Jon Stewart Bashes Ann Coulter, But Puffs Nader, and Eugene Debs?

In the November 15 Rolling Stone, the hippie mag interviews a pile of politicians, media stars, and rockers to celebrate its 40th anniversary. Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, was interviewed by Jeff Sharlet of The Revealer. In a strange interview he unloaded the usual criticism on Ann Coulter, but praised old American socialists Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. Coulter came up as Stewart tried to say that no one mocking the government today is a "Soviet dissident," that our discourse is free enough that "It's very difficult to shock anybody any more. I'm not even sure what the subversive edge is." This exchange followed:

ROLLING STONE: Ann Coulter suffered repercussions from calling John Edwards a faggot.

JON STEWART: As a businessperson, she has made a choice: "Even if I narrow my audience to true believers, there’s enough money there. I have to keep pushing until it’s just me and one other crazy person with a lot of money." Maybe she’ll be hired by a crazy billionaire, just her and him, and he’ll go, "Say something about lesbians! Heh-heh! 9/11 widows! Gimme another!"

ROLLING STONE: So you don’t think her brand of extremism represents the future of politics?

STEWART: What you generally get from politicians is "Vote for me or we shall all perish!" In a puff of smoke, or rising waters. You know, 19 guys with box cutters brought down the Twin Towers. Are we supposed to go to war until there’s not 19 guys who want to do damage to us?

Stewart isn’t really against extremists. He cheers the Socialist Party presidential candidates who mainstreamed the New Deal:

ROLLING STONE: I read that one of your childhood heroes was Eugene Debs, the five-time Socialist Party candidate for president in the early twentieth century.

STEWART: Yeah, baby! Actually, more Norman Thomas.

ROLLING STONE: Six-time candidate for president, after Debs, and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Are there still characters like that around?

STEWART: Ralph Nader is a character like that. Back in those days, a guy like Norman Thomas was viewed as a corroding member of society. But if you look at almost every aspect of the New Deal, that’s where it came from. It just had to come through a process of mainstreaming before it could be accepted.

ROLLING STONE: Conservative ideas have been mainstreamed during the past thirty years.

STEWART: You know, the wonderful thing about conservatives and government is they seem awfully interested in running a thing they despise. The president is very fond of saying "I don’t trust the government to keep money. It’s your money." As a matter a fact, isn’t it all our money? Not just the one tax rebate. Pretty much the whole f—ing thing is ours, isn’t it? [Emphasis in magazine.]

Conservatives have this idea that you can trust government to protect national interests overseas militarily, but not to pass out cheese. It’s this idea that corporations function well, but governments can’t. But they’re made up of the same atomic material, are they not? Isn’t government us?

Stewart also bashed conservatives early in the interview. He tried to sound optimistic notes, or at least ameliorate the idea that America is a hopeless police state. He said for the most part, America is an "incredibly civil society," prompting the Nazi talk:

ROLLING STONE: Germany in 1932 was an incredibly civil society.

STEWART: I’m not saying we’re not one economic disaster away from being demagogues. Or that the line between acts of madness and acts of goodness isn’t tenuous. But people’s general tendency is to not want trouble. If you were to give Iraq a choice right now between the freedom to assemble and the ability to shop without shrapnel going through their skull, my guess is they’d give up freedom of assembly. Freedom is overrated. I’m a law-and-order guy. I’m not anti-authority. There’s a big difference between not trusting institutions blindly and just being against authority. Some people believe we’re going after conservatives on our show just because they’re conservatives. That’s idiotic. We go after what we think is absurd.

If it sounds weird for Stewart to suggest he’s Mr. Law and Order, there’s also a passage where he seems to praise Fox News boss Roger Ailes. Asked about what’s wrong with TV news, Stewart says it should be a public service with different rules.

STEWART: Roger Ailes has shown that you can exercise editorial management over the process. I may not agree with the way Fox is exercising it, but it shows that it can be done. News should function as our digestive system.

ROLLING STONE: That sounds disgusting.

STEWART: It is disgusting. What I’m saying is that they should take the fruit and entrees that are presented by the politicians and the corporations that process it, and come up with turds of wisdom, as you will. You either bring clarity or you bring noise. The media should be filters, and they can only be that if they exercise editorial judgment. It infuriates me when people say, "That’s elitism." No, it’s not. That’s expertise. That’s like saying to doctors who diagnose people, "you’re being elitist, telling me I have heart disease. I don’t want to hear that. I want to eat cake and ice cream."

Stewart doesn't consider the idea that doctors have specific scientific expertise, and journalists often don't have solid expertise in anything. Are they the "doctors" who can explain the physics of climate change? Are they the "doctors" who can diagnose recessions? Are they even the "doctors" who could tell you Hillary's health plan would pass?

Stewart is fighting a straw man. It would be nice if journalists could achieve expertise, and many do. (But often, they parachute in on stories and tell us what they've learned in the last four hours.) He's not getting that what's "elitist" is the idea that the news media is an intelligentsia that breathes rarified air and that whatever it prescribes for more government control is in the public interest -- and of course, that it thinks the average American doesn't have the brains to know what's in his or her interest, so the media has to educate them.

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