Regular readers will know that one of the most unfair and purist things I do on this blog is to quote people like John Oliver and Jon Stewart accurately when they say transparently power-serving things. It might be because I have a bad habit of waking up on the wrong side of the bed, or it may be because:
- Their progressive reputations are entirely the result of savvy marketing, and these people are actually centrist or right-wing liberals, or worse (and this isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a fact evidenced by the power-serving and reactionary things that they say).
- Everything they tell their viewers about the world comes from their moderate-conservative politics, and their tepid, incrementalist “solutions” aren’t little stepping-stones on the path to progress, but are distractions that lead people towards elite-approved dead-ends (and it could only ever be this way because, as basic media literacy would dictate, they are the employees of corporations for whom more profits are the sole and paramount goal).
- Whatever one wants to say about their calls for superficial domestic reforms, when it comes to American foreign policy they hew closely to the US State Department line (and again, it could only ever be this way, since both they and the State Department serve the same owners).
- That by virtue of their progressive reputations, liberals are more likely to believe the reactionary trash that these celebrities will inevitably say than they would if it came from a different salesperson (for example, progressives are more inclined to believe a vile “be pro-black and pro-cop” equivocation coming from Daily Show host Trevor Noah than they are a substantively identical message coming from his fellow TV host, Tea Party-Republican and Trump-supporter Mike Rowe).
Maybe it’s because I’m attached to the idea that radical actually means something, so when a high-status liberal designates another doctrinaire liberal as a “radical” voice, I feel a vested interest in making sure that “radical” doesn’t get redefined to mean “popular.” Either way, I document these things not only because I enjoy trashing these people (although I do), but because they are utter frauds who need to be torn down.
This is a hard enough job because even a couple months ago, the most extreme critique that someone could level at these celebrities before being dismissed as a deranged Stalinist was this:
One could accuse comedy TV of indulging in tedious gatekeeper liberalism—if one wanted to be barraged with accusations of unfairness, projection, misinterpretation, and ultra-leftism from the nitwit fans of these insipid mediocrities.
What one could usually do, and could easily get paid and published for doing, was celebrate these figures for not only being funny, but for being progressive and even vital to democracy. Up until last month, you could only criticize these highly political celebrity commentators in vague and attenuated terms, while there was literally no glowing superlative that was too ridiculous for them to receive. Case in point: this NBC News piece calling Trevor Noah’s material “politically radical” and invoking Malcolm X (!) for The Daily Show’s use of a bestselling Kanye West single during an episode. A May 2015 Atlantic piece declaring comedians as “the new public intellectuals” captures the tenor:
[T]here are two broad things happening right now—comedy with moral messaging, and comedy with mass attention—and their combined effect is this: Comedians have taken on the role of public intellectuals. They’re exploring and wrestling with important ideas. They’re sharing their conclusions with the rest of us. They’re providing fodder for discussion, not just of the minutiae of everyday experience, but of the biggest questions of the day… these are bits intended not just to help us escape from the realities of the world, but also, and more so, to help us understand them. Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers—as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment.
What all the celebrities mentioned in the Atlantic piece have in common is that for the last 18 months, they acted as spokespeople for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Some even provided Clinton bit-parts on their shows to help her remove some of the stigma that she had justly accumulated during decades of laying waste to large swathes of the global South.
But something interesting happened after Clinton became a failed presidential candidate for the second time. In the deluge of imbecilic and childish cultural texts designed to flatter liberals (including letters from popular fictional characters exhorting their fans to stay the course), a small space has opened up for pointing out that these celebrated celebrity clowns are actually a hindrance to combating a reactionary tide.
Leave it to Donald Trump to be so revolting a figure that it’s finally obvious that something has to change. For all the people robotically rattling off Idiocracy references, at least a few might take the occasion of a President Trump to realize the hollowness of the smug choir-preaching and vacuous accusations of hypocrisy that typically pass for political commentary. Of course, all this would’ve been true under a Clinton White House. But with Trump incoming, in the last week we’ve gotten two headlines blasting celebrity charlatans, one in BuzzFeed drubbing Trevor Noah and another in LA Weekly going after “Hillary’s celebrifriends” and the stable of smarmy late-night mediocrities who are usually hailed as can’t-miss sensations. Who would’ve thought that people who consider Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to be a political treatise on par with Mao’s Little Red Book would ever be exposed to something like this:
Trevor Noah…became the third host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and, by extension, the latest purveyor of a pervasive, noxious type of moderate liberalism… his sensibility on the program throughout the general, relentless shitshow of 2016—the escalated hate crimes, the vitriolic hate speech, has been one of indefatigable agreeableness and detached amusement. Why can’t we all just get along? He always seems to be asking, genuinely puzzled.
