Jon Stewart devoted a substantial part of his final show to warning us about the dangers of “bull**t,” particularly of the “premeditated institutional” variety. But we also have reason for hope, he told us, because purveyors of this toxic manure “have gotten pretty lazy, and their work is easily detected … The best defense against bulls**t is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.”
He’s half-right, and that half encapsulates the best and most vital work he’s done with “The Daily Show” over the past 16 years. He’s also half-wrong, and that half is also his self-indictment.
(Note: the clip below uses the word "bulls**t," without the asterisks, a number of times.)
Scattered here and there among all the (deservedly) congratulatory goodbyes to Mr. Stewart—such as this “Nine Essential Moments” piece that ran on The New York Times homepage—are some that are much less impressed, and accuse him of spreading around some fertilizer of his own.
Camille Paglia said she could not stand his “smug, snarky, superior tone,” and that “if he helped produce the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives, then he’s partly at fault for the political stalemate in the United States.” Writing for Time, Karol Markowicz said that Mr. Stewart’s “one-way mockery” has “made us all dumber.” And Michael Brendan Dougherty, while praising his speaking-truth-to-power ability to call out politicians on both sides of the aisle, reminds us that righteous sarcasm, like all righteous indignation, is most impressive when we already agree with it—which means that Mr. Stewart was also able to use “self-deprecation to make his audience feel smarter and morally superior in a nation gone crazy.”
What to make of Jon Stewart’s 16 years as the snarky voice of reason at 11 pm on basic cable?
At his best, Mr. Stewart helped us to laugh at ourselves, puncturing the self-importance and self-deception of politicians and media professionals spinning themselves and us, calling out the fact that we all knew that nobody really believed what they were saying. With its signature fine-tuned skewering by self-contradiction through a tightly edited series of clips, “The Daily Show” kept alive the idea that we should hope for some basic consistency from our public figures, even while exploiting its absence for laughs.
The habit of pointing out ridiculous falsehoods and the ability to get a laugh from them is not just comedy gold; it’s also a necessity for the spiritual life. Often enough, it’s the ground for repentance and conversion, when we catch ourselves in the lie we’ve been telling and realize how sadly small and ultimately hopeless it really is, and laugh.
When Mr. Stewart warns us that there’s an industrial-size effort to deceive us and lull us into complacency about things that we would never tolerate if we saw them clearly, he’s right. But when he suggests that vigilance and calling out such lies is enough, he’s wrong. And when he implies by his own work that sarcasm and a well-timed joke are our best (or only) available response, he’s unintentionally contributing to the deception.
Laughing at ourselves can be a ground for the necessary conversion, but it can’t complete the turn. For that we need something more substantial to hope in, and laughter alone can’t deliver it.
Worse yet, the habit of laughing at self-deception revealed can be twisted, almost imperceptibly, into the habit of ridiculing the self-deception of others, which is largely poisonous—because it whispers the idea that the speck in our brother’s eye is more serious than the log in our own. It’s poisonous because it saps the charity and generosity necessary to seek and hope for the conversion of the other toward greater truth, and satisfies us with pointing out hypocrisy while remaining apparently above hypocrisy ourselves.
This dynamic was also on display in Mr. Stewart’s closing monologue, as he ridiculed those who defer necessary action because they doubt an established consensus: “We cannot take action on climate change until everyone in the world agrees gay marriage vaccines won’t cause our children to marry goats who are going to come for our guns.” This certainly contributes, as Camille Paglia said, to “the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives,” but even worse, it offers no hope—indeed negative hope—for the situation ever to get better. That kind of ridicule doesn’t offer the invitation to self-recognition and rueful laughter. Instead, it congratulates those who agree with it already, telling them that everyone who believes those things does so stupidly and with (perhaps unacknowledged) ulterior motives.
And that, to be frank, is bulls**t as well, and because it is, it’s also uncurious, uncharitable, and one of the least funny things Mr. Stewart said last night. It’s the kind of joke that makes further conversation impossible because it reveals that the joke-teller has no interest in listening.
We need a hope larger than jokes like that, and we’ve seen glimpses of it in some of Mr. Stewart’s work. He can be an impressive interviewer, managing to pull even figures like Bill O’Reilly into actual dialogue from time to time. He’s shown us how to keep our attention on intolerable situations like our failure to care for veterans’ medical needs or the plight of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay longer than the news cycle would otherwise allow. He launched the careers of Stephen Colbert, who inhabited a satirical persona with a surprising degree of sensitivity, and John Oliver, who after a turn at “The Daily Show” host’s desk has begun exploring a new range of long-form social commentary comedy on H.B.O. Most recently, “The Daily Show” has spun off “The Nightly Show,” where Larry Wilmore is using comedy to sustain an often uncomfortable conversation on race.
Those are hopeful patterns, and not just because they’re often very funny. They give us a glimmer of community in showing us what it might look like if we are all able to pierce the veil of deception together rather than just laughing at those trapped on the other side. Vigilance and denunciation may be a first-line defense against bulls**t, but only more authentic community and common purpose will actually let us rise above it.