Here is a selection of recent headlines: “Jon Stewart Destroys Megyn Kelly,” “Jon Stewart Destroys Fox News’ ‘Spite-Driven Anger Machine,’” “Jon Stewart Destroys What’s Left of Peggy Noonan’s Credibility,” “Jon Stewart Destroys Fox News Over Syria Coverage,” “Jon Stewart Destroys Glenn Beck’s Utopia,” “Jon Stewart Destroys Bill O’Reilly” — there are about 520,000 more — and, not to be missed, “Jon Stewart Destroys Chicago-Style Pizza.”
The sound of terrors is in his ears at 11 p.m. on Comedy Central, and in prosperity the destroyer cometh upon him.
Mr. Stewart is the host of a fake news show, the genesis of which probably was a conversation that went approximately like this: Brother-in-Law: “There’s nothing funny on Saturday Night Live except the ‘Weekend Update.’ They should really just do that for the whole show.” Jon Stewart: “Hey . . . !” Mr. Stewart is among the lowest forms of intellectual parasite in the political universe, with no particular insights or interesting ideas of his own, reliant upon the very broadest and least clever sort of humor, using ancient editing techniques to make clumsy or silly political statements sound worse than they are and then pantomiming outrage at the results, the lowbrow version of James Joyce giving the hero of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the unlikely name of Stephen Dedalus and then having other characters in the novel muse upon the unlikelihood of that name. His shtick is a fundamentally cowardly one, playing the sanctimonious vox populi when it suits him, and then beating retreat into “Hey, I’m just a comedian!” when he faces a serious challenge. It is the sort of thing that you can see appealing to bright, politically engaged 17-year-olds.
His audience is not made up of bright, politically engaged 17-year-olds. But Mr. Stewart has pulled off a pretty neat trick: He has, as the half-million or so headlines mentioned above indicate, made fake news into real news, and it is not an accident that the verb “destroys” so often follows his name. Mr. Stewart is the leading voice of the half-bright Left because he is a master practitioner of the art of half-bright vitriolic denunciation. His intellectual biography is that of a consummate lightweight — a William and Mary frat boy who majored in psychology, which must have been a disappointment to his father, a professor of physics — and his comedy career has been strictly by-the-numbers, from the early days on the New York City comedy-club scene to changing his name (Mr. Stewart began life as Mr. Leibowitz) and a career-boosting stint on MTV, where he was second only to Beavis and Butt-Head in the ratings. He subsequently may have matched Beavis and Butt-Head’s popularity, but he has never risen to comparable heights of social insight.
The thing is, people actually get their news from his show. Fans, many of whom cannot quite spell his name, swear that the program is “more accurate than any other news show.” Ignore, for the moment, the judgment exhibited in that quotation and focus on the word “other.” In the minds of many of his admirers — and in the minds of those news-site editors who report on Mr. Stewart’s fake news as part of the real news — there is no substantive difference between what Mr. Stewart does and what, e.g., Ezra Klein does (“Ezra Klein Destroys Romney,” “Ezra Klein Destroys David Brooks,” “Ezra Klein Destroys Republican Opposition to Temporary Payroll Tax Cut,” etc.) because for the Left the point of journalism is not to criticize politics or to analyze politics but to be a servant of politics, to “destroy” such political targets as may be found in one’s crosshairs. For the Left, the maker of comedy and the maker of graphs perform the same function. It does not matter who does the “destroying,” so long as it gets done.
“Destroying” is more of an aspiration than a reality, of course. If Megyn Kelly has been destroyed by anybody, she is not showing any sign of it. What it communicates is the Left’s politics of vilification, a longstanding preference that has recently become extremely pronounced, substituting a good-guys-and-bad-guys narrative for the discussion of complex ideas. Mr. Klein, for all his empiricist posturing, is very much a practitioner of that shallow art — writing, among other things, that a Democratic opponent of the Affordable Care Act was “willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score.” (Shockingly, I was unable to locate a headline reading: “Ezra Klein Destroys Joe Lieberman.”)
