The Problem With Jon Stewart
How painfully, cringingly super-woke must a comedian get to stay relevant?
“To do a debate would be great. But that’s like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition. … You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably,” - Jon Stewart to the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire, October 15, 2004.
I was busy walking my dog several weeks ago, on my lunchtime Thursday break, preoccupied with the piece I was trying to write in my head. The phone rang and a frantic booker was on the line. Would I be able to get to New York tomorrow to do an interview with Jon Stewart on race? I literally laughed out loud.
“No I can’t. I’m on deadline and can’t really focus on anything until the Dish is done tomorrow. And why on earth would I do that anyway? Why would I go on a show just to be called a racist?” “No, no, no,” she replied. “Nothing like that would happen. This is not a debate. It’s just you talking one-on-one with Jon, and he’d never do that.” I said I’d think about it — especially since they seemed desperate with just 24 hours till taping — and later I called to say sure, if it’s just Jon. “I trust him to be fair.” I hadn’t had time to read the email invites, so I trusted the booker’s word.
But just before the taping, as I emerged blearily from Dishing, I found out, in fact, that there would be two other guests, and that it would, indeed, be a debate. Surprise! As the show started, I also realized for the first time there was a live studio audience and that the episode was called “The Problem With White People” — a title I’d never have been a party to, if I’d known in advance. (I wouldn’t go on a show called “The Problem With Jews” or “The Problem With Black People” either.) At that point I should have climbed carefully off the stake, tamped down the flames, made a path through the kindling, and walked away.
I protested to the producers that I’d been ambushed. And to be fair, they gave me the option of backing out at the last minute. But I didn’t want to leave them in the lurch, reassured myself that Stewart was a pro, and said I’d go ahead. I just assumed he wouldn’t demonize or curse at a guest; he would moderate; he would entertain counter-arguments; he would defend fair play. After all, this was the man who had lacerated Crossfire for bringing too much heat and not enough light. He believed in sane discourse. He was a liberal, right?
On the race question, Stewart has decided to go way past even Robin DiAngelo, in his passionate anti-whiteness. His opening monologue was intoned at times in a somber tone, as if he were delivering hard truths that only bigots could disagree with. He argued that no one in America had been prepared to have an honest discussion about race — until the “reckoning” of 2020. He also suggested that nothing had been done by whites to support African-Americans from 1619 (yes, he went there) … till now. The most obvious solution — reparations — was, he implied, somehow, absurdly, taboo.
His montage of “black voices” insisted that African-Americans are still granted only conditional citizenship, are still barred from owning property — “we don’t own anything!” — and ended with Sister Souljah — yes! — explaining that the thing that kills black people are not bullets, but white people. This is the same moral avatar who once said: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Stewart then hailed Angela Davis — a proud Communist, with a particular fondness for East Germany’s suppression of dissent — and warmly thanked her as “Angela.” But Stewart included not a single black voice of disagreement or nuance. He apparently believes that all black people hold the same view. And all white people just refuse to hear it.
Jon Stewart’s insistence that Americans had never robustly debated race before 2020 is also, well, deranged. Americans have been loudly debating it for centuries. There was something called a Civil War over it. His claim that white America has never done anything in defense of black Americans (until BLM showed up, of course) requires him to ignore more than 300,000 white men who gave their lives to defeat the slaveholding Confederacy. It requires Stewart to ignore the countless whites (often Jewish) who risked and gave their lives in the Civil Rights Movement. It requires him to erase the greatest president in American history. This glib dismissal of all white Americans throughout history, even those who risked everything to expand equality, is, when you come to think about it, obscene.
Stewart’s claim that whites never tried to ameliorate black suffering until now requires him to dismiss over $19 trillion of public funds spent in the long War on Poverty, focused especially on black Americans. That’s the equivalent of more than 140 Marshall Plans. As Samuel Kronen has shown, it requires the erasure from history of “the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, the Social Security Amendments of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Social Security Amendments of 1962, and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and on and on.” To prove his point, Stewart has to pretend LBJ never existed. That’s how utterly lost he now is.
Stewart then used crude metrics of inequality to argue, Kendi-style, without any evidence, that the only thing that can possibly explain racial inequality today in America is still “white supremacy.” Other factors — concentrated poverty, insanely high rates of crime and violence, acute family breakdown, a teen culture that equates success with whiteness, lack of affordable childcare — went either unmentioned or openly mocked as self-evident expressions of bigotry. He then equated formal legal segregation with voluntary residential segregation, as if Jim Crow were still in force. And he straw-manned the countering argument thus: white America believes that African-Americans are “solely responsible for their community’s struggles.”
