colbert worked to challenge the Fox News effect on patriotism was to remind fans that being critical can and should be a central feature of active citizenship. Patriotism in a democracy never should be blind faith. And yet blind faith is a key component of the right-wing brain. As Stewart demonstrated on his interview segment, active questioning is the stuff of a strong democracy and it is a key feature of progressive politics, meaning that progressives are arguably far more committed to democracy than any conservative ever could be.
In contrast to the negative critique and baseline grouchiness that can characterize much left discourse, Stewart and Colbert offered a positive spirit, what Henry Giroux calls “educated hope.” For the first time in decades, progressives were able to fightfor something rather than against the status quo. U.S. citizens could question the hubris behind American exceptionalism, they could challenge the hypocrisies that have always been a part of our national history, and they could work toward making the nation better, not giving up on it. Most important, they could recognize that allowing the GOP to corner the market on patriotism may be the most unpatriotic act ever.
This was the real art of Stewart’s satire—a comedic mode that can often seem like nothing more than negative mockery. Stewart showed us that the real mockery of our nation’s values comes from Fox News and the politicians it serves. He urged citizens to fight the anger and fear that dominates much GOP rhetoric. This is why his heartfelt monologues after 9/11 and after the Charleston church murders were so moving and so significant.
We recently learned that Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, doesn’t plan to keep Fox News idiocy as a central motif to his satire—a move to be expected given the differences between his comedy base and Stewart’s. And we can also expect that South African-born Noah won’t be much help when it comes to offering us a foil for GOP patriotism either. If there is one question we need to ask as Stewart leaves his post, it is, who will carry the flag once he’s gone.
Sophia A. McClennen