Posts Tagged ‘Pundits and Comedians’

The Rumble in the Air Conditioned Auditorium 2012: O’Reilly vs. Stewart (review)

October 17, 2012

The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium:  O’Reilly vs. Stewart 2012

A Review

 

 

When I realized that I was one of the few people who had actually managed to watch the entire debate when it was broadcast live, I decided I should write something about it in my blog for the benefit of those who didn’t get to see it.  But then I couldn’t get it to download or to re-stream, and I hadn’t taken notes during the first showing, so I waited until I could watch it again.

First, let me provide a little background for anyone who might read this and not know what the heck I’m talking about.  On October 6, 2012, FOX News pundit Bill O’Reilly and The Daily Show’s fake news anchor Jon Stewart held a live debate in the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University.  Anyone expecting a real spoof of politics and debate would probably have been disappointed; while both disputants showed considerable humor, the debate was real.  It was moderated by E. D. Hill, currently an anchor for CNN and formerly a reporter for FOX News, who seemed determined to keep a tighter reign than did Jim Lehrer at the Presidential debate three days earlier.  The first hour was done in (relatively) formal style, with both disputants standing at podiums responding to questions posed by the moderator, as well as replying to and rebutting one another.  Following precedent established with candidate Michael Dukkakis in the 1988 Presidential debates, the shorter disputant was allowed a boost; O’Reilly is somewhere between a foot to a person taller than Stewart, so he had a powered platform behind his podium to allow him to appear as tall or taller than O’Reilly at will.

It would be pointless to simply describe the debate, and beyond my powers of recall, and also a bit immoral.  The interview is still for sale at $4.95 (go to http://www.therumble2012.com/index.html for details), and half the profit goes to charity; so telling all the jokes would possibly spoil the experience for anyone who might purchase the download, and if it served as an alternative to purchasing then it would deprive those charities as well.  So I will confine myself to an evaluation of the three major participants, and their positions.

E. D. Hill took her role about as seriously as she should.  Yes, she introduced Jon Stewart as “a hobbit-like 5’7” tall,” but she also posed the questions and sought to hold the disputants to the time allotted for each topic.  This was before the Vice Presidential debate, but after Jim Lehrer had been trampled by Romney and Obama both; she was more assertive than Lehrer and perhaps less so than Martha Raddatz.

O’Reilly and Stewart showed their moderator more respect than did Romney and Obama, even when mocking her; in the context of the “real” debate O’Reilly’s expressions of contempt seemed more like parody than disrespect.  Both of them ignored the first question in order to give their opening statements; and in many ways I found the opening statements the most telling part of the evening.  O’Reilly is a staunch conservative, but is also a fairly independent mind.  He did not attempt to ignore or support Romney’s “47%” statement, but instead modified it; and that modification lies at the heart of his overall position.  O’Reilly stated that in fact there is about 20% of the nation who truly are lazy, feel entitled to free stuff, and couldn’t care less about the consequences for others.  He also said that number was growing, and that this represents a significant danger to our nation.  His primary concern, therefore, is irresponsibility.  He feels that Democrats should stop whining about Bush, who has been out of office for four years; after the first two years, you need to own up to your own responsibility for the state of affairs.  He claimed that liberals are fostering an entitlement mindset, and that it is necessary to curtail government services to force everyone to take personal responsibility.  Taking from the rich to give to the poor means taking from the responsible people to give to those who might not be responsible; and if the poor are to be helped, those that have should take responsibility to do so without being compelled by the government.  If the government gets involved, it will simply foster irresponsibility while delivering goods inefficiently and for political ends, and ultimately destroy the very producers it was counting on to fund things.

Stewart’s statement did not reply either to Ms. Hill or to Mr. O’Reilly.    Instead, he presented a long monologue describing “Bullshit Mountain.”  Its inhabitants, he said, live in a world where normal rules of facticity and logic do not apply.  On Bullshit Mountain, everything was wonderful until about four years ago, when a Kenyan-Fascist-Muslim-Socialist-Communist-Radical Racist was elected President and began destroying everything.  Before Obama, Congress and the President were bipartisan and effective and the economy was solid and we were respected in the world and every individual wanted nothing more than to work hard and lift himself up by his own bootstraps, and he could; now, totally because of one man, we’re polarized and paralyzed and lazy and worthless.  The real problem, Stewart argued, is a failure of our problem-solving mechanisms and the ability of the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain to perceive or acknowledge reality.

