The Problem with Jon Stewart

Collage by canvasgraphicdesign.com

On March 28th, Jon Stewart, host of “The Problem’’, invited three guests to give a commentary on the current status of race relations in America. The guests were Chip Gallagher (Sociology Professor at La Salle University), Lisa Bond (host of Race2Dinner) and Andrew Sullivan (a longtime journalist and public thinker).

It is worth noting that the panel invited to discuss race relations in America were all white — and Jon Stewart, preempting this observation, decided to breech that topic himself, by declaring that it was in the advice of Toni Morrison — “It’s time for white people to talk and figure some things out.”

I found this to be a convenient excuse for the obvious oversight of not having a single black guest — but I digress. The panel is all-white. Didn’t have to be, it just was. And not just white, but “alabaster”, as Jon Stewart quipped, reminding us again why Jon Stewart makes the big bucks. And had Jon Stewart assembled a panel of all black guests, what are the chances he would make a quip about it “bein’ like a bbq up in here?” Not a chance!

And thus the conversation is poisoned from the get go. Not because he made a white joke — I have heard them, I can make them, I can make fun of white people better than Jon Stewart. What we have instead is a meta-look inside the infrastructure of the types of “uncomfortable conversations about race” we are supposed to have. One can sense, in retrospect, that the conversation went according to plan — as if, by design, the dissenting voice would expose proof of its own fragility. In plainer words, Andrew Sullivan was nothing but bait.

The rules of those uncomfortable conversations are silent, but are rigorously enforced. One rule not said aloud, but readily apparent, goes something like this:

1. Any judgment, critique, or accusation towards white people must be confirmed as the truth, and in no way should black people be judged, critiqued, or accused of anything whatsoever.

2. The “uncomfortable” part of the conversation is meant for white people. If a black person could be said to feel uncomfortable, somewhere, somehow, the conversation went wrong.

The line about the panel being “alabaster” sets this already existing tone with an added punch — white people are expected to laugh at themselves, self-flagellate themselves, and grovel before each other at every turn. We see this trend in culture from a broader perspective, but for a short segment of only twenty minutes, this fashionable dynamic becomes more dense, more clear, and is able to be witnessed in much greater relief.

I am not offended by “alabaster” — I am concerned that Jon Stewart is simultaneously trying to do his bit and have a serious discussion. What is the point of calling out the glaring “whiteness” of the panel you, yourself, decided to invite?

As the conversation gets started, Jon Stewart sets up a strange consideration: “I think at its core, I think white people put blame on black people for the position that they are in.”

It is a very strange way of setting up the conversation — could it not be said, with a sliver of more relevance, that it is many black people who place blame on white people for the position that black people are in?

For one, “blame” is not an appropriate wording for when someone is said to suffer from their own actions — no doubt, Jon Stewart disagrees with this, as would many, but why are we suddenly using the term “blame” when in any other context we would be saying “held accountable”? (Refer to Rule #1)

This switcheroo is subtle, but it is definitely there.

Jon Stewart then brings Chip Gallagher into the conversation — followed by another joke at the name chip, which he invariably laughs at. For a few moments, Chip Gallagher and Lisa Bond both give a relatively accurate assessment of the white populace mindset — that the slate has been wiped clean, that they do not see color as an impediment to success, that America is, in essence, a meritocracy.

When Lisa Bond begins to speak next, we are treated to the familiar refrain about white supremacy, upholding those systems, and that, yes, all white people are racist and are upholding these racist structures every day…

At first glance, this might be vaguely considered a conversation, but when Andrew Sullivan begins to speak, it is clear he is having trouble expressing himself and clear that he does not know where to start. For Andrew Sullivan, the foundation of the conversation is already rotten, and he has no idea where it is advisable to step. In my opinion, questioning the premises of the conversation is exactly what Andrew Sullivan should have done, and the conversation finally took a step in the direction of friction.

Andrew Sullivan is now in the unenviable position of having to defend America from accusations of white supremacy to an audience hostile to that viewpoint, and offering up what should have been seen as a meaningful statistic — 84% of immigrants are non-white, quite the feat for a nation built on white supremacy. But, anyway, statistics rarely persuade anyone to shift from an identity.

