Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart took the opening segment, more than nine minutes, to get serious and address Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ recent shooting in Arizona. His reaction was, for the most part, serious, often rambling, slightly confusing but, in the end, it was heartfelt and poignant. He didn’t try to find answers or assign blame. While other pundits are busy saying that the extreme leftist media or the Tea Party are at fault for this tragedy, Stewart looked at the bigger picture.
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What makes Jon Stewart’s voice so powerful is his desire for the truth. He recognizes a problem, but he’s smart enough to know that the current state of political discourse is a lot more complex than others would have you believe. The world is not black and white. It’s not Republicans vs. Democrats, FOX News vs. MSNBC. Stewart realizes that both sides pollute the debate with their reductive antagonism, that labeling people who disagree with you as enemies is not helpful. His speech was simply an attempt to explain and understand what has happened to politics in this country.
It’s a good question, because things weren’t always like this. In the 1990s the thing that made people the angriest was a semen-stained blue dress. But then 9/11 happened and the world changed, but not how we thought it would. Instead it brought the Iraq War and a divided country. While American’s were transfixed on foreign affairs, domestic issues were able to take over before we could even notice. The economy collapsed, unemployment soared, a recession hit and suddenly a war in a country halfway around the world was the least of our concerns.
Then we elected a new president who was supposed to heal us with his soaring rhetoric and promise of hope, but instead he tackled health care, compromising at every step along the way until the result was a baby cut in half, pleasing neither side. The past decade in this country has been a testament to Murphy’s Law: “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”
All of this happened against a backdrop of an increasingly immediate media. Cable news channels became required viewing for many Americans, the people were able to connect and voice their opinions on blogs and Facebook. With Twitter came the ability to experience news instantaneously and for every single person to have a voice and an opinion that was equally valid. When everyone has only 140 characters, no one idea seems more true than another.
The end result is a society of simplicity, where debates are boiled down to opposing sides. You’re with us or against us. In the face of that culture, Jon Stewart dares to say, “No.” His reaction to the Giffords shooting was the single voice of reason in the cacophony of our political system. Don’t reduce political debate to war. Don’t create an antagonism where you confuse your ideological opponent with a mortal enemy. Don’t treat people who don’t agree as evil.
These all sound like simple ideas, but Jon Stewart seems to be the only one around giving them voice. He may be a comedian, but for me and my generation, Stewart is as venerable as Edward R. Murrow. While other pundits claim to know all the answers, Jon Stewart was brave enough to go on TV and admit that he didn’t. He simply said it the way it was.
(Image and video courtesy of Comedy Central)