Monday, October 18, 2004

Stop, Stop, Stop, Stop worshipping Jon Stewart (or Why We Need More Brown States)

On Crossfire last week, Jon Stewart took Tucker Carlson, Paul Begala, and that lurching villain “The Media” to task for hurting America. Shows like Crossfire, Stewart lectured, take an opportunity for real political debate and degrade it by turning it into theater. “Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America,” Stewart said, chastizing Crossfire for failing miserably at its “responsibility to the public discourse.”

Begala and Carlson sputtered helplessly, and every time Stewart took a sanctimonious swipe at The Media, the studio audience applauded. Breathless, slobbering praise of Stewart’s coup spread around the blogosphere before he had even left the studio. Finally, we all thought, here’s someone with the guts to speak truth to power, to say what we responsible citizens had known all along: that these celebripundits are so concerned about their own careers that they are willing to take what should be our democracy-sustaining public discourse and turn it into an infomercial for their own egos. They are all exclamation points where they should be question marks. What a disappointment, right? What a moral failure, a dereliction of duty. Right?

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s true that Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Michael Moore, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and all the other screaming heads are sullying an opportunity for a public discussion of ideas for the sake of their own success. But how is it that they are able to do this? Who’s fattening their wallets? I’ll tell you: the very same people who were applauding Jon Stewart’s indignant digs in the Crossfire studio.

Why was Stewart going after Carlson and Begala when the real culprits were right behind him? These people spend hard earned money and take precious time out of their day to attend these impotent screaming matches, then applaud when Stewart tells them they’ve been had?

The “partisan hacks” wouldn’t be able to serve up their slop if millions of Americans weren’t licking their plates and asking for more. It’s these people that Stewart should be indicting, not the coiffed, suited service workers who are simply giving them what they want. As long as people are hungry for vacuous partisan bickering, the networks, cable, and any other electronic medium of communication will surely have it on the menu.

Speaking of giving the people what they want, let’s consider this presidential election. We complain about the candidates, we complain about special interests, we complain about a “divided America.” Well, we’re giving the people what they want. The blabberati (which, by nature of this post, I hesitatingly claim membership in)—especially the liberal blabberati—is quick to forget the simple principle of supply and demand. Americans who want to feel like they are involved in democracy but are too lazy to rub together the brain cells necessary to comprehend it demand a politically-themed distraction, and that’s what they get with shows like Crossfire. They see the haggling in the marketplace of ideas, and they are convinced they’ve gotten a good deal. They’ve done their duty—they’re informed enough to participate.

This is a scary enough picture of the mechanics of American democracy, but we’ve only considered Americans who purport to give a shit. What about Americans who don’t give a shit? They aren’t watching Crossfire. I can’t even venture a guess as to what they are doing. They’re certainly not informing themselves.

The very existence of these people pulls the rug out from under the “divided America” canard. America is divided, but not between red states and blue states, between the left and the right, between Patio Men and Bobos, no matter how cleverly stand-up sociologists like David Brooks* may try to convince you otherwise. No, America is divided between People Who Give a Shit and People Who Don’t Give a Shit. Sorry to reduce this to a John Waters-like metaphor, but I am a Baltimorean, and you have to admit—Waters has a way with turds.

In each of the last two presidential elections, only 54 percent of the voting age population bothered to vote, and turnout for local elections and presidential primaries was even lower. If more people don’t turn out for the 2004 election, that means about one quarter of the voting age population—one out of four people—will elect our president. Approximately 25 percent of the adults in this country will decide whether and why we are going to send our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances off to die. Fifty-four percent voter turnout—this nation is just about perfectly divided between People Who Give a Shit and People Who Don’t Give a Shit.

And don’t be so quick to include yourself in the former. Among the Shit Givers, people tend to commit the ecological fallacy—we surround ourselves with people who agree with us, and generalize that out to the rest of the population (“Hey, everyone feels this way!”). When we actually stumble across people from “the other side,” we caricature and demonize them. Every liberal has a conservative caricature; the liberal will chisel away at any real live conservative until he fits that mold. Conservatives do it, too.

But how well do we know our own ideas, much less those of the other side? For example, if you and I were to sit down and hash out whether unilateralism or multilateralism is better for foreign policy, it damn well better take at least a couple hours before we come even close to a conclusion.

Anyway, it’s not enough to simply give a shit. It’s not enough to register voters—who may be extremely uninformed on the issues—for your side. We have to make sure that the citizens of this country are informed, and they have to know that becoming informed is their responsibility—not Tucker Carlson’s, not Paul Begala’s, and certainly not Jon Stewart’s.

How do we do this? In two simple steps. First, never stop questioning your own beliefs. Sharpen your critical thinking skills. Converse respectfully and curiously with those who oppose your views. Get good information, and get it from each side. Challenge yourself. Make sure that the ideas you take into the voting booth are as sharp as they can be.

Second, don’t be timid. Despite all the boisterous, boorish confrontation on shows like Crossfire, in real life we have a very backslapping, tip-toeing culture. We’re very respectful of others’ freedom to not give a shit. So if you know people who aren’t planning on voting, try and convince them to get informed and vote. If you think someone hasn’t thought something through, engage him respectfully. If you see hypocrisy, call it out. (Just because you might have been hypocritical at some point doesn’t mean you are not allowed to point it out. It’s healthy for our system.) If you see apathy, call it out. Don’t be pedantic (I know, I know); just show apathetic people your passion for American democracy and hope that it's contagious. This doesn’t mean we should start talking politics at the dinner table, but certainly we can discuss it later over drinks.

Most of all, don’t forget that any problems with our system originate with the citizens who sustain it. Although the symptoms of the disease plaguing our democracy are most conspicuous at the top, they make their way out from the bottom.

* Personally, I’d like to see another Brooks—a.k.a. Comicus, the stand-up philosopher—replace David Brooks in the Times.