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Jon Stewart, Opiate of the Masses

by Steve Almond

I realize this is going to put me in some pretty unsavory company, but here goes: I didn't like Jon Stewart's rousing speech at the end of his Rally to Restore Sanity. I found it cowardly and even a little heartbreaking.

I'll get to why in a minute, but let me say first that I have been, for many years, a big fan of Stewart and his evil twin, Stephen Colbert. They're both brilliant comedians and, when they choose to be, powerful advocates of reason.

Stewart's systematic dismantling of insurance company shill Betsy McCaughey, for instance, was a crucial bit of public theater that helped put to rest the myth of Death Panels. Colbert's upbraiding of both George W. Bush and the lapdog media that enabled him at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association dinner was a genuine act of heroism. So when Stewart and Colbert announced their joint rally, I was as excited as the next disaffected progressive. The more cultural bandwidth these guys get, I figured, the more sensible our discourse will become.

I was especially glad Stewart chose to drop his wisecracking and deliver an earnest closing speech. His diagnosis of the modern media's "perpetual panic conflictinator" was spot on, as was his eloquent call for Americans to treat one another with civility. But his final declaration was equally jarring.

"If you want to know why I'm here," he concluded, "and what I want from you, I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted."

Rather than a call to action, the crowd received a moment of transcendent self-congratulation. We'd all restored Jon Stewart's faith in us ... by gathering en masse and not calling anyone Hitler.

It turns out that Stewart and Colbert don't really want citizens to do anything about the corruption of our media and political classes. They just want us to sit back and laugh at them as they mock this corruption - then high-five ourselves for being so awesome.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that Stewart should have said anything overtly "political." His obvious and understandable intention was to avoid being sucked into the conflictinator. The fact that he and Colbert have become our voices of conscience, of course, speaks to the larger moral vacuum in this country.

But whether he likes it or not - and his speech was clear evidence that he likes it a good bit - Stewart is now a moral authority in this country, especially to young people.

Without getting the least bit partisan, he might have reminded the millions of people watching him that we are all shareholders in our democracy, not passive observers, that politics isn't just some big, ugly game played on cable TV. It's a set of agreements about how our country is going to function, one in which moral progress is made against considerable - and generally well-funded - resistance.

In this sense, Stewart and Colbert have become the designated opiate of the left in this country. Every night, they allow us to laugh at how bad things have gotten without actually doing anything about it. Their effect is ultimately ameliorative.

The plutocrats and paid demagogues of the Right learned long ago that their best chance at power resided not in crafting sensible, humane policy, but inciting the primal negative emotions of a troubled electorate. On Tuesday, that strategy paid off. Despite Stewart's feel-good benediction, they have now promised to fight Obama tooth and nail.

In the coming weeks and months, the poor and the sick will probably become more so, as will the aggrieved and the cynical and the violent. Fear not, fellow citizens. Stewart and Colbert will be there to preside over the ruin with rapier wit. Sure, the country went down in flames. But it went down laughing.

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