Andrew also revealed that he himself was an immigrant, which Jon Stewart dismisses, on the grounds that “you chose to come here”:

Jon Stewart: America did not start that way for black people… They were kidnapped, raped, beaten and taken here… so for you to say “this is a magnificent place with no racism” is, I think, more of a foundational lie, more than anything else.

And with that, we are witness to either Jon Stewart’s well-intentioned but severely inaccurate rendering of Andrew Sullivan’s intended remarks, or his betrayal of journalistic standards — to twist Andrew Sullivan’s words to mean that takes effort, and tantamount to lying. No fair assessment of Andrew Sullivan’s remarks could be described in such a way.

And the conversation flails around in a downward spiral from there…

At the 6:44 minute mark of the discussion, we see less of a conversation and more of a pile on. Andrew Sullivan has been ambushed, in a sense. Any effort to remain an unbiased host who conducts an honest conversation was noticeably absent from Jon Stewart, who also took up much precious time juggling his moral-grandstanding with his comedy routine. This becomes a problem when serious points become obscured by humor and panelists are not sure what exactly to respond to.

And I am afraid that, from that moment, a play-by-play analysis of the panel discussion would be redundant — the conversation goes so sideways that it loses sight of itself. Andrew tries to press Jon on the specifics of the systems and he fails. If Andrew was not in fact ambushed, he was certainly not, for whatever reason, contributing in his full capacity. The conversation among the four turns to acknowledging the awful history of America, and where we can go from here. . .

As the ideological divide becomes readily apparent, Jon Stewart then goes on to say “Andrew, you are not living on the same planet that we are” and with that one line, the gloves have come off, the tension bubble has burst, and the mud can finally begin to fling.

Just at the 10:00 minute mark, Lisa Bond, too, has taken the gloves off.

As Andrew tries to explain the feelings of many white people, and how they are responding to an exponential increase in anti-white hate, and how those feelings will develop in a backlash, Lisa Bond can hardly sit still. The ever prudent warning from Andrew Sullivan is spoken over, interrupted, and ignored.

Lisa Bond: This is what happens when white people don’t talk about it. This is what happens when you have racist, dog whistle tropes like this that actually perpetuate and perpetuate and perpetuate…

She continues with this line —

Lisa Bond:I did not come here to argue with another white man. That’s one of the reasons we do not engage with white men at Race2Dinner.

Now this comment from Lisa Bond could have very well triggered a response from the other two panelists, who are also white men, but dopey and limp as they are, they could not muster a pushback. Par for the course for the self-flagellating types. Lisa Bond, who sits dispassionately, is a white woman, but one can sense she puts an effort into displaying herself with the gravitas of a black woman. Her disdain for the white male is palpable. Making it abundantly clear that she holds all white people accountable for the continuing of racial disparities, she also betrays her own logic. If all white people are inherently guilty, what makes her better than any other white person?

One can gather that she dominates the white moral hierarchy by using folks like Andrew Sullivan as bait and prey — thus highlighting where she sits on the white moral spectrum.

At the 16:00 minute mark, the discussion comes around to an important statistic not yet fully ingrained in the American mindset. That is, the role of the family, the two-parent home, and the data aligning family stability with a statistically positive life outcome. Andrew Sullivan tries yet again to bring some real world understanding into a complex conversation, and yet again is completely derailed — for the sitting panel, everything must come back to Rule #1 and Rule #2.

As the conversation surrounding family, education and childcare progresses, Andrew Sullivan utters the magic word: “culture”.

Jon Stewart’s face contorts to produce a look of gleeful attentiveness, eager to watch Andrew Sullivan fully explain himself. Jon Stewart knows that Andrew Sullivan is about to break Rule #1 and Jon Stewart could not be any happier about it.

By referencing culture, Andrew Sullivan is referring to the collapse of the family unit, the absentee father, the decline in family values, which, however noteworthy, has been in decline for half a century and has specifically led to disastrous effects for black people in the United States. It is also worth mentioning that these statistical problems which plague the black American communities (marriage rate, employment rate, out-of-wedlock rate) were much less of an issue in previous generations, long before the civil rights movement and when racial discrimination and anti-black sentiment were much stronger currents in American social dynamics. This gives us pause when blaming racist structures, specifically when compared to black immigrants (most notably, Nigerians) who grew up absent from modern day black American culture, and who also routinely surpass white people in meaningful categories like education and income.

