October 31, 2010

Respecting Our Institutions

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If you’ve ever been to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., you’ve undoubtedly encountered George Washington. No, not the president, but George Washington, the imposing sculpture depicting our first president as an Olympian god of sorts. Completed in 1840 by the Horatio Greenough, it was displayed in the Capitol Rotunda until popular discontent forced its removal. The public argued that the half-naked statute degraded Washington’s memory.

Last week we saw another instance of presidential over-exposure, but this time the President was a knowing participant. Appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, President Obama defended his first two years in office, made an impassioned pitch for his current agenda and urged viewers to vote in the midterm elections.

What irked me about the interview was not its overtly Democratic bent — the elections were taking place the next week — but its informality. Sure, presidential candidates have appeared on comedic television programs: Nixon on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and Clinton on The Arsenio Hall Show are two notable examples. However, a sitting president has not. And for good reason: President Obama’s appearance was an unmistakable act of desperation, and not just a little bit undignified.

Perhaps this explains why the interview was somewhat, well, awkward. Both President Obama and Stewart were attempting to balance seriousness — he is the President, after all — and satire — but it is The Daily Show. The result was an uncomfortable reminder that The Daily Show is itself confused. Is it a news show? Is it pure satire? Who knows?

But really, who cares? Stewart undoubtedly scored a major coup, cementing his place as this generation’s most important pundit. Who else could get a hold of the President less than a week before the midterm elections?

However, the interview symbolized something more significant than either Stewart’s cultural capital or Obama’s desperation. While watching, one got the sense that a certain political attitude was being validated, one that I’d like to call Jon Stewart Liberalism.

Jon Stewart Liberalism basically says that our political system is hopelessly corrupt: any position held by politicians or pundits can be invalidated by a clip or soundbite that demonstrates hypocrisy. Therefore, there’s no room for important political action. Everyone in the system is merely a comical, duplicitous hack.

As one would expect, this attitude fosters a fair amount of political apathy, and Stewart himself recognizes this: his “Rally to Restore Sanity” was advertised as a celebration of not caring too much, as one giant scoff directed towards passionate advocates.

We can’t let this mentality retain its central position, for two reasons. The first is simple: Jon Stewart Liberalism is ultimately corrosive to democratic government. If we’re unwilling to imagine that politics can ever be anything other than a series of deceptions and half-truths, then there’s no reason to vote, or even attempt to affect change. Our government then ceases to be truly representative.

The second reason is more abstract but just as important: in automatically discrediting any political figure that changes his or her mind, Jon Stewart Liberalism gives too much weight to consistency. Not only is this standard unreasonable, but it runs counter to an important strain of American political thought.

In her book On Revolution, the political theorist Hannah Arendt contrasted the French and the American revolutions, noting that the former stressed the importance of pure motives while the latter emphasized the importance of political action. She argued that the revolution in France eventually disintegrated due to perpetual suspicions; however, the ideals of the American Revolution endured because so much stock was placed in political institutions. Men were judged based on that which they had actually done, not something they were supposed to have done.

We should therefore reject Jon Stewart Liberalism on the grounds that it fosters a paralyzing cynicism. It encourages us to adopt a worldview wherein no political action is meaningful, where the President of the United States is no more than just a “dude.”

Fortunately, there’s reason to believe we can break away from this mentality: as we know from the fate of George Washington, Americans have collectively rejected these sorts of irreverent attitudes before. So let’s hope that we can see The Daily Show for what it should be — a satire of political convictions, and not their replacement.

Judah Bellin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin