A Thousand Points of Fight: Jon Stewart and the Limits of Mockery

These days, I find myself feeling like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown when Jack Nicholson slaps her face demanding the truth about the identity of a young woman she cares for, and Faye Dunaway cries: “She’s my sister, my daughter, my sister, my daughter…” In my own waking nightmare version of this scene, reality slaps me in the face, demanding to know who Trump is, and I cry: “He’s Reagan! He’s Hitler. He’s Reagan, He’s Hitler.”

In both scenarios, it is unclear whether a wealthy, belligerent character is just a regular aggressive man who pushes people around to get his way or an exceptionally immoral one who will rape and plunder without hesitation in order to remake the world to his liking. Which is it? Early on in the course of events, it can be hard to know. As many women report, an abusive relationship often creeps up on you. That is why domestic abuse centers share signs of “early warning.”

Reagan was no Hitler, though that didn’t stop Reagan from making an official visit in 1985 to a cemetery in Bitberg, Germany, where German military and SS members were buried. The visit was to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII but there were protests against Reagan paying respects to SS war dead. Reagan defended his visit as follows: “These [SS troops] were the villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions and all. But there are 2,000 graves there, and most of those, the average age is about 18. I think that there’s nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” Sound familiar? Reagan too thought there were victims on both sides.

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, writer, and political activist, tried to prevent Reagan’s visit, but to no avail: “I […] implore you to do something else, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place.” Except maybe it was his place. Reagan, who had been governor of California, chose to begin his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair — the same County where in 1964 civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were murdered.

Imploring is what the current President wants to see us all doing: Bending the knee, rather than taking a knee. Or maybe on our knees, like he said to a woman on The Apprentice: “Must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees.”

In a brilliant eight-minute appearance last month on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart objected to the cruel wrongs at the border, without imploring, while also exploring the limits of mockery as critique. Both imploring and mocking are staged from a position of weakness and this was highlighted by Stewart, who began, literally on his knees. Emerging from beneath Colbert’s desk, on stage, Stewart turned to the camera, and opened by highlighting his Jewishness, the position from which Elie Wiesel also spoke when he implored Reagan not to go to Bitberg. But where Wiesel spoke as the Jewish conscience of what he cast as American cluelessness about Europe, Stewart takes on the role of a quintessentially American character: the Jewish nebbish. He begins with a nervous titter and says, somewhat cartoonishly: “Hello Donald, it’s me!” And then, haltingly, “the guy you made sure everyone knew was Jewish on Twitter.”

In the end, it will become clear that Stewart occupies the Jewish position in order to ironize it. But first, by linking Trump’s outing of Stewart as a Jew on Twitter years ago with the cruelties now being implemented at the border, Stewart gives a specific context to Trump’s support of neo-Nazis, his administration’s move to denationalize naturalized citizens not just in response to complaints (as used to be the case) but proactively, and its new abrogation of agreements with foreign-born soldiers to fast track their citizenshipall measures disturbingly reminiscent of the denationalization of Jews in Nazi Germany.. Indeed, it is an irony that historians may later remark that, it was at this very moment that the US Supreme Court finally renounced the Korematsu decision, not, however, in connection with the new tent cities in Texas then going up, but to disavow any analogy to the Muslim ban case, and thus to allow Executive prejudice to become policy.

Stewart goes on: “If there’s one hallmark to your presidency that I think we’re finding the most difficult it is that no matter what you do it always comes with an extra layer of gleeful cruelty. And dickish-ness.” Here Stewart seems to implore, but he undoes that immediately: “Donald, you could have absolutely made a more stringent border policy, and have made your point about enforcement, but I guess it wouldn’t have felt right without a Dickensian level of villainy. You casually separated people seeking asylum from their children. From babies. It made me realize something. You may be orange, you may like hamburgers, you may be a clown. But you are no Ronald McDonald.” The joke is subtle but brilliant since Ronald McDonald is not just any clown, but a mascot, not only for the fast food chain, but also for the charity it founded to support families whose children are in hospital. Its tag line? “Keeping families with sick children together and near the care and resources they need.”

Stewart’s reference to Ronald McDonald undoes the nervous nebbish tittering at the opening as well as the impression that Stewart will beg for mercy. When Wiesel implored, he sought to elevate Reagan to the height of the office. He called Reagan “Mr. President.” Like the Book of Esther’s Mordecai at the gate of Ahasuerus/Xerxes I, Wiesel was in the role of shtadlan. Shtadlan is Hebrew for “intercessor,” the representative of the disempowered community sent to beseech the powerful. That role was always played by men, but Mordecai, who gave succor to his orphaned niece, Esther, is figured by some commentators as a lactating, nursing man: feminine. That he also uses wiles to combat evil fits with this traditional gendering. Stewart does not supplicate. He mocks. He calls Trump, “Donald,” not “Mr. President.” And though he offers Dickens as an analogue, in the end he seems to say that even that reference is too high culture for this clown.

But mocking Trump as a clown risks elevating him to world-historical significance because that is precisely how Charlie Chaplin responded to Hitler in his time: by mocking the dictator as a clown and buffoon. Chaplin played the same game as Stewart, lampooning his own masculinity, anticipating Stewart’s effeminate talk with his own effeminate walk, and letting others think he was hiding his Jewishness. (Chaplin was not Jewish but when asked about it he would refuse to answer, since that would breach solidarity with those at that moment threatened with genocide). Perhaps this is why mocking is not Stewart’s final move.