I don’t know anyone who believes that. I sure don’t. It’s much more complex than that. And it’s that complexity that some of us are insisting on — and that Stewart wants to dismiss out of hand in favor of his own Manichean moral preening. His final peroration ended thus: “America has always prioritized white comfort over black survival.” Note: always. There has been no real progress; white people have never actually listened to a black person; America is irredeemably racist. Those fucking white men, Lincoln and LBJ, never gave a shit.
At that point, it became clear that Stewart was not conducting a televised debate, but initiating a struggle session. The point of the session was not to discuss anything, but to further enforce the dogma he had pronounced. So I found myself in the equivalent of one of those workplace indoctrination seminars — in which any disagreement is regarded as a form of “hate” or “ignorance.” But worse: I was in a struggle session with a live mob sitting in, cheering and jeering, which Stewart led and orchestrated. For good measure, Stewart called me a racist and told me I was not “living in the same fucking country as we are,” and went on to angrily call me a “motherfucker.”
I’m a big boy, and smiled through these assaults, but it does strike me as astounding that someone who once insisted that he believed in good-faith debates and not circus-like theater, someone who postured as open-minded, and disdainful of silly political grandstanding, behaved this unprofessionally. Stewart’s show made the old Carlson-Begala Crossfire seem like a model of substantive and elevated debate.
Is there something worth salvaging from the ghastly experience? On reflection, I think so. The entire dynamic of the show mirrored, it seems to me, the dynamic of the imposition of critical race theory across our society. You can see the technique everywhere. You start with the obscenity of slavery; you talk constantly of history; you lay out Reconstruction, lynching, Jim Crow, segregation and the other brutalities of the past. So far, so good. That’s vital work — and we should pay tribute and close attention to it. But the point of CRT is not to educate people about how appallingly African-Americans were once treated in this country, to construct an account of the progress since then, to note the Americans of all races who helped make a difference, and then to propose specific policies that might help move us further forward, into a more perfect union.
No, the whole point is to insist that this history is still the reality, that the structure of American society is no different in kind than in 1619, and that its democracy was designed from the beginning to brutalize non-whites forever. This is what we’re debating. No one is trying to minimize the pain of black suffering over the centuries, or debate whether systemic racism existed in America. Of course it did. And it lasted a hell of a long time. What we’re debating is how much those previous systems — repealed in their entirety nearly 60 years ago — explains resilient inequality today.
So when I asked Stewart to delineate “structural racism,” he reflexively listed a bunch of “systems” that no longer exist: post-war redlining, the GI bill, and so on. I fumbled in response, to my shame. That’s what happens when you’re rattled and tired and not prepped for an inquisition. But my core point is that in America in 2022, the only formal legal systems that openly advocate race discrimination are discriminating in favor of African-Americans, not against them. Affirmative action was only supposed to be a temporary diversion from liberal principles. It’s now a permanent system of race discrimination to favor blacks over every other demographic, disproportionately harming Asian-Americans. The federal government now enforces it across every department.
And even with past systems, the debate about their impact is still a live one. Take racial redlining. This profoundly hurt African-Americans moving out of the South. But class mattered a lot too. Does Stewart know that 85 percent of households in redlined areas were occupied by whites? Or that the infamous maps with red areas probably had nothing to do with the problem? Or that, even if you go by those maps, the picture today is much more complicated than Stewart would ever acknowledge:
[About 11 million Americans] live in once-redlined areas, according to the latest population data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2017). This population is majority-minority but not majority-Black, and, contrary to conventional perceptions, Black residents also do not form a plurality in these areas overall. The Black population share is approximately 28%, ranking third among the racial groups who live in formerly redlined areas, behind white and Latino or Hispanic residents.
Or take the strength of white supremacy in the early 20th century, later overcome by the Civil Rights Movement. You’d expect to see terrible data for black family life in the dark days of white supremacist America under Jim Crow, with only a resurgence of wealth and stability after civil rights took hold. In reality, we see the opposite: real progress for African-Americans before the 1960s:
[B]etween 1940 and 1960, the percentage of black families with income below the poverty level was almost cut in half, from 87 percent to 47 percent. In key skilled trades, the income of blacks relative to whites more than doubled between 1936 and 1959, while black income rose absolutely and relative to white income across the board from 1939 to 1960.
