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Down with Jon Stewart

Like many seniors, I was mildly disappointed with the announcement of Chilean President Ricardo Lagos as our commencement speaker. By most accounts he is a courageous, intelligent advocate for democracy. But both William Safire and Antonin Scalia are extremely compelling, possess more name recognition and would be more eagerly anticipated by students. Lagos is not a bad choice, but no one seems too revved up about him—and that’s too bad.

Out of all the finalists, the most exciting possibility for many students was Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. Hundreds of undergraduates signed an online petition asking the administration to invite the comedian, who became wildly popular during this year’s presidential campaign. A lot of students are now asking: Why not Stewart?

Stewart, a very funny guy, would have been an exceedingly poor choice. He would have entertained, amused and ultimately promoted his sophisticated and insidious form of apathy, undermining the proactive and constructive spirit that characterizes commencement.

Formerly a stand-up comedian, then a low-level satirist, Stewart has become a major political and media critic. Like many contemporary American social critics, he disparages the American political system and the media carnival that facilitates it. Unlike most of the best critics, he is content to proffer complaints without proposing steps toward a solution or even accepting his own responsibility as a participant in American culture.

Take, for instance, his aggressive anti-media stance. He confronts talk show hosts and others on their lackadaisical journalism, but himself lobs softballs to liberals on the increasingly politicized The Daily Show. When confronted with his hypocrisy, Stewart scorns the questioner and spinelessly hides behind the claim that he is a lowly comedian who should not be held to standards of journalism.

Not so. Whether he likes it or not, Stewart’s role in popular culture has been transformed and it is cowardly for him to absolve himself of his new responsibilities as one who educates, informs and reports on contemporary issues. Maybe he never went to J-school, but in an entertainment-soaked media world, Stewart is, in many ways, a journalist.

After Stewart appeared on Crossfire in October and lambasted the show’s hosts with facile jabs about their failures as journalists, he was seen as something of a hero among some Duke students. Why? There is nothing courageous about vague accusations about journalists helping “politicians and corporations” when the accuser refuses to accept accountability and deflects criticism with ad hominem attacks on Tucker Carlson’s bowties.

Public praise for Stewart’s hypocrisy gives a twisted legitimacy to the lazy student’s version of activism: complaining. Perhaps mimicking Stewart, some students spent the 2004 presidential campaign spouting a hackneyed “f- - --the-world” mantra without speaking up for a candidate, advocating an issue or even voting. Rather than grappling with their legitimate frustrations about politics and the media and finding the best way to transform their concerns into action, many of these students basked in the glow of their computer screens and grumbled about how terrible the candidates were. This isn’t brilliance—it’s educated apathy.

Naming Jon Stewart commencement speaker would have validated the notion that a detached voice of criticism is constructive for democracy or society in general. I’m glad President Richard Brodhead thought better of it. Criticism is supremely important, but only when it can lead to change. The hero is not the public figure who spouts out complaints without a course of action or self-accountability; the hero is the one who hears the criticism and transforms it into action. The slow achievements, the victories at the margins, the long, hard slog toward improvement—those matter.

Even if Ricardo Lagos puts me to sleep May 15, his life and career represent the kind of courageous commitment to action that we as seniors should have as our final charge to keep from the University. Jon Stewart, funny though he is, doesn’t come close.

 

Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and former University Editor for The Chronicle.

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