Stewart shifts gears one more time, now showing clips of Fox News talking heads and Huckabee-Sanders calling Trump a true leader for the crimes at the border. Stewart knows imploring will not work. It didn’t work with Reagan either. Just ask ACT UP; or Rock Hudson, who was ignored by the Reagan White House when, dying of AIDS, he asked for their help.  And of course, Reagan still went to Bitburg. And so, Stewart finally says, he will not implore: “Clearly we are not going to be able to negotiate or shame you into decency but there is one place where I draw the line; I won’t allow you and your sycophants to turn cruelty into virtue.” Stewart closes by drawing on Abraham Lincoln, who said that those who defended slavery had just one demand, but it was not one to which it was possible to yield: “Cease to call slavery wrong and join them in calling it right.” As political theorist George Kateb would say, the refusal of this immorality exemplifies democratic individuality.

Invoking conscience is what finally moves Stewart away from the mocking that is the double of Wiesel’s imploring . Mocking and imploring are two sides of the same Mordecai-coin — both are practices whereby the powerless address the powerful. In both, no matter how bravely performed, the shadow of bent-knee subservience is discernible. Both postulate an ongoing relationship that is the less powerful party’s lifeline and death knell, at the same time.

Refusal, by contrast, severs the relationship between protestor and protested and proclaims they have no future together. Knowing this, and seeking a different future for herself, her staff, and all of us, Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of the Red Hen, politely and discreetly asked White House Press Secretary Sara Huckabee-Sanders to leave her restaurant. As Hannah Arendt notes, politics is not always the result of willed intentional choice and deliberate planning. Sometimes politics comes to you and orders a cheese plate in your restaurant. That is when you are called upon to show who you are. Will you serve power, as power demands? Or show it the door? Charles Pierce says in Esquire that we are in the most “radically different — and radically perilous — political context that the country has seen since the run-up to the Civil War.” We may quibble with that, but there is no quibbling with his conclusion that now, “every fight is worthy no matter how futile. Even if all you’re doing is creating a historical record, that’s worth doing. The institutions of government, and the people operating them, have to stand up just to stand up.” Many are. More should.

Trump is aware of this and that may be why, at a Montana rally in July, he insulted George H.W. Bush’s Republican Presidential campaign slogan from 1988, a “thousand points of light.” Speaking about “winning,” Trump crowed that people everywhere “get” the meaning of his slogans, “Make America Great Again” and “Putting America First.” But not “Thousand Points of Light.” He said: “‘Thousand Points of Light,’ I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? And it was put by a Republican, wasn’t it?”

Without necessarily endorsing the original idea, we can attend to what Trump was doing in mocking it. Yes, he was finalizing his claim to the Republican Party over those who like to think they are his betters. But he was doing something else, too. The joke not only mocked Bush Sr., who was always too patrician for the base. It also mocked the very idea of people serving as points of light in the darkness: the very idea of a Jon Stewart or a Stephanie Wilkinson — or any of us — refusing to turn a blind eye to evil or to join Trump’s Administration by calling it “right.”

Trump and his followers have put in their order. Let’s not serve them. Every day they put on a show to distract us. Let’s not let them.They tweet to raise the costs of resistance (fire the NFL players who kneel!). Let’s not give in to them.

Instead, let’s be inspired by women like asylum activist Elin Ersson. In a Facebook video that went viral last week, Ersson refuses to be seated so the airplane she is on can take off. Why? Because there is a man on the plane being deported from Sweden to Afghanistan and his life is at stake. Standing alone in the aisle, she says, “I am not going to sit down until this person is off the plane.” The pilot has the right to refuse, too, she says, as the crew tries to persuade her into compliance. Meanwhile, a fellow passenger notes the deportation is perfectly legal: “Your country has rules.” She does not dispute it: “I’m trying to change my country’s rules,” she replies. She knows she cannot do it alone: “As long as a person is standing up and if more people are standing up, then the pilot cannot take off.”

After she explains the situation to a fellow passenger, he explains it to some others and there is a smattering of applause. “We are with you,” he says. And then, Ersson says, “the football team at the back is actually standing up. I want to salute them for standing up.” She tears up. The mood of the cabin shifts a bit in her favor. Perhaps for this reason, a male passenger decides right then to take matters into his own hands. Can’t she see she is frightening the children? he asks, as he lunges for her phone. He wants the situation returned to normal, where young women are compliant and men like him are in charge. But this time his aggression only tilts the mood further in her direction. The crew returns her phone and sends him back to his seat. Soon she is told the deportee is being taken off the plane. Only after confirming the truth of that does she exit.

This is what Hannah Arendt calls action in concert. Someone has to start it. Others have to join. It requires courage and good fortune. For a full 5-10 minutes, Ersson is in this by herself. It is really not clear which way things will go. The inconvenienced passengers could turn on her. Her reddening face betrays the difficulty of the situation. She tears up, first from the stress, and then with apparent gratitude when she finds that some of the passengers actually support her. Not all of them, but enough to tip the balance. That’s all we need.

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