The Daily Show’s Divider

Trevor Noah on the set of The Daily Show (Reuters photo: Eduardo Munoz)
Trevor Noah misunderstands how compromise is supposed to work.

Some of our nation’s most prominent “dividers” — politicians and activists who support radical policies and wield extreme rhetoric against anyone who opposes them — can often be found taking everyday Americans to task for holding “divisive” views on everything from race and gender to minimum-wage law. President Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren are particularly guilty of this tactic, lamenting divisiveness from one side of their mouths while uttering needlessly divisive comments from the other.

A relatively new figure on this list of aspiring “uniters” is Daily Show host Trevor Noah, a South African comedian who took over the role after Jon Stewart’s retirement last year. In the New York Times’ magazine Turning Points, Noah has authored an opinion column titled “Let’s Not Be Divided, Divided People Are Easier to Rule.” This assertion merit s unpacking, not least because Noah has spent the past year on The Daily Show doing some dividing of his own, despite his claim that he has been criticized by progressives “for not maintaining the minimum acceptable levels of daily evisceration.”

Chronicling Noah’s divisive rhetoric would take a column twice this length, so consider only two brief examples. First, Noah falsely asserted that North Carolina’s H.B. 2 — the now-infamous “bathroom bill” — permitted business owners to “discriminate based simply on who they believe might be gay.” Apparently forgetting his inherent hatred of extremism, Noah tasked Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. with creating a fake food truck to traverse North Carolina, insist to random customers that they (the customers) were homosexual, and then refuse to serve them because of that invented orientation. In case there is any doubt: This type of psychotic behavior on the part of business owners is not permitted anywhere in the actual law. (In fact, it’s doubtful that this type of behavior occurs anywhere nearly as often as Noah and his cronies likely believe it does.)

Then, this summer, Noah offered his helpful perspective on the congressional debate over a funding package for treating the Zika virus. After Florida senator Marco Rubio (R.) told a reporter that he believed babies infected with the Zika virus should not be aborted, Noah had this to say: “I wish a giant mosquito would f*** Rubio and leave him pregnant with a Zika baby. Then we’ll see how much he believes in those laws.” The segment included a picture of Rubio, altered to appear as if he were pregnant: an example of the moderate rhetoric Noah champions.

Aside from the apparent hypocrisy of Noah’s chastisement of others’ divisiveness, his column also betrays his lack of understanding of the reason for and the aim of politics. He proposes dispensing with our divisions as if it were as easy as choosing to remove a jacket on a hot day. “The two-party system seems to actively encourage division where none needs to exist,” he writes.

Actually, the two-party system emerged out of the fact that a nation of millions of people is bound to run into a little bit of disagreement every now and again. As Aristotle wrote, and as the Founders acknowledged, politics is a necessity precisely because people are naturally inclined to disagree, often fundamentally. This doesn’t mean that politics must descend into shouting matches, but it requires a certain system to properly order the chaos, one that allows all groups to have a voice and to offset one another so that majorities can’t dominate the rest. We improve our politics not by doing away with our disagreements — which is impossible — but by cultivating a system in which those disagreements are considered peacefully and resolved through compromise. Though Noah derides it, the two-party system is one — often very effective — means of dealing with the natural phenomena of disagreement and faction. We all might see the value of moderation, but few are willing to abandon their most important beliefs for the sake of politeness and civility. Even those hectoring the rest of us about our hyper-partisanship seem less inclined to speak with moderation when it comes to defending their core principles or political projects.

Telling Americans to stop shouting will solve nothing – especially when the message comes from divisive voices.

“Instead of speaking in measured tones about what unites us, we are screaming at each other about what divides us,” Noah says. He might be correct that we need not scream in order to disagree, but it seems that he doesn’t want us to disagree at all. Rather, Noah wants us to talk only about that which unites us; in a nation as large as America, that has to be a slim list. This shouldn’t be a cause for concern, because our distinctions are often part of our country’s strength: out of many, one. Despite our pluralism and our distinct cultures, we have successfully formed a nation that is able not only to function but to do so as the leader of the free world.

When the American system is functioning as it was designed — with checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, and federalism — it proves itself as the best means the world has yet seen of deciding fairly between competing interests and maintaining peace among factions. The Founders’ vision demands, too, that we prevent the federal government from becoming so powerful and all-encompassing that it dominates state governments and imposes its faceless will on the people. The very progressives who claim to abhor political disharmony seem oblivious to the fact that a conservative understanding of government and an appreciation for pluralism have the ability to alleviate that discord, even as eradicating it is impossible.

#related#Telling Americans to stop shouting at one another will solve nothing — especially when the message comes from our nation’s loudest and most divisive voices. If we’re all going to lower our voices, hyper-partisan figures such as Obama, Warren, and Noah must lead the way. But the real solution for America’s division will not come from reinventing the tone of our public dialogue. It must originate in a renewed respect for and appreciation of our founding principles, which were established to govern the natural discord that arises when any group of people attempts to form a nation.


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