This, more than anything, speaks to the incredible resilience of black Americans in the face of terrible state-sanctioned oppression. Along those lines, Coleman Hughes adds:
Black women, too, saw their incomes grow at a faster rate than white women [between 1939 and 1960]. Baradaran makes the same mistake in her description of life for blacks in the 1940s and 50s: “poverty led to institutional breakdown, which led to more poverty.” But between 1940 and 1960 the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent, before any significant civil rights gains were made.
Or take the GI Bill, which Stewart repeatedly pointed to as a mechanism for systemic racism. Again, it’s complicated:
[Suzanne] Mettler contends that African-American veterans widely benefited from the G.I. Bill’s education and vocational benefits, even if the housing loan provision had been implemented in a discriminatory and exclusionary manner. She expands this finding by explaining that black veterans who used the G.I. Bill, like their white counterparts, were more involved in civic and political organizations, but they were also more likely to be active in organizations involved in civil rights issues.
Read more about that scholarly debate — and it is a debate — here.
Or take the impact of family structure. A very solid finding in social science is that the key ingredient for success in America is being raised by two parents in the home, and getting married. It logically follows that when 84 percent of Asian kids grow up in a two-parent household, and only 33 percent of black kids do, you don’t need some abstract notion of “white supremacy” to explain why Asian-Americans, even the poorest, have sailed past African-Americans in educational success.
Is the poor family structure itself caused by the impact of white supremacy? The data show that the black family was actually more intact before the Civil Rights Movement than after it. And marriage in general was more valued:
From 1890 through 1940, black women tended to marry earlier than white women did…. In 1950, black women aged 40–44 were actually more likely to have ever married than were white women of the same age. Racial differences in marriage remained modest as recently as 1970, when 94.8 percent of white women and 92.2 percent of black women had ever been married.
And again, the importance of family structure isn’t limited to black Americans, of course:
Being raised in a married-couple household led the poverty rate for black children to go down 73 percent compared to mother-only households and 67 percent compared to father-only households. And as evidence of the power of family structure to transcend race, 31 percent of white children raised in mother-only households live in poverty, versus just 12 percent of black children living with their married parents. That is a stunning realization.
Being married brings you into a higher wealth bracket, with pooled earnings — which also accounts for some of the wealth gap. Age also matters for stats like median earnings. As Glenn Loury puts it, “Citing only the median in debates about the racial wealth gap … suggests that the wealth gap is more pervasive than it appears.” The median white American, for example, is 44 and married, whereas the median black American is 34 and single. That’s worthwhile context.
It’s also worth noting that in a country that Stewart calls “white supremacy,” legal immigrants are overwhelmingly of color. By 2065, Pew estimates, nonwhites will account for 80 percent of all immigrants. Among federal employees, about 20 percent are black. If this is evidence of a country defined by “systemic racism,” then I’m a heterosexual.
I raise these points not to argue against the reality of racism today; it’s still among us, of course. It’s just far, far less common than in the past. In 1958, for example, four percent of Americans approved of marriage between blacks and whites; today, it’s 94 percent. If you think that’s evidence of the permanence of “white supremacy,” I don’t know what to tell you. I’m also not denying persistent wealth and educational gaps. But let’s not go overboard in our gloom. In 2019, the black unemployment rate and black poverty rate reached all-time lows. (For more optimism, read these comprehensive pieces by Coleman Hughes and Wilfred Reilly.)
Nor do I want to ignore the historical legacy of public and private discrimination. I’m just saying any explanation for racial disparities today is much more complex than simply intoning “white supremacy,” and implicitly dismissing any notion of other factors, or any black agency at all.
And if we want to actually tackle tangible disparities, we need to get concrete and pragmatic. How do we reduce crime in poor black neighborhoods? How do we help foster black fatherhood? How do we better support black single moms financially? How important is childcare? How much more should we invest in schooling, and what new creative solutions should we try? For me, the most compelling moment on Stewart’s show was when he asked his guests for solutions. They had nothing, except blandishments, or more “conversations” with white people. One even said we need a new Marshall Plan, forgetting we have already had the equivalent of 140 of them!
