David Coates

Another Debt to Jon Stewart

The debt that progressives owe to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show is large and growing. It certainly grew again last Thursday when the program delivered a much needed demolition job on Glenn Beck. The critique delivered that day has been made by others – not least by David Sarota and Adele Stan immediately after the CPAC insanity[i] – but never with quite the sharpness and wit that Stewart brought to the endeavor. Not that Stewart was alone this week in taking Beck to task. Even Peggy Noonan took time out in her weekend defense of the Fox News interview with the President to let her readers know that, to her, ‘Glenn Beck has long appeared to be insane”.[ii]

Good! Calling Glenn Beck to account is essential – essential, but not of itself necessarily enough. For Beck is not only the only sinner here. This is tip-of-iceberg stuff. Remember Michael Savage writing in 2003 of liberalism as “a mental disease…a destructive contagion more deadly than any force this country has ever faced”[iii]: or Rush Limbaugh telling the Heritage Foundation in November 2004 that conservatives “don’t have to compromise with depravity”.[iv] No, this is a well-established tradition – this denigration of liberals in medical or animal terms, this description of them as an infection, a cancer or as vermin who need removing, cutting out, or somehow eradicating. It is a well-established tradition on the extreme of the American Right, and it is one that is getting worse. As the President said at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, what we currently face in Washington DC and beyond is a troubling “erosion of civility”.[v]

As far as I can tell, a culture of intolerance is building in the far reaches of the American Right, and a hectoring style of argumentation is fast becoming the norm in conservative media circles – both profoundly threatening to the quality of our democracy. If, day after day, you live wholly immersed in the world of conservative talk radio and Fox News, your vision of the world is bound to become not only seriously impaired, but also over-dramatized and under-populated. It will become impaired: because liberals are not poised to demand “a Marxist revolution against the rich”, no matter how often Ann Coulter tells you that they are.[vi] It will become over-dramatized, because you will believe that evil liberal elites are conspiring to destroy the basic fabric of democratic America, even though they are not; and it is certain to be under-populated, because your world will be occupied only by evil liberals and valiant conservatives instead of by the rich tapestry of nuanced political viewpoints actually in play.

Does it matter? I think it does. It matters because such an impoverished world vision does not invite mutual tolerance and the celebration of diversity. It does not invite careful research and calm reflection. It does not invite an understanding of complexity and balance. Yet it is precisely at moments of economic difficulty and political change, of the kind we are experiencing now, that mutual tolerance, calm reflection and an understanding of complexity are most vital. Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and their conservative colleagues offer themselves as defenders of basic American freedoms: but their mode of argumentation – their tone, their vitriol, their denigration of alternatives, their underlying fundamentalism – all jeopardize the very freedoms that they claim to defend. At the very least, we have to say back to them that respect for opponents, and tolerance for the give and take of points of view, is the very basis of a democratic culture, a basis that would currently appear to be safer in our hands than in theirs.

This view is developed more fully in Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments (Continuum Books, 2010)

Details are at http://answeringbackdavidcoates.blogspot.com

David Coates teaches political science at Wake Forest University.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

He can be contacted through Carol Cirulli Lanham at

[email protected]

[i] David Sirota, Glenn Beck Finally Admitted His Great Desire: To ‘Eradicate Progressives, (http://alternet.org/story/145820); and Adele Stan, Don’t Underestimate Glenn Beck, as He Calls Government Spending an “Economic Holocaust” (http://alternet.org/story/145751)

[ii]Peggy Noonan, “Now for the Slaughter”, The Wall Street Journal, March20-21, 2010, p. A15

[iii] Michael Savage, The Enemy Within: Saving America from the liberal assault on our schools, faith and military, (Nashville, WND Books, 2003) p 14

[iv] Rush Limbaugh, to the Heritage Foundation, November 2004.

[v] President Obama, speaking in Washington DC, February 3, 2010

[vi] This in Ann Coulter’s “Are ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ Still Tax-Deductible?” posted March 11, 2009.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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