Sunday, April 20, 2008

Politics: Conversations about Politics

In my last post, I discussed the way in which John Cage converses with a commercial audience, as a model of how artists should converse with popular culture and wider audiences. The idea of using the rules of polite conversation as a model for how to deal with culture has been growing in my mind, and I can trace at least part of it back to a very influential source of mine: Jon Stewart.

Although I originally came to Jon Stewart because of the jokes and the commentary, the interview portion of the show has become stronger and stronger the longer I've watched. Part of this has been the increasing number of fascinating and important guests. When I first watched, it was largely actors and unknown authors; but in 2004 John Edwards announced his candidacy for the Presidency on the Daily Show, and the show has been graced by Senators (Obama, Clinton, Specter, Santorum, Lieberman, etc.), former Bush Administration members (Fleischer, McClellan, Snow, Ashcroft, Powell, etc.), current world leaders (Musharraf, Fox, Morales), top-tier journalists (Geraldo, O'Reilly, Matthews, Williams, Russert, Rather, etc.) and many more.

What was most fascinating to me was the high level of discourse. One of the moments which solidified Jon Stewart's transition from 'merely' a comedian into a powerful social force was his memorable appearance on Crossfire. He appealed to hosts Tucker Carleson and Paul Begala to stop hurting America and bring a dignified level of discourse to the realm of politics. It was clear that this was not what they had in mind: the hosts (in Begala's defense, mostly Carleson) dismissed his concerns and tried to make the Daily Show look silly and discredit Stewart's concerns.

The state of discourse on the network news is fairly poor. An incident springs to mind where Robert Novak told James Carville that everything he had to say was bullshit, and got up and walked off the set. This is a slightly extreme example of a fairly onerous way of speaking which is more typified by Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity's notoriously rude interviews. ("Cut his mic!" the cliche goes...). So when I really started to watch Jon Stewart interface with politicians or journalists he disagreed with, I was incredibly impressed by his candor and polite discussion.

The interview which blew my mind the most was the one appended to the end of this post; that of Senator Rick Santorum. To begin with: let me say that I have a strong dislike of the policies and agenda of Rick Santorum, and was very happy to see him defeated in the 2006 Midterm Election. But I do have to respect that although in other public appearances, where he can be inflammatory and offensive, here he does earnestly complement the mode of discussion which Jon Stewart equally exemplifies.

  1. Polite Greetings: The interview begins with Jon Stewart's usual greeting: "Thank you very much for coming here tonight." And that greeting appears to be genuine. This is pretty straightforward, human tactic, but you'd be surprised how often the simple pleasantries are abandoned when vitriol and acerbicism is much easier to sell.
  2. Common Ground: Then Jon Stewart tackles an important place to begin: that most people were surprised that Santorum would be the guest, and there was a general assumption that they might not agree on a lot of things. He then very directly proceeds to lay some common ground. The tone is, of course, whimsical ("I believe ice cream is a delicious treat, but too much will spoil the appetite"), but it does serve an interesting purpose: it gets the audience (which, as Santorum notes, had booed him before he came on) to cheer in agreement with him. Santorum may hold negative beliefs about gays, but at least we all believe in the sanctity of ice cream. He returns to this point later, in a more serious way, when he agrees with Santorum's point of "character equals virtue"--even though this is a set-up for a point of contention (that sexuality does not equal character). It seems simple, but it creates a very human mode of discussion, rather than discussions between People as symbols, which is what a lot of politics becomes.
  3. Acknowledge Complexity: Stewart begins talking about the fervor behind certain religous groups regarding positions such as abortion. After he mentions abortion, however, he is quick to say that "other than the ultimate extreme positions at both ends, that's a really difficult issue, a real moral quandry, and I think a lot of people understand that." This is another moment where Santorum gets to nod along with Stewart, proving to the audience that he is not the frothy-mouthed bible-thumping wacko that he can appear to be in the media. And it sets the tone for a debate in which the legitimacy of many different opinions and the inability to objectively establish one morally, absolutely correct position is important. He does this a moment later when, with his first question of criticism, he says, "Or am I mistaking your take on it?" which gives Santorum room to speak for himself, rather than responding to Stewart's impressions of Santorum.
  4. Talk Impersonally: There isn't a point at which it is possible to isolate this, but at no point does Stewart or Santorum discuss each other or themselves (except in the adult manner in which Santorum's background in psychology is brought to play).
  5. Recognizing the impasse: This is the biggest point for me. The interview truly becomes memorable and defining when, just before the commercial break, Stewart says: "Ultimately you end up getting to this point, it's like this crazy stopping point. Literally, like, we can't get any further. I don't think you're a bad dude, I don't think I'm a bad dude, but I literally can't convince you..." and then goes on to outline his own opinion. Can you imagine O'Reilly acknowledging that sort of divide between him and Nancy Pelosi? It is an incredibly mature move to make, and it helps them continue the discussion even when both have made their points.

What neither of them say, but I think both of them are aware, is that the point of a debate is not to convince the other person they're wrong. It is, in the end, to educate the observers of both sides of the issue. Although I still don't agree with former Senator Santorum, I can understand the position a lot more clearly, and I can see what a solution to the debate would have to address. When Santorum discusses that government should be designed around the ideal, I can understand why someone would believe that--although I disagree (I think the strength of the Constitution is its pragmaticism) it lends me an insight into a view that I previously couldn't fathom. And this is not just because of the way that Santorum spoke; it is also because of Stewart's permission for Santorum to take his time, to explain himself, and the ways in which Stewart pressed against those explanations without attacking them. Stewart in turn led me to understanding of a position that I agree with that I hadn't understood.

Can you imagine if that was the level of discussion we had everywhere?

No comments: