A recent popular Daily Show segment exemplifies the worst aspects of the show’s tepid centrism
Though Jon Stewart is quick to tell people that he’s “just a comedian,” The Daily Show has a unique ability to frame politics in the public consciousness. As a comedy show, it’s able to reach viewers who would otherwise be politically disengaged. Large numbers of people who get their news from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and these people tend to be better informed than consumers of other media sources—belying the idea that it’s “just a comedy show.” The fact that the show appeals to both an audience who considers themselves politically left-leaning and a wider audience that’s more apolitical gives it the ability to shape the popular discourse that a lot of traditional news shows would envy.
However, though the show is a liberal pop-culture institution, the show is profoundly respectful of the status quo. While Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert skewer the most obvious hypocrisies of our political system, they show respect and deference to a political system that exports tremendous violence abroad and increasing repression and inequality at home. A widely shared Daily Show segment from February 19th illustrates how pernicious show can be. Reflecting the show’s broad appeal, the opening segment received praise and exposure in both mainstream outlets like Yahoo! TV and leftist news sites like TruthDig. TruthDig called the video “hilarious and scathing,” but it’s anything but.
The opening segment, with the headline “Jon Stewart calls Obama the ‘Barry Bombs’ of drone strikes,” dealt with the Obama administration’s extrajudicial killing policy, specifically the issue of targeting Americans for assassination without due process. When discussing a state claiming an Imperial prerogative to kill its own citizens, Stewart offers only a mild reproach of individual foibles. Worse than insufficient criticism, though, the segment is an active whitewashing of Obama’s assassination policies and his administration’s theories of limitless executive power. The piece is embedded with multiple misleading claims, actually flattering Obama in the guise of a critique. The segment encapsulates all the worst aspects of The Daily Show’s tepid, establishment-serving centrism.
In the 2/19 segment, Stewart takes Obama to task for the administration’s reliance on drone warfare, calling the President the “all-time leader” in sky-killing, the “Barry Bombs of drone strikes.” The Administration has leaked that it wants to kill an American citizen in Pakistan who is alleged to be a member of al Qaeda. The issue is that killing this citizen ostensibly violates the updated guidelines for drone killings that Obama outlined in his May 23rd, 2013 speech at the National Defense University (NDU). Stewart defines the problem by telling the audience “It’s not Constitutional to kill an American without due process, but there’s this American that we’d really like to kill!”
For those unfamiliar with the nature of the Imperial Presidency, this seems like a harsh critique. In Stewart’s framing, Barack Obama, elected to Change the mistakes of the Bush presidency, is inconsistent in his war policies. He’s even coming dangerously close to behaving like his predecessor, the Bad Apple George W. Bush! This is what websites like TruthDig latched onto as a “scathing” criticism, but in damning Obama, Stewart exonerates him.
When skewering the foibles of America’s politicians, The Daily Show has a couple of standard formats. One is to contrast the outlandish beliefs of an easily mocked figure to the sober analysis of their chosen expert. I’ve written before about how pernicious this dynamic can be, because it primes the audience to buy whatever agenda the “expert” is selling.
The 2/19 drone segment follows the second standard format. In this format, Stewart et al highlight an objectionable policy by comparing it to the high-minded ideals it’s betraying. In practice, this is done by cross-cutting footage of soaring rhetoric with clips of people contradicting themselves. Bonus points if the hero and hypocrite are the same person. The “Barry Bombs” segment makes Obama’s NDU speech the high point, and his current pursuit of extrajudicial killing power the low point. In this formulation, the Obama administration is seeking to cross a boundary that betrays its previous high-mindedness, sinking the President to the level of Bush.
Making May 23rd, 2013 the starting-point in the history of Obama’s American-killing program is a serious whitewash of a terrifying Presidential power. Casual news consumers would get no idea from the show that the President has already assassinated four American citizens—though the public is assured that only one was “specifically targeted” for killing and the other three were just accidents.
Dana Priest first reported that Obama has “a shortlist of U.S. citizens specifically targeted for killing or capture” in January of 2010. In September of 2011, the Administration succeeded in the due-process-free assassinations of American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Three weeks later, the US killed Awlaki’s teenage son, Abdulrahman. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered that the murdered teen “should’ve had a more responsible father.” A few months later, a drone strike killed the American Jude Mohammed, who like Abdulrahman and Khan was “not specifically targeted.” Oops.