During the campaign, the vote-shaming social media blitzes and testimonials we were bombarded with by Hillary’s celebrifriends seemed grating and tacky. Now their smugness is tangible evidence of a larger problem within the Democratic Party: Its image is controlled and marketed by a very narrow group of corporate interests, tech libertarians and affluent celebrities. A few years ago we’d have called them the 1 percent…This year will be remembered for its toxic fluff. Provocateurs and dime-store Howard Beales such as Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Lena Dunham and Andy Richter have demonstrated zero political efficacy.
“Noxious moderate liberalism!” “Dime-store Howard Beales!” “Corporate interests & the 1%!” Was it really only a few weeks ago that these Heaven-sent late-night jesters were DESTROYING conservatives in one MUST-SEE clip after another? It’s enough to make you forget how fun and relatable Hillary was when she was hanging out with Abby and Ilana.
Of course, two pieces of criticism are a long way from the unsparing and vicious scorn that these millionaires deserve for their political work. The idiotic and extremely hostile comment sections for both pieces attest to the fact that a lot of people don’t want to hear their heroes attacked, no matter how much those celebrities have it coming for their noxious, conservative politics. The LA Weekly piece rightly laments that “many outlets and rogue social media celebrities have doubled down on their coverage of pop culture/reality crossover content, whimsical post mortems and open letters”—unfortunately, the “related stories” bar suggests that readers click next on an article titled “Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher Is the Hero That We Need Right Now,” proving that there is still a hegemonic industry for maintaining politics as a la-la land of nostalgia and mass-culture references.
And coming as they do from mainstream sources, a lot of the commentary is heavily flawed and fundamentally misguided. Someone who thinks these figures “have demonstrated zero political efficacy” still doesn’t understand what’s going on. A commentator like John Oliver is actually extremely effective, if you understand that his job is to convince progressives to vote for Hillary Clinton and then cheer for her to turn Russia into a radioactive version of Libya. John Oliver gets his chair because progressives will believe it when he calls Barack Obama “a president we could assume would generally stand up for the rights of all Americans,” even though this is really a very stupid lie.
Similarly, when Trevor Noah says that the police are murdering African-Americans because both communities are locked in a mutual “cycle of distrust,” he’s not just saying that because no one has thought to recommend him Franz Fanon yet. The person sitting in the Daily Show anchor’s chair will always minimize white supremacy with some middling centrist nonsense, because that is their job. If people weren’t actively and continuously deceived, then it could lead to Trevor Noah’s boss, and his boss’s boss, all the way on up to Sumner Redstone, having their billions taken away and forcibly redistributed to the wretched of the Earth (♫ and I think to myself—what a wonderful world! ♬).
It’s an absurd fantasy to think that Noah would have a more radical perspective if he’d spent more time in the US or picked up Between the World and Me, or that these people can be more progressive if we “hold their feet to the fire” and “make them do it,” or that the answer is yet another gaggle of highly publicized commentators who are obviously palatable to mainstream gatekeepers. If Trevor Noah and his cohort weren’t so good at what they do, it would be self-evident why all of those ideas are absurd.
Still, a little over a month ago, there was no space for any but the most toothless criticisms of these highly celebrated hucksters. Despite the flaws, I welcome the realization that these people are pushing a brand of smug posturing that isn’t helping make things better for most people. But it’s not enough to dismiss these people as obnoxious jokers who are mostly stroking off their credulous true-believer fans (although they are that). The problem is that they actually do have genuine political principles, and viewers buy these toxic politics in maudlin appeals sandwiched between unfunny jokes. The bigger problem is that these centrist fakes are as responsible for peddling power-serving misinformation as any Fox News villain. The liberal clowns are part of the problem—bury them. Maybe if things were going really well, then we could try to parse how many of these individuals could be on The Good Team; if one agrees that things are actually really bad, then it’s time to recognize that the shittiness of these propagandists is not a bug, but a built-in feature, as it will be for their successors.
And if, as some people are joking, Trump does turn out the be America’s Gorbachev, let’s hope that he does as Gorbachev did and turn the media over to elements that are hostile to the regime’s continued survival. For the good of the planet, let’s hope he does it as soon as possible. I’ll be ready with more content.
In the meantime, throw all those ruling class-approved clowns in the trash where they belong. It’s long past time. And anyone who wants to know how things actually work needs to stop watching that stupid horseshit and watch these instead:
And for those who absolutely need their political commentary delivered by comedians:
In this brief clip, even a prominent star like Richard Pryor says truths that you’d never see in a prominent platform today: that racism is primarily a weapon for enriching the ruling class, that it’s built-into capitalism, and that it can’t be changed through any number of well-meaning progressives working within the system. Contrast this to Trevor Noah’s truly repulsive (though typical) claim that racism is the result of mutual misunderstandings, and a problem that both black Americans and the police are equally responsible for de-escalating.
Of course a mainstream comedian could “nail” the connection between racism and capitalism 40 years ago. Between then and now, one of the most effective counterinsurgency tools has been a billion-dollar misinformation machine that puts people like Noah front-and-center.