Culture unfortunately has proven to be quite relevant and impactful on young adults, but it feels too much like blame, too much like racism to be sketched out fully — Jon Stewart circles back to the familiar refrain, all but daring Andrew to break rule # 1, so that Jon Stewart can expose his guest Andrew Sullivan as a racist.

Then something quite eventful happens, and it seemed to escape the panelists and the viewers — Jon Stewart betrays his own logic:

Jon Stewart (to Andrew): You seem to think that there is something about black culture that is uniquely destructive to family. Why?

This line doesn’t do what he thinks it does, and Jon Stewart falls victim to what all ideologues fall victim to — their own logic eventually does betray them.

According to Jon Stewart’s ideology, it is completely permissible to suggest that there is something about white culture that is uniquely destructive to the black family, but it is racist to suggest that there may be something about black culture that is uniquely destructive to the black family.

How could one hold both of those ideas simultaneously without seeing the error of logic? That takes ideology. (see Rule #1 and Rule #2)

At its core, what we have are three white individuals who believe that they are good, because they can admit to themselves the truth of white supremacy, and one select white man who does not agree — if only he could get his footing. If only he knew where to begin with such a disastrously set up conversation, designed in some ways precisely for Andrew Sullivan to fail. But it is not particular to Andrew Sullivan, as we have seen these loaded conversations take place on our screens for quite some time now.

It is remarkable that Jon Stewart, Lisa Bond, and Chip Gallagher completely agreed on every single point each of them had made, and not once did they ever agree with anything Andrew Sullivan said. If this plan of attack was not coordinated by them, it was certainly coordinated by the prevailing liberal attitude towards race, and the bonds between those molested by it are much stronger than can be initially perceived.

Chip Gallagher, the sociology professor of La Salle, said very little — but then again, how could he? Breaking Rule #1 would likely get him fired. What are the chances a professor of sociology would say anything remotely controversial, or, at the very least, out of lockstep with the prevailing woke narrative?

Lisa Bond outed herself rightly when she declared that Race2Dinner does not engage with white men, although she did manage to accept an invitation to a panel discussion comprised of nothing but white men. She simultaneously says we must hold racists “accountable, but with compassion and grace” but spits on Andrew Sullivan every chance she gets. She simultaneously declares that it is every white person’s obligation to have these conversations, but shows no sign of tolerance for anyone who disagrees on nuanced details. You get the feeling that anything a black woman could say, Lisa Bond thinks she can do it better. She is snappy, snarky, condescending, morally repugnant, and all too happy to parade her disdain for the white man. There is a zero percent chance any reckoning or light will come from the current attitude of Lisa Bond.

Jon Stewart seems pulled back into the fray in a big way with his new Apple+ show and one can sense his fan base is now particularly divided on account of this specific broadcast. Longtime fans were expecting a more nuanced conversation, one where Jon Stewart offers up some insight, some humor, and down-to-earth food for thought. Unfortunately, on the issue of race, it is clear that Jon Stewart finds no warmth in the cold reality of statistics, nuance, and respectful debate, but instead seeks the warmth of the sheltered consensus — Jon Stewart stands in unison with the bullies and those other captured souls of a deeply vengeful, resentful, and ultimately intolerant ideology.

Andrew Sullivan did not take part in an authentic discussion. Every point he tried to make, legitimate as they were, was railroaded by either sardonic humor, misrepresentation, or feigned confusion. A well-known author and thinker, he has been making the rounds on television, formal debates, and panel discussions for decades. No rookie in the sphere of rigorous debate, this particular discussion was out of his reach, but it was clearly designed that way.

When I viewed this taping, I was introduced to a game, the rhetoric and rules of which are obscured, but ultimately self-policed. It is not lost on me that those who often espouse the virtues of uncomfortable conversations, uncomfortable truths and a tolerance for differing perspectives are so reluctant to participate in them with any shred of authenticity or honor.

If there was one question Andrew Sullivan could have asked to the entire panel, it would have been this:

“Is there anything interior to the black community that could be improved by the black community, and the black community only?”

The answer to which could only come in the form of silence — See Rules #1 and #2.

Is it possible for a panel of all white people to have an authentic conversation about race, when so aware of the consequences of stepping out of line?

In the current climate, I would think not. But then again, the discussion on The Problem with Jon Stewart could never be authentic — after all, it was clearly designed that way.

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