The dead-end politics of ridicule

It’s fitting that Jon Stewart’s loving tribute came on the same night as the Republican debate, because the politics of hate-watching the Republican clown-car are the politics he gave us. For most educated, white liberals, being a Democrat now has no other content than feeling superior to Republicans. We spend our time mocking their obviously wrong statements and policies to cover up the fact that we have no real idea of what the right thing to say or do would be. Our politics are reduced to asking “where’s the outrage?” — and our disappointment about the lack of sufficient anger covers over the fact that we have no idea how we would harness that anger to produce meaningful change.

It’s absolutely pathological. Politics is completely captured by the GOP media’s “politics as entertainment” model — it’s just that liberals have a supplemental layer of commentary on the politico-tainment, to go with all the other TV write-ups. Does any of this make anyone more likely to participate in meaningful political action? Does it help clarify what policies we should advocate for? Does it do anything but confirm the stereotype that liberals are elitists who think everyone else is stupid?

Know thine enemy, you might say. Well, we already know our enemy. They’ve been saying the same damn thing for 35 years. They say it over and over, every single day, in every available forum. And if they cared about things like coherence or avoiding hypocrisy (the liberal commentator’s favorite form of critique, our weird post-Christian hangover), they would have noticed the problem by now. We are frittering away our time analyzing emotional appeals as though they’re philosophical propositions, because we don’t have a single damn thing to say for ourselves. The “stupid” conservative strategy has dominated our politics for decades, and it even let them regain a stranglehold on government two years after a transformative election in which they were utterly discredited. But we’re the smart ones, right? Because we notice that they claim to be in favor of life when really it’s okay with them if some people die. Wow, zing. Nailed it. Retweeted, favorited, tattooed across my forehead!

16 Responses to “The dead-end politics of ridicule”

  1. Jeremy (@eatingwords) Says:

    I was a Jon Stewart fan until I saw him live and began to grasp what you’re saying here. The audience wanted him – specifically asked him – to talk about how stupid George Bush was. This was years after Bush left office and it suddenly became clear to me that Stewart’s function was to make liberals feel better about themselves.

  2. Brennan Breed (@BrennanBreed) Says:

    I didn’t watch it, but somebody told me about the only substantive portion of the final show last night: Stewart told his audience to be vigilant bullshit detectors. Now, I admit that I have often enjoyed watching Stewart’s show, probably for the same reason that you outline above — but also because it’s reassuring to see someone in a relative position of authority laugh at obvious bullshit that gets a pass from other major media sources. But this doesn’t even begin to constitute a political project, as you say. Perhaps the worst part is that it convinces people that any political project that has some holes in it, or that can be criticized, should be ruthlessly mocked. But all politics is provisional, cobbled together from the combination of what’s (im)possible and what disparate coalitions of people happen to want at the moment. In other words, real political movements are always deeply susceptible to ironic critique. So now we have a whole generation of people trained by Jon Stewart and David Simon to have an ironic, detached and fatalistic view of politics — when in the past century actual political movements have led to widespread enfranchisement, improved working conditions and pay, increases in civil rights, etc. But unions are embarrassing and did things that I don’t agree with, so, you know, I’ll just laugh at them and assume that it was all bad anyway.

  3. Hill Says:

    Anthony hinted at this on Twitter, but are you not fundamentally repeating his schtick in the next register with this post?

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I suppose, though by the same token Anthony is just repeating a hypocrisy attack. I think, though, that the Stewart schtick fundamentally works by compensating us for our lack of power by letting us view the powerful as stupid. Underlying my post is a call to actually learn how to wield power effectively.

  5. Hill Says:

    That sounds fair.

  6. John Emerson Says:

    I really hate the “stupid” meme. Rove had only a year of undergrad and he would frequently said things in public that didn’t sound right, but he whipped the Democrats again and again. If someone plays to the peanut gallery and wins that way, they aren’t stupid. (Rove hired PhDs and put them to work.)

  7. John Emerson Says:

    Under the Czar the intelligentsia knew that things were not right and spent a lot of time figuring out clever and amusing ways of getting past the censors.

