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Jon Stewart’s return perpetuates ugly partisan politics

Liberals of a certain age are excited that Jon Stewart is back behind the desk at “The Daily Show.” Comedy Central executives likely are too, as the ratings for his first show on Monday, Feb. 12 represented the highest episode in nearly six years.

But I’m less ecstatic. A classic Stewart bit has a similar format. Stewart’s eyes widen, inviting his audience to wonder how conservatives can be so stupid or craven. And while Stewart has every right to profit from his role as satirist, the people most inclined to laugh along with him shouldn’t.

Here is why. Many factors contributed to the rise of ugly partisan politics. Stewart is one of them.

At one point, “The Daily Show” boasted 2.5 million viewers. In a 2009 poll by Time Magazine, Stewart came out as the most-trusted news anchor on television. 

People on the left are correct to document the damage that Fox News and similar outlets have done to the very concept of truth, but this same critical eye should also be focused on the ways that Stewart normalized mocking and humiliating political opponents for sport and profit. 

Fans of “The Daily Show” find catharsis in hearing their fears and concerns treated with humor. People with power do need to be held accountable, and Stewart’s form of satire is one way to do this. But I believe Stewart encourages knowingness and that this contributes, in its own way, to our toxic political and cultural climate. 

Knowingness is an intellectual vice that leads one to believe that they already know everything worth knowing. It leads to a profound lack of curiosity and prevents self-knowledge. 

Stewart is successful because he cultivates his audience’s knowingness. His audience is in on the joke, and everyone else is the butt of it. 

Part of Donald Trump’s appeal is that he refuses to be the butt of anyone’s joke. He is the attacker and protector. He owns the libs, and he promises to make the libs sorry for mocking his followers.

If Stewart didn’t cultivate this brand of knowingness, his audience would be more curious about why their fellow Americans choose to enlist in our military, risking their lives while serving the United States. They’d be more curious about why their fellow Americans find meaning in religion. They’d wonder why someone could abhor racism and yet still be attracted to Republican values instead of assuming that Republicans are racists.

Liberals must mobilize against Christian Nationalism, but they don’t need to mock Christians. Liberals must mobilize against hate and intolerance, but they don’t need to knowingly mock people they disagree with.

Call me no fun. Say that I lack a sense of humor. But I think we are better off without Stewart’s dismissive knowingness, especially as we approach a profoundly consequential election that will bring out the worst that Americans are capable of.

For alternatives to Stewart, consider the Braver Angels movement, which empowers us to find ways to humanize people we disagree with. As Eboo Patel argues, we need to build common ground to save democracy. We need to support efforts like Education for American Democracy that advocate robust civic education. 

Smug knowingness doesn’t make someone want to learn from you. Mockery only pushes people further away. If we are serious about defending democracy, we shouldn’t waste our time convincing ourselves of how much better we are than the people we disagree with or fear. 

Stewart’s brand of satire gives undecided and independent voters a reason to cast a vote for Trump. So, if Trump’s reelection is not your desired outcome, then it is in your best interest to avoid Stewart and the intellectual vices he engenders.

Nothing on cable television cultivates the intellectual virtues we need to defend democracy. Instead of nostalgically going along with this attempt to make “The Daily Show” great again, we should put all our energy into building the country we all deserve.

We should take an interest in learning about what motivates and concerns our neighbors. Suspending a knowing attitude, we might be surprised to learn that the people we are most inclined to make the butt of our jokes also care deeply about our shared fate. The task ahead is learning how to work together and against the agents of division, even those we find especially funny.    

Jeff Frank is professor and department chair of education at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

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