By 2013, doubts about drone killings were tentatively starting to creep into the Beltway firmament. In March, Rand Paul undertook a 13-hour filibuster to halt the nomination of John Brennan to the post of CIA director. Brennan, called Obama’s “drone czar,” had been the public face for a panoply of dirty War on Terror tactics. A month later, Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi spoke before a Senate hearing about the terror drones unleashed on his village.
Given the bad press and possibility of a left-libertarian alliance opposed to the President’s American-murdering program, Obama’s May 2013 NDU speech offered cosmetic improvements while retaining the core arrogations of Executive power. It did what his speeches do best: putting his handsome face over the ugliness of Empire. Obama’s speech seemed to set stricter parameters on drone assassinations while in reality “laying groundwork for an expansion of the controversial targeted killings.” It mirrored an earlier Justice Department “White Paper” specifying the use of assassination only against “imminent threats,” which abused the concept of “imminence” to the point of meaninglessness.
On February 10th 2014 the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration is “mulling” the assassination of an American in Pakistan. Writing about the Administration’s limitless conceptions of executive power, Gregory Johnsen said “none of [the White House lawyers I talked to] were able to point to a case in which the U.S. knew of a terrorist but couldn’t target him because it lacked the legal authority. Each time the president wanted to kill someone, his lawyers found the authority embedded somewhere.” The February 10th leaks were a reminder that the Administration never relinquished even an iota of its limitless power, it merely applied the veneer of hand-wringing forbearance that Democrats love about Obama. However, where Bush demonstrated cowboy-swagger that played well in the Red States, Obama evinces thoughtful sophistication for his base, “agonizing” over the awesome imperial power he exercises only with deep regret.
Supplementing this shell game is the culture industry, with things like the Daily Show segment in question. Stewart treats Obama’s NDU speech as an expression of ideal good that Obama is about to violate, when it was a re-branding of a longstanding assassination program. Stephen Heath argues that in “exhausting time into moments, its ‘now-thisness,’ television produces forgetfulness, not memory, flow, not history.” The medium of television isn’t conducive to historicity; its appeal is that TV communicates in the language of immediacy: BREAKING news, continuously scrolling chyrons, live broadcasts, on-location reporting. When The Daily Show presents segments with the idealism/betrayal cross-cutting framework, though, the show is explicitly rejecting the “now-thisness” of standard TV news. The show is positioning itself as a trustworthy observer, injecting history and facts where crooked politicians and vapid media celebrities would rather you forget. The Daily Show earns its viewers trust by taking Fox News charlatans to task for their imbecilic claims about the whiteness of Santa Claus, so they’ll believe Stewart when he tells them that President Obama is only now embarking on a program to kill Americans.
Some of the biggest laughs in the episode come when Stewart suggests that the Obama do as Bush did and merely rebrand his assassination program, the way Bush and Cheney sanitized torture with the anodyne sobriquet of “enhanced interrogation programs.” Lampooning Bush administration doublespeak on the unspeakable evil of torture, Stewart said:
“Torture wasn’t a moral issue, it was a branding issue! But the Obama Administration won’t say ‘well, we’re doing a targeted assassination of an American without due process,’ when they could as easily say ‘we’re doing an aerial citizen reduction program.’
“They won’t do it because they consider themselves above that simple chicanery. But they will get there.” [Emphasis added]
This has the vague sound of an indictment, but Stewart is praising Obama rather than burying him. Obama has expanded Bush/Cheney theories of the Imperial presidency to include the most extreme, monarchic power a leader can have: the power to kill by fiat. Bush merely assumed the power to torture and imprison American citizens for life without due process—Obama has added “executioner” to the President’s job description. However, Stewart tells his audience that Obama will get “there,” at some future date. The current administration is approaching Bush’s extremism, Stewart claims, rather than having exceeded it long ago.
Stewart has somehow found a way to tell his audience with a straight face that members of the Obama Administration “consider themselves above that simple chicanery.” If that’s true, no one has gotten around to telling the White House, which would make the Ministry of Truth jealous. One of Obama’s first branding initiatives was renaming the “Global War on Terror” the “Overseas Contingency Operations,” replacing Bush’s Manichaean framework with something sounding like a search-and-rescue mission. The War in Libya, waged in defiance of the War Powers Act, was alternately called a “Humanitarian Intervention” and a “Kinetic Military Action.”
If The Daily Show’s writing staff are unaware of any simple chicanery in the past, it’s mystifying how they forgot about an example that Stewart discusses 90 seconds later. Deploying his trademark “funny Italian Jewish New Yorker with an accent guy,” Stewart criticizes the Obama administration’s abuse of the term “imminence.” Stewart correctly points out how shamelessly the Executive Branch exploits linguistic loopholes when it serves their interests, in this case twisting a word that means “about to happen” into something meaning “could conceivably happen ever.”