  8. Antwan Says:

    “[T]hey claim to be in favor of life when really it’s okay with them if some people die.” I had to look at that twice. I thought you were describing Obama supporters.

    Anyway, you can’t be surprised that a constituency whose privileged position is carved within and by the neoliberal order, and who must view a radical left politics as threatening, is attracted to a form of entertainment that serves as an ideological bulwark to radical politics. (Borrowed that last phrase from John Hilley in his blog Zenopolitics, describing the analogous[?] role of the “left-liberal” The Guardian in British politics.)

  9. jroth95 Says:

    John’s here but he didn’t say it himself, so I’ll offer his usual suspicion: the leaders of the Democratic Party aren’t interested in effective liberal/grassroots action. Start from that premise, and the ineffectual center-left media takes on a different color. Doesn’t excuse the liberals who are susceptible to it, but it helps reshape the problem.

  10. jroth95 Says:

    Meanwhile, specifically on Stewart, it seems weird not to refer to his entirely earnest and staggeringly pointless Rally to Blah Blah. Because when he sought to be least ridiculing, and to beseech his fans to be effectual, it completely failed. The simple explanation is that a guy who gets by on ridiculing others can’t suddenly flip a switch and become a positive leader, but I suspect there’s something more going on, something that’s aside from the ridicule.

  11. Nicholas Ballesteros Says:

    I’m 25 and both my liberal parents have often, with all serious, made the comment that Jon Stewart should run for president. I have gotten the sense that the Daily Show was sort of impotent in the way you suggest. But I would not go so far as to say it was a mimetic double to Fox News. But sometimes I think there was enough determinate negation -times when the real Jon Stewart would penetrate the character Jon Stewart -by speaking plainly and earnestly about things like universal healthcare. I get what you’re saying though about the reactionary, scapegoating impulse -and the solace it provides to its centrist viewers.

  12. Craig Keen Says:

    Nicely said, Adam.

  13. Josh Says:

    Would you say Bill Maher’s show is a more extreme version of the phenomenon you describe here, or something different altogether?

  14. Ambzone Says:

    I guess that’s why they are liberals and not something else. American liberalism hasn’t looked to inspire popular movements and actions, or even to define goals for itself beyond holding to a corner of mainstream culture, for a very long time.

  15. ReasonVs Race Says:

    I think much of what goes on between the Left and the Right involves projecting, from two camps who speak two different languages. Your post about the individualistic justice model vs the collective model (whites being complicit in slavery) is informative. I think that Schadenfreude drives much politics on the Right; it is clear by our mass-incarceration system and your Twitter harassers. Schadenfreude combined with a purely Individualistic form of justice that focuses solely on individual guilt and punishment. The US is obsessed with punishment; heck, we’ve created a whole industry around it!

    What I am saying, though, is this: that when a right wing person who views everything through a lens of personal guilt and punishment sees a left wing blog post or twitter post saying “whites are complicit” or “whiteness should disappear” (Noel Ignatiev, another misunderstood professor), he or she may project their own view onto the Leftie person they’re seeing. It’s a very solipsistic view; since they see everything in terms of people “getting their just deserts” and suffering, then they might assume that you or I or Ignatiev also thinks this way. Therefore, they come to the conclusion that left wing professors have a “hatred for the white race” or want “white genocide.” Thus, they miss the point entirely, and are incapable of getting the point because they’re seeing the world through an entirely different lens. They are speaking an entirely different language.

    The Right is all about discipline and is discipline-centric: “people should work and suffer to pay their dues,” “no pain no gain,” “his pain your gain,” “it’s a dog-eat-dog world,” “that is the way Nature is,” “Nature is a tough game,” etc. Everything is a zero-sum game where when there are winners, then that means there absolutely has to be losers, no questions asked.

    The Left, on the other hand, is all about Sensitivity, seeing things in terms of relationships, interconnectivity, cooperation, and symbiosis. In short, the Right are hawks, and the Left are Doves, and Evolutionarily Stable Strategies often result in the penculum swinging back and forth between a dominance of one or the other.,


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