So what exactly is driving the popular attachment to these ahistorical racial phantasms, especially among wealthy white lefties like Jon Stewart? Again, I think one guest on the show was instructive. Stewart invited on, and fawned over, a woman named Lisa Bond, who runs an organization called Race2Dinner. She charges white women $2,500 per dinner to be harangued for their racism. And if you believe, as I and the vast majority of Americans do, that racism is a pejorative generalization about a whole group of people solely because of their skin color, Lisa Bond is unequivocably a racist — and a sexist. She said the following on the air in front of Stewart:
I did not come on this show to argue with another white man. That’s one of the reasons we don’t even engage with white men at Race2Dinner, because quite honestly if white men were going to do something about racism, you had 400 years. You could have done it.
When I tried to explain that I immigrated in 1984, and that a white man in 2022 cannot possibly be held responsible for something that happened four centuries ago, she replied: “I’m going to shut you down.” Stewart was enthralled. Then she spelled out exactly what she meant:
All white people do this. I don’t care if we say we’re Abolitionists, I don’t care if we say we’re Progressive, I don’t care if we are literally members of the KKK. Every single white person upholds these systems and structures of white supremacy, and we have got to talk about it.
This is the poisonous heart of CRT: that white people, by virtue of merely existing, are all morally problematic and always will be. Even if all the systems have been repealed. Even if you’d never racially discriminate yourself. Even if you spent your life fighting racism. That is why Bond called the Abolitionist movement indistinguishable in terms of its racism from the KKK! Why? Because whites are only ever whites.
Absorb that for a moment. This foul race essentialism, this view of white Americans as a single, undifferentiated blob of hate existing through the centuries as a force for the oppression of non-whites is simply the inverse of the old racism. It’s replacing hatred of blacks with hatred of whites; it’s replacing discrimination against blacks with discrimination against whites and Asians and others. It’s being used to make even more money for rich white people, to provide some elite whites with a weapon to destroy their career rivals, and to help build a new racial spoils system that leaves any notion of colorblindness or individual rights behind. (And the bigotry is palpable. When I spoke of the need to help a generation hobbled by absent fathers, high crime, and deep poverty, Lisa Bond responded: “Like you care about black kids.” There is no ad hominem these fanatics won’t stoop to.)
Is that a way out of where we are? Or is it, in fact, a fast way back to where we started?
One more thing: the trope of a malign racial force existing through history across time and space is one Jon Stewart might have once recognized before he joined the woke cult. I wonder what he would have said if someone had come on his old show and said, “I did not come on this show to argue with a Jew,” or “every single Jew upholds these systems,” or it doesn’t matter what a Jew’s politics are, he’s still a Jew, and therefore a racist. What if she had bragged that her organization wouldn’t even engage with Jews because they were so toxic. And what if that person had looked straight at a Jewish guest of Stewart’s when she said it? What would he have said?
Somehow I don’t think it would be: “If I could finger snap, I would finger snap right now.”
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New On The Dishcast: Fiona Hill
She was an intel analyst under Bush and Obama and then served under Trump as senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Currently a senior fellow at Brookings, her new book is “There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century.” She also co-authored a book about the Russian president called “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”
For two clips of my convo with Fiona — on why a self-reliant country would pick a tyrannical ruler in Trump, and on the pathos of leaving your hometown for more opportunity — head to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to a handful of dissents over my latest column on the return of Russian imperialism. (Most of you were upset over the inclusion of one word: “Israel.”)
Also, a new transcript just dropped, this time with Cornel West — who believes, unlike Jon Stewart and his panelists, that “we’ve got to fight the notion that whiteness is reducible to white supremacy.”
Dissents Of The Week: Israel An Ally Of Russia??
This week’s reader dissents are over on the pod page, since we ran out of room on this page. (Ditto for “In the ‘Stacks” and the next installment of “The View From Your Window Contest.”) As always, keep the dissents coming: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window
St. Andrews, Scotland, 5.40 pm. (Fiona Hill’s alma mater)
Money Quotes For The Week
“The former president of the United States just asked a brutal dictator who is destroying cities and killing civilians in an illegal and barbarous war to help him dig up dirt on a political opponent. I told you: there is no bottom,” - David Corn.
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Mental Health Break
A phenomenal timelapse of blooming flowers:
A happy subscriber writes:
Forget about Putin (for the moment) the Aurora Timelapse you posted for your latest Mental Health Break was spectacular. I love your MHBs. Do you have a score of leprechauns in your basement reviewing YouTube for content?
Just Bodenner. See you next Friday.