But Stewart doesn’t call bullshit on Obama’s linguistic abuses. Instead, Stewart assures his viewers that the Obama administration “consider themselves above that.” Not only does this flatter the Administration and erase its propaganda, but it signals to The Daily Show’s viewers that they can trust the President who is claiming the power to extra-judicially assassinate them. He might be acting like Bush right now, Stewart tells his audience, but at least he’s too good to lie to you like George, the bad dumb man!
But, Jon Stewart is “just a comedian.” At least, that’s what we keep hearing when he’s taken to task for the shortcomings of his show. Stewart usually trots out the canard about “just being a comedian” when criticized for failures to speak truth to power. Stewart is willing to be a Doberman when skewering obvious clowns like the overgrown fratboys of Crossfire, or that woman who told everyone that Obama was going to murder grandma. When sitting across from people with elite proximity and establishment acceptance, though, Stewart turns into a kitty cat. Scott Hill says “The Daily Show’s satire kingpin has a way of cowering before powerful people.” In interviews with John “the President can crush a baby’s testicles” Yoo and crypto-fascist warlord Erik Prince, for instance, Stewart’s capitulation is egregious enough to merit write-ups. (Lest anyone think this is unique to Stewart, the same criticism applies to Stephen Colbert). People are disappointed when Stewart lets powerful off the hook because they misunderstand who he is and what The Daily Show is about. The Daily Show‘s satire is one that kneels before power, not one that challenges it. It’s “satire that attacks the excesses or the foibles of the system, but [is] never going to expose the system,” in the words of Chris Hedges. Hedges goes as far as to say that Stewart and Colbert have “destroyed satire” with their sanitized, power-serving programs.
There’s a certain breed of liberal figure that makes it to a position of prominence in corporate media. Tarzie calls this figure a “Heat Vampire.” He explains:
I use the term ‘heat vampire’ as a metaphor for a kind of public figure that stakes a position on the left-most edges of permissible opinion so as to neutralize harder, more authentic lefts in the same zone. Heat vampires are distinguished by a clear eyed, even radical, assessment of all that’s wrong in the world coexisting with acquiescence in oligarch-approved methods for putting things right, no matter how often and resoundingly these methods fail. So constituted, heat vampire liberals act as role models of acquiescence for the rest of us, reconciling things that aren’t logically reconcilable, successfully wrestling themselves into compliance with status quo fundamentals while bemoaning the particulars. All the so-called harder lefts inside the margins of U.S. political discourse are heat vampires. This piece on Chris Hayes explains the concept in greater detail. [Emphasis added]
Stewart cannot even claim to be a remotely radical or hard-left figure. As far as Heat Vampires go, Stewart flies the gray flag of insipid, “above-the-fray” leftish-centrism. The Mediaite write-up of the 2/19 episode inadvertently reveals the tepid, power-accommodating heart of The Daily Show: “Jon kicked off Wednesday night’s Daily Show going after President Obama for his consistently inconsistent policy on drone strikes” [Empasis added]. The Daily Show isn’t criticizing American imperialism, or the Chief Executive who is claiming the power to kill his subjects by his sole word. The Daily Show is criticizing an “inconsistent” policy. In addition to being an utterly insufficient critique—similar to criticizing the décor in a burning house—it categorically misunderstands the nature of Obama’s leadership of the American Empire.
The Obama administration’s policy on drones and assassinations is remarkably consistent. Obama’s policy has, since his inauguration, been to embrace a Bush/Cheney-on-steroids conception of Executive power, and to offer cosmetic adjustments when the optics risk becoming unpopular. This is the story behind Obama’s vaunted “torture ban,” which retained extraordinary rendition and forms of torture like excruciating force-feedings (in Guantánamo Bay) and sexual humiliation (in the case of Chelsea Manning). When his administration’s assassination policy started receiving even mild transpartisan pushback in spring of 2013, a rebranding was in order. The Daily Show‘s whitewash segment is proof that the rebranding worked, at least with our cherished media figures. Quibbling over “inconsistency,” when at issue are crimes of Empire, is the program’s stock-in-trade. It’s comforting to believe that we are dealing with a state that is merely hypocritical, rather than one claiming the power to murder us at will. This reality, as disturbing as it is, is the America in which we live today, but you’d never know it if you get all your news from The Daily Show.