In short, the two men were talking across each other.  O’Reilly was arguing ethics and Stewart epistemology; O’Reilly was arguing values and virtues while Stewart was arguing facts and history and practical solutions to the nation’s problems.  When they began to give real solutions, the two actually were fairly close on a number of issues.  O’Reilly was asked about partisanship, and blamed “haters and assassins” in the media who know they can make a lot of money simply by saying inflammatory things, regardless of truth.  He didn’t name any names and didn’t state any one ideology to which the haters belong.  I’m sure Stewart would agree; he has said much the same thing.  O’Reilly was specific enough to denounce the people who hate Obama and think he is evil and traitorous; he claimed himself to like Obama, while thinking his policies are misguided.  In this, he is clearly distancing himself from Hannity, Limbaugh and most other right-wing pundits, as well as the left-wingers he would describe as equally close-minded.  Stewart would agree with O’Reilly that the profit motive in news broadcasting has created a toxic atmosphere, where truth is second to showmanship and illuminating minds less important than enflaming passions.  Likewise, both men support our military and have taken concrete steps to help the troops in the field and after their return.  When I was a child, a “liberal” was someone who referred to our own soldiers as child-killers and rapists.  By those standards, there are almost no “liberals” left.  There are definite differences between the two; O’Reilly supports trickle-down economics, while Stewart supports a single-payer medical system.  But compared to the ideological schism of the 1960’s, today we hardly seem to be divided at all.  Both liberals and conservatives are patriotic, and at least some on both sides are God-fearing people.  Many of the liberal ideas of today, like the individual mandates in the Affordable Health Care act, were conservative ideas yesterday.

But the real difference between them was their agendas.  O’Reilly wanted to talk about values; on those grounds, he and Stewart were not identical but were not very far apart.  Stewart wanted to treat O’Reilly as “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain,” as if he were identical with everyone else at FOX News and the right-wing echo chamber.  O’Reilly sought to distance himself from some elements of the Right, but Stewart wanted to have that conversation and used O’Reilly as his target.  Stewart’s claim is that the Right exaggerates the problems America faces while simplifying the solution.  While America faces serious problems, they are the same sorts of problems we have always faced:  economic challenges, enemies abroad, questions of social justice and the nature of the social contract.  We have always had a large “entitlement” culture, from the time Europeans arrived in America and thought they were entitled to land occupied by other people.    But the Right speaks as if this never happened before, as if the world has gone completely to Hell just in the last few years, as if we are two weeks away from complete national collapse; and that if we simply give tax cuts to millionaires all these problems will be solved.  It is a combination of factual falsehoods about the past and present, and dubious (or magical) predictions and hopes for the future.

This strikes me as typical of the political debates today.  The so-called Left talks about solving problems, based on what has and what has not worked in the past.  Paraphrasing Stewart, I’m not for smaller or bigger government; I’m for better government.  The “Left” is the party that believes the government can solve problems, and that its job is to solve problems.  For this reason, Stewart emphasizes the need to know facts, to face facts and to act on them.  The Right is not really interested in the facts; the primary problem is not a problem of information but of values.  If we have the right values, we will solve our problems; therefore, we should have good values and then believe those truth claims that support our values.  O’Reilly is not really “the mayor of Bullshit Mountain.”  He does seem to choose to ignore the past failures of supply-side economics because it is most consistent with his ideal of individual responsibility; but in many cases, he is more interested in facts than many conservative pundits, and he is quite aware of this.  The leading citizens of Bullshit Mountain are people like “the assassins and haters,” birthers, paranoid conspiracy theorists, and the congressmen who sit on the House Science Committee while disbelieving science, and openly state that the reason they reject science is because it contradicts their values; for example:

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell,” U.S Rep. Paul Broun said in an address last month at a banquet organized by Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia. “And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”[1]

 

It’s not that he has different evidence; it’s that he’s chosen to ignore evidence.  Like a good postmodern nihilist, he’s choosing which language-game he wants to play; and it isn’t the Science Game.  He is choosing what will count as believable based on what supports his religious values, not on the laws of cause and effect that govern in science or in normal daily experience, or the opinions of the vast majority of scientists.  That is the real key to “Bullshit Mountain.”  In Harry Frankfurt’s definitive tome on the subject, “bullshit” is defined as the assertion of facts in order to win arguments or status or some other reason, but regardless of whether what is said is true or not.  It isn’t a lie; the liar knows what the truth is but seeks to hide it for some reason.  The mistaken person thinks he or she is asserting the truth, but is simply wrong.  The bullshitter doesn’t care what the truth is.  I’m not sure what Paul Broun is engaged in qualifies as “bullshit.”  Is he trying to persuade, or to score points?  Or is he engaged in some other, completely unrelated activity?  It does seem clear that he is not making his judgment that these scientific foundational beliefs are “lies” is based on his superior knowledge of physics or biology; it is based on a theological/dogmatic judgment.  He wouldn’t say he was oblivious to truth; he would say that science is oblivious to real truth, ethical-dogmatic truth, while he is concerned with these important truths.  He wouldn’t say he is uninterested in solving problems facing the nation and world; he would say the most important problems are not nuts-and-bolts questions like what government policies will give the best possible lives to the most people, but rather the question of how to please God.  When Pat Robertson blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on feminism and Hurricane Katrina on legalized abortion, he clearly had a different strategy for solving the problems of protecting our nation from terrorism and natural disasters.  While the “liberal” believes that these things happen for strictly natural reasons and can only be addressed by a government that is robust enough to muster the physical resources required, Rev. Robertson believes these problems have a supernatural cause and can only be fixed supernaturally.

