If contemporary American liberalism has any High Priests, foremost among them would have to be Jon Stewart. Arguably, he’s the functional equivalent of a supreme pontiff. So much of contemporary American liberalism hinges on aesthetic presentation — the ever-present need to convey that you and your peers “get it” — and Stewart pioneered the perfect public sensibility tailored to this ambition. For years, cultural liberals’ sense of savviness and ironic detachment, coupled with an underlying pretension to earnestness, was cultivated and affirmed by Stewart. His method of communicating political information on The Daily Show became the dominant style not just of mainstream corporate comedy, but of left-liberal politics as a whole. Everyone from establishment Democrats to cynical online leftists speaks of Stewart with worshipful reverence.
Stewart is also very smart. Like any good leader of a religious order, he knows on occasion he must chide his fellow clergymen for their doctrinal blindspots, tactical blunders, or personal indiscretions. He knows how to gently but firmly advise parishioners when they’ve gone astray, or gone too far. He also mostly kept his head down throughout the Trump presidency — declining to weigh in on every fleeting micro-scandal — which was a wise decision