In the past I’ve praised Jon Stewart, a liberal, for being an outstanding comedian and satirist. I watch his program and, despite being a conservative, I generally count myself a fan of it. But for Stewart’s political humor to work, it has to have some basis in reality. He has to have identify a real-world absurdity in order to mock it. Which is why Stewart’s recent segment on Israel and Hamas was unfunny, not the least bit clever, and even irresponsible (a point I’ll return to in a moment).
Mr. Stewart asserted that both sides–Israel and Hamas–are engaging in aerial bombardment. But because Israel is more effective at prosecuting the war, and because more Palestinians than Israelis are dying, Israel is the more guilty party. It’s framed as an example of moral equivalence, but with Israel more morally culpable because of the “asymmetric” nature of the conflict.
This is moral lunacy.
You would never know from watching Stewart that Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state (and says so in its charter); that Hamas started the war; that Hamas wants to escalate the war; that Hamas has refused repeated ceasefires; and that Hamas is using innocent Palestinians as human shields by, for example, using hospitals and schools for military purposes. You would never know, in other words, that Hamas has a vested interest in more dead Palestinians, precisely in the hopes that people like Jon Stewart will make Israel out to be the more malicious of the two combatants. And when Stewart ridicules Israel for warning Palestinians to evacuate before the IDF strikes military targets in Gaza–“Evacuate to where!?”–he is displaying (at best) an embarrassing ignorance. Israel actually drops leaflets with maps indicating where residents of Gaza can go–specific sites–where they’ll be unharmed. So Israel is instructing Gazans to leave dangerous combat zones. And what about Hamas? It’s urging Gazans to stay. Why? In order for them to be killed.
Mr. Stewart, whenever he’s confronted with his errors and misleading segments, will invoke the excuse that he’s merely a comedian, so it’s absurd to judge him in the fashion we judge political commentators. Except that he’s not “merely” a comedian, and he knows it. Mr. Stewart actually has a fair amount of influence on our politics. Members of the political class have their thinking, and even their reporting, shaped by what he says. He is, for many of them, a moral conscience of sorts. Jon Stewart knows it, and he takes advantage of it. He uses his humor to advance his ideology, to give voice to his political and moral beliefs.
Now it’s true enough that Stewart is a comedian before he’s a political commentator. But to say he’s more one than the other isn’t to say he’s simply one or the other. He’s a comedian who often uses comedy to make political comment. And so Stewart should be held accountable, at least within reason, for what he says and what he does.
In this instance, Stewart committed two mistakes. He wasn’t funny, and in the process he showed himself to be a moral fool.