Stewart appears to believe the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain are all willfully deluded for ideological gain; the world was wonderful, Obama ruined it, regardless of all possible facts to the contrary, so let’s get rid of Obama.  O’Reilly does not seem to be that deluded.  He doesn’t think Obama is a Kenyan or an al Qaeda infiltrator or anything of that sort.  He does have economic views that are disputable, but not insane.  He does believe small government and individual liberty are better.  But his initial impulse seems to be the moral concern.  That was his opening point and his recurring theme.  In that his primary interest is moral rather than factual or pragmatic, he has some kinship to the inhabitants of Bullshit Mountain.  And he does work at FOX News.  Stewart is more concerned with establishing a shared reality, something he quaintly calls “facts.”  His argument with the Right is not whether or not America is worth loving.  To some extent, it is over just how to love America best.  But really, Stewart has made a value judgment, the judgment that facts matter and that objective reality trumps what we think “ought” to be true.  Again, when I was a kid in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the notion that there was one reality which we all had to accept was considered a conservative notion; but now, it is the liberals who seem to be demanding everyone accept “the facts” and the conservatives who say, “I have my truths and you have yours.”

I cannot end without remarking on the greatest oddity of this debate:  that it took place.  Technically, it is true that Bill O’Reilly is part of the “entertainment” programming on FOX News.  But that is still FOX News.  Jon Stewart is on Comedy Central.  The fact that these two are treated as somehow equivalent is truly bizarre.  The line between “fake” news and “real” news has been obliterated.  O’Reilly has a good sense of humor, but he is professionally described as a “pundit.”  The dictionary definitions of “pundit” are either an expert, or someone who speaks authoritatively as if he or she were an expert (as when a college dropout with a history of drug abuse becomes a pundit and an authority figure).  In O’Reilly’s case, he is educated and intelligent, though not really an “expert” on all the subjects he comments on.  But he is not a “comedian.”  A comedian is one whose job is not to be right, or to be authoritative, but simply to be funny.  Somehow, right-wing pundits working for news organizations (whether FOX News, talk radio or both) came to be seen as morally and functionally equivalent to comedians, without anyone reflecting on the fact that the latter are professional fools while the former supposedly are not.  When Rush Limbaugh is criticized for saying something stupid and sexist, he is defended by supporters who say, “Well, look what Bill Maher said.”  An honorary member of the Republican Congressional Caucus, whose bust is in the Missouri State Hall of Fame, called by Ronald Reagan “the Number One voice for conservatism,” among his many accolades and awards, more powerful than many Republican elected leaders, who have more than once been forced to publicly apologize after getting on his wrong side—-this man is compared to a stand-up comedian and the male lead in “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.”  This is considered a defense!  When one praises or defends one’s “pundit, i.e. expert and/or authority” by comparing him or her to a “comedian, i.e. a professional entertainer who uses various verbal and physical means to be amusing,” one really insults the pundit.  Or rather, one reveals that we no longer draw a distinction between those who speak from authority and expertise versus those who speak from ignorance and foolishness.

The O’Reilly-Stewart debate did show that when ideological disputants are willing to attempt to find and abide by the same reality, and who are willing to respect their opponents and to laugh at themselves and admit at least some fallibility (in their allies if not in themselves), it is possible to have a civil and substantive discussion.  In that case, it might be able to find solutions to problems that give both sides what they need, at least sometimes.  As Stewart said, the problem-solving mechanisms of our society seem to be broken; but this debate showed that is possible to fix them.


[1] Dan Gilgoff, “Congressman Draws Fire for Calling Evolution, Big Bang ‘Lies from the Pit of Hell,”, CNN, 10/16.2012 (http://www.abc2news.com/dpp/news/national/congressman-draws-fire-for-calling-evolution-big-bang-lies-from-the-pit-of-hell)

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