The Conventional National Convention I

It convenes daily around the national water cooler.

“Where’s that?” you ask.

Why, one place is at what is fashioned, in the evenings during hard times, as the national hearth – the TV. Also, the newspapers, our more sober voice. And, of course, now, the blogosphere – the kids screaming and barking for attention.

All of it is the morning (actually, now, minute by minute) chatter about yester(to)day’s events. The media/press corps still holds center stage, with those obstreperous bloggers tossing barbs, and it is that core corps, especially, that makes up the CNC, the conventional national convention. Even when the members of this echo chamber think they are thinking outside the box, they are still thinking inside the bag.

A CNC Turning Center in the FAME Lab in the Le...
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The CNC is afflicted, riddled actually, with ontological arrogance. Ontological arrogance is the conviction that one’s perception of reality, one’s insight into the nature of things – one’s world view – is the essential insight, cutting though all the illusory layers of other apparent realities. People whose lives involve them in the harsher, even brutal, aspects of our existence – police, for instance – are particularly prone to the tendency. The physical world, because it is more readily apparent, always seems more real than other levels of reality, and the destruction of the physical world, its devastation, makes an impact like little else. “Don’t tell me what the world is,” might say the inner city, beat cop, who sees so much ugliness and death, “I see things you have no idea of. I know what the world really is.”

Journalists who cover war for too long are prone to ontological arrogance, though they will often recognize it as the wound that it is. Conservatives who think that liberals are softheaded (hey, they’re tough conservatives; don’t even speak of hearts) are prone to it too, as are righteous liberals who know that conservatives fail to see the essential, humane bonds of all sentient beings. Then there are the journalists, the press corps, especially those who cover politics. They are witness to everything: the lies, the hypocrisy, the opportunism, the corruption, the manipulations, the gaming of the system, the gaming of the gaming, the failure of idealism upon failure of idealism, the consequent and necessary rationalization and self-regard of the politicians, and the fundamental relationship, proven in continuing confirmation, between the material act and the constituent vote. Man, do political reporters know the world.

Don’t come to them with a new idea. They’ve seen it all.

Ontological arrogance is both a symptom and a cause. It presents, as the clinicians might say, always as some kind of arrogance, but arrogance itself is not always itself the cause. Paradoxically, sometimes fear is the cause – fear of the new. Paradoxically again, sometimes a literal small-mindedness is the cause: limited and sometimes mean vision that then presumes, arrogantly, to have encompassed all. Sometimes – often, actually – it is partisanship or ideological rigidity, the refusal to seriously consider hypotheses or genuinely entertain empathic thought experiments that assume for the trial a different vision of the subject. The ability of Newt Gingrich to use the word “anticolonial” as a damning pejorative – consider that for a moment – or of some people to snort with condescension at the historical plight of indigenous peoples are both examples of this form of ontological arrogance.

For the vanguard of the CNC, the mainstream media that are the public voice of conventionality (though, of course, it extends beyond them), even attempts at deeper analysis are confined to the box. Analysts may consider the size and shape of the box, the edges, the folds, those far-flung corners – muse momentarily with a wry sense of its mystery about what lies beyond the box – but their subject, their world, their expertise that sustains them (come on, let’s get back to it; let’s get real here) is the box. The commitment of those in the CNC to their expertise – expertise in the box, mind you – tends to make them rather knowingly skeptical of any outliers who may approach their cardboard universe. Thus, professional journalists famously opened their arms and eyes in a visionary welcome of the blogosphere.

Consider then, now, the case of Jon Stewart.

ST. PAUL, MN - SEPTEMBER 03:  Host Jon Stewart...
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Stewart began, simply, as a comedian. He has, as have other comedians before him, developed into a satirist, a supreme ironist.  Now satire is not simply, broadly, comedy. People who think they have reason to dislike, disdain, or distrust Stewart – people, for instance, too often the targets of his satire – commonly like to reduce him to simple comedian. He’s a court jester; how dare he pretend to the serious, the grave? But, of course, that is what satirists do – speak to the serious in comic tones that deflate it. It is a very grave business, death.