Senator Reid’s recent obsession with denouncing Charles and David Koch from his congressional perch is of a piece with that: Never mind the merits of the things the Kochs endorse politically — from liberalizing energy markets to gay marriage — they are a handy bogeyman. And, given the politics of the situation, Senator Reid surely would prefer to talk about the Koch brothers’ allegedly nefarious plans for world domination (the great “libertarian conspiracy to take over the world and leave you the hell alone”) than about Democrats’ recent meandering energy policies, which would hold hostage U.S. producers in order to appease the Birkenstocks-and-white-boy-dreadlocks set.
The Koch brothers are patrons of Big Ideas, interested in the institutions of a free society and what makes them work. Say what you like about the organizations they donate to — Cato, Mercatus, the Institute for Humane Studies (my employer for about a year) — they are oriented toward ideas. I do not expect any Mercatus scholar to host a highly rated cable comedy show in the near future, not even the telegenic Veronique de Rugy.
I do not much blame the Left for hesitating to talk about Big Ideas. The Left has been losing the Big Idea debate for a generation or more, in no small part because its last Big Idea killed 100 million people, give or take, and not in Mr. Klein’s projecting-abstractly-from-a-CBO-study way but in the concentration-camps-and-hunger-terror way. Marxism was the Left’s Big Idea for the better part of a century, and its collapse — which was moral, economic, political, and complete — left a howling void in the Left’s intellectual universe. Nothing has quite managed to fill it: In the immediate wake of the collapse of Communism, the anticapitalists sought shelter in a variety of movements, few of which grew to be of any real consequence, with the exception of the environmentalist movement. But the lenten self-mortification implied by a consistent environmentalist ethic has limited that movement’s appeal as a governing philosophy and an individual ethic both, hence its fragmentation into a motley sprawl of mini-crusades. It is easy to be anti-fracking when that does not require you to give up anything, easy to oppose the expansion of the Keystone pipeline network when you can be confident that the gas pumps in your hometown will always be full, easy for well-off Whole Foods shoppers to abominate varieties of grain that are possessed by evil spirits or cooties or whatever it is this week.
The intellectual decline of the Left has been something to see. I am reminded of a joke that P. J. O’Rourke once made about my hometown: “There’s also a whiff of highbrow in Siberia. For a hick town, Irkutsk had too many opera houses, theaters, museums, and academic institutes. This is because, for hundreds of years, the smarty-pants reformers, annoying idealists, and know-it-all do-gooders were sent here for life. It’s as though everyone who voted for George McGovern was packed off to Lubbock, Texas.” You could not make the same joke about Obama voters or Occupiers — or, especially, about Jon Stewart’s audience — because nobody expects any of them to start an opera house or an academic institute. They are busy watching an ersatz Beavis and Butt-Head for psychology majors who enjoy having their modest intellects flattered and their perceived enemies “destroyed.”
Alan Simpson’s partisan taxonomy — the Stupid (Republican) party vs. the Evil (Democratic) party — no longer holds, if it ever did. At CPAC this week, you will find students of Robert George debating students of Robert Nozick about the subject of gay marriage, and Governor Rick Perry of Texas, among others, arguing that mandatory-minimum-sentence laws are a failure, while Chuck Grassley and others support them. (How many members of Mr. Stewart’s audience know that Senator Michael Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in January introduced a bill to reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders and to make retroactive the 2010 reforms relating to crack-cocaine sentences?) There is no CPAC of the Left, because the Left is not interested even in its own ideas, much less those of Professor George or the late Professor Nozick.
Jon Stewart’s act is a pretty good one, and it takes a real talent to anchor a long-running television show. It takes something else to anchor a long-running constitutional republic, and that something else includes intelligence and ideas. Mr. Stewart’s half-bright following is now the dominant tendency on the Left. We’d have been better off with Beavis and Butt-Head.
— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent for National Review.