30 Oct 2010 3:34 pm   //   Filed under: In the news, Media, TV

Some thoughts on the Jon Stewart speech

I just finished watching the broadcast of Comedy Central’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” from Washington D.C. I think a lot of people weren’t sure what to make of it (Is it serious of funny? Political or agnostic? Cynical or sincere?) but I thought of it as a smart marketing promotion for two very good TV shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. And as expected, the rally came off as a funny and well-produced live variety program.

The YouTube Moment came at the end, when Jon Stewart devoted about 10 or 15 minutes to a serious speech. He spoke about how, unlike what you see on cable TV news and in Washington politics, Americans are mostly people who work together to solve problems.

On a windblown stage on a sunny afternoon, Stewart tried to make himself the voice of reason in American media. I think he succeeded, but in doing so I’m worried he ignored the role that passion—irrational, rude, confrontational passion—plays in making American work.

During his speech, Stewart played some footage of cars lining up for the Holland Lincoln Tunnel and used it as a symbol for America: People of all different backgrounds lining up and taking their turns to get through the darkness. Stewart noted there is the occasional driver who comes up on the shoulder and cuts people off, but that person is rare and scorned—not hired as an analyst. Stewart identified two problems that cause people to mistrust their fellow “drivers”: Cable television and Washington politics. (Of course, Stewart owes his success to both. His show airs on cable, and a large part of his material comes from ribbing politicians.)

I get Stewart’s point about how we all need to respect one another’s differences. But is the Lincoln Tunnel the America we want? A nation sitting in traffic, waiting patiently in the face of problems? Or do we want a place where people get fired up? This country is not just about solving things. It’s about inventing things. Our greatest writers, architects, engineers and businesspeople did not just set out to make improvements, they set out to create something awesome, to get famous, to make money. Some of the most beloved Americans left behind a trail of hurt feelings and enemies. Thomas Edison did not wait patiently in line for cars at the tunnel. (OK, literally he took the train and the ferry over from Jersey, since the tunnel wasn’t built yet.) He behaved totally unreasonably and irrationally, screwing his investors, taking credit where it wasn’t earned, flattening his competitors, and in doing so managed to bring electric lights to the masses. If he had been a rational man, a large part of the American story would have unfolded more slowly.

Stewart’s call for reason is right on if we’re limiting the conversation to politics. Our political leaders have strayed into dangerous territory lately with statements that slander Muslims and immigrants. Cable news is bad for rational discourse (but probably no worse than the pamphlets, newspapers, rallies and party machines in the last century).

Outside of politics, though, there’s a need for irrational actors. If Stewart himself had followed his own advice—shown restraint, respected everyone—his career probably wouldn’t be anywhere near where it is now, and the millions of people who enjoy his entertainment would have missed out. Sometimes you have to piss people off to get stuff done. And when someone is a jerk to you in America, you sometimes have to be a jerk back.

Not that The Daily Show is any less funny or pointed when Jon Stewart acts righteous. The fact that Stewart can inspire this kind of rally, with this kind of high-quality conversation, is a testament to his skill as a thinker, orator and entertainer.

Update: Here’s a video of the speech: