Yes, Throw the Celebrity Clowns Away

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. Continue reading

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John Oliver isn’t Mad Max, he’s part of the problem

When I was first recommended John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time. Oliver had the benefit of coming from The Daily Show, which became a cherished liberal institution under Jon Stewart and had a unique power to shape conversations among a lot of progressive internet users. If anything, Oliver has the potential to be more influential than the show that birthed him. “That John Oliver’s weekly video(s) will go viral is a given,” wrote John Herrman in a post on a clickbait ritual he calls the “John Oliver video sweepstakes.” John Oliver is “winning the internet.” More than just a content factory, though, on his HBO show Oliver is getting credit for something like prime-time activism—Time lauds what they call the “John Oliver effect.”

He’s really, really, popular. When I watched the first clip I HAD TO SEE from his show, though, it was obvious why it’s gotten so much traction. The clip I saw, covering the election that would make Narendra Modi the Prime Minister of India, was from Last Week Tonight’s 1st season, back in June 2014. The election of Narendra Modi was consequential, for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are:

Modi’s election proved all sorts of points, from capitalism’s extremely cozy relationship with the militant far-right to the way that the media whitewashes fascism when the fascist in question advances the ruling class’s interests.

According to Oliver’s widely shared reckoning, though, the important aspects of India’s 2014 election are:

  • It was big.
  • It was under-reported.

For something ostensibly journalistic, the segment was light on specifics. Between jokes about Modi’s holograms, Oliver makes one brief point about Modi’s culpability in Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogroms, which he diminishingly describes by saying that Modi “arguably failed to stop a massacre.” The problem here, according to Last Week Tonight, is just that The People need more information. “Our cable news has been ignoring India” is the segment’s leitmotif, and it offers nothing deeper than hand-wringing over the vapid US media. The only intervention to inject something of substance is a whitewash of Modi’s participation in racist mob violence. All viewers need to do is just know about the election, which puts Last Week Tonight’s viewers miles ahead of the bovine Faux Snooze-watchers in the flyover states. The fetishizing of information for its own sake, the low-context bathos, the whitewashing, the signaling that lets liberal viewers feel superior to their Republican relatives—I could tell this was going to be bigger than The Daily Show!

When Stewart announced his retirement a few months ago, amidst the slew of identical thinkpieces praising his show was another more measured response. Stewart, the alternative consensus went, had done a lot of good satire but gotten soft following the departure of George W. When he held his “Rally to Restore Sanity,” he had gotten too high on his own supply of above-the-fray centrism. Since I stopped checking Salon sometime around their billionth listicle of epic Tea Party fails, I hadn’t kept up with Oliver’s show, besides occasionally seeing his clips ricocheting around the internet. Based on the fact that many came to see Stewart’s “jester liberalism” shtick for what it was—toothless and overly servile—I had assumed, naïvely, that there would be some latent skepticism to Oliver. At least, instead of restarting at square one like every time a new vaguely leftish celebrity comes along, we could start from an understanding that radicals don’t make it on TV, and moderate hopes for late-night hosts accordingly.

I was a little too starry-eyed, judging from a piece that Jacobin published yesterday by Thomas Crowley. Titled “John Oliver Should Be More Like Mad Max” for maximum zeitgeisty-ness, the subheader explains that “John Oliver is mad at corporations but not capitalism.” So far, so true. The piece begins by explaining how Oliver favorably compares to Stewart and Stephen Colbert, since “Oliver was exciting because he took on corporations so directly, and with such gusto.” However, Crowley is disappointed that Oliver limits his criticism to extreme corporate excess, rather than the capitalist system itself. Continue reading

Stewart Sanitizes Barry’s Bombs

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. Continue reading

Stephen Colbert & Jon Stewart sell millennials military industry propaganda

On the November 13, 2013 episode of The Colbert Report, there was a segment about the Colorado man on a quixotic crusade to institute a “drone bounty” in his town of Deer Trail, CO. Philip Steele, the “brains” behind the proposed ordinance, is an easy target for ridicule. He shows up to a town council meeting in a cowboy hat and duster, demanding that Ennio Morricone play as he entered. As the segment’s straight-person, Colbert has on MIT professor Missy Cummings. While Steele prints up drone-hunting permits from his desktop printer and makes racist comments about Obama’s ancestry, Cummings paints a rosy picture in which domestic UAVs do everything but tuck our kids in at night. To demonstrate Steele’s unfounded paranoia, the show quotes him saying:

There are many reasons to conduct surveillance. Let’s take smokers, how many people have smoke breaks, okay, fly a drone. ‘Oh, did you check nonsmoker on your health insurance form? Oh I’m sorry, we’re going to have to penalize you now.’”

The audience laughs at this, but isn’t it obvious that this is exactly the sort of thing that domestic drones will be used for in the future? Steele sounds like an eccentric reactionary for most of the interview, so consequently the young, liberal audience is laughing even as he says something plausible, if not likely. This is the problem with the tepid liberalism at the core of The Daily Show and Colbert, and how both shows  filter everything into the insipid “Democrat vs. Republican” partisan framework. By choosing a right-wing drone opponent, Colbert primes its audience to laugh at what he’s saying, even when it’s realistic; and trust his opposite, even when they’re a shill for the military industry. Continue reading