Some people have trouble with irony; they have irony-poor brains that no droll Geritol will reinvigorate. It just so happens – mind you, I simply report; affix me not with thy death stares – that many political conservatives suffer from this anemia of the inverse jollies. Oh, yes, they have the genuinely amusing P. J. O’Rourke and the now mostly bilious Dennis Miller (don’t even dare try to mention Ben Stein) and they cling to these few for dear humor. Many conservatives resent the ascendency of Stewart (and often discount his comedy) because, well, you know why – because they thinks he’s a liberal. He’s a comedian. Who does he think he is – Glenn Beck?

Unlike political conservatives, journalists tend to like Stewart and only begin to challenge him when he appears to be moving beyond what they think is his proper court jester sphere. He began that movement in his well-known appearance on CNN’s defunct Crossfire, where he initiated what has been his primary serious critique, not of any political idea itself, but of the character and quality of the media’s coverage of politics. Not only has Stewart appeared to move into the CNC’s territory, but he actually criticizes the way the CNC traverses it. This was the ostensible and prevalent focus of his Rally to Restore Sanity.

The response of the CNC to the rally, even before it took place, was typically conventional. No fewer than three Washington Post writers recommended that really be cancelled. Better than if I had composed it myself for representativeness was Anne Appelbaum.

I don’t know about you, but my heart sank when I read about Jon Stewart’s Million Moderate March, planned for the Mall next weekend. My heart sank further when I learned that liberal groups, lacking any better ideas, have decided to take this endeavor seriously. It’s bad enough that the only way to drum up enthusiasm for a “Rally to Restore Sanity” is to make it into a television comedian’s joke.

Applebaum dully boxes herself into the comedy and fails to even consider the intelligence behind sharp satire. Seek out, for example, Stewart’s interview several years ago of Ramesh Ponnuru, at the time of the publication of his disgraceful, The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life; look, for that matter, at Stephen Colbert’s “comic” interview of Julian Assange. No serious journalist anywhere came close to Stewart in revealing the not-so-shocking (given the book) mediocrity of Ponnuru’s mind and arguments; no one has so deftly punctured the hypocritical sanctimony of Assange as did Colbert. Ah, but they are just “comedians.” And “A Modest Proposal” was just an extended “joke” – or maybe one step higher: literature. But we are journalists. We cover the real world. Let’s get back to it. Are you a member of the club?

It seemed to some that Stewart was being disingenuous about his and Colbert’s D.C. rally. They are liberals and all this talk about the process was just a cover for a liberal response to the Tea Parties. To which my response, if true, would be “So what?” We have already had actors as senators, governors, and presidents. Comedians, particularly satirists, are in my experience generally intellectually superior to actors. What’s the problem? In Stewart’s case, it is that he is an unparalleled phenomenon.  There is no telling where he is going to take what he has become. The rally is just the latest development. I very much doubt he would ever consider running for office. What he does is much more fun than public office and is, frankly – this will rile the serious CNCs – a greater thing than becoming one more senator.

Stewart, like anyone, is capable of taking himself too seriously – despite his protestations – and losing sight of what he should be doing at any moment. He did not do that at the rally, which, by the way, had no meaningful social effect beyond its media half-life; he did do it when he interviewed Tony Blair a little while back, and had to go into overtime because as even Blair noted, Stewart did almost all of the talking. One truth that is slowly revealing itself about Stewart, though is that he isn’t as liberal as some people think, by which I mean he isn’t far Left, or someone, I suspect, who would call himself a “progressive.” If you watch the excerpt below of Rachel Maddow’s interview with him last week, in which they talk about George W. Bush, you will see that Stewart, despite the professional mockery he leveled at Bush in office, does not demonize him as so many on the Left do. Even while a satirist, maybe even because a satirist, Stewart has an artist’s sensibility: his impulse is not ideology, but empathy. He tries to enter Bush’s perspective.

Stewart has become what he has, and will take it wherever he does, because he is a man of unique abilities: a supremely talented comedian, a very intelligent man, and more. Time, as we all say, will tell. The one thing of which you can be certain is that no one in the CNC will see it coming, or even recognize it once it’s here.

AJA

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