Writing intermittently on life, politics, and society

Siding with Sanity

Just caught an interesting interview of Jon Stewart by Rachel Maddow. Stewart is responding to the reception of his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear from people who take issue with what they see as a false equivalence between the practices of the right and the left.

The full interview is up at Rachel Maddow’s site over at MSNBC, do give it a butcher’s. There are good discussions, including the problems with 24-hour television news, the FOX News model, and the left vs. right paradigm.

I don’t want to skew anyone’s perception too much, so I’ll put my own comments below the jump.

My understanding of Stewart’s response to criticism from the likes of Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Bill Maher is that his argument was meant to be much more nuanced than a simple assertion of equivalence.

His intention, Stewart argues, is not to say both sides are as bad as each other but to point out the ways in which people on both sides of the political divide shut down meaningful conversations with inflammatory rhetoric.

My issue with Stewart’s argument is that it seems to elide how the use of extreme rhetoric on the right has been mainstreamed – in no small part due to the he-said-she-said reporting style and fears of perceived liberal bias that mean one rarely, if ever, pays a price for poor arguments or mendacity.

As Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell discuss, from about 5:38 to 8:03 in this clip, the swift boat tactics and the people behind the campaign have seen their stars rise institutionally. I would argue that on the other hand people like Alan Grayson, Markos Moulitsas, or his organisation, the Daily Kos are kept at arms length by Democratic Party institutions -and in the case of groups like Code Pink, excluded.  Yet as Maher points out in his criticism it is mainstream figures in the Conservative movement, and Republican Party leadership who are encouraging the view that Obama is un-American and trying to destroy the country.

I agree with Stewart that the level of political discourse in the U.S. is highly problematic, moreover his attempts to humanise and give the benefit of the doubt to people with whom he disagrees are laudable, and resonate with my own views. However, one can’t go on reserving judgement indefinitely.

I think a serious criticism of political discourse is one that acknowledges the qualitative difference between the groups involved in that discourse. The “people who think George Bush let 9/11 happen to help Dick Cheney pad Halliburton’s portfolio” have no real power in the conversation and process through which Americans address their problems. Stewart’s argument falls down on this point because the equivalence he constructs feeds into the sort of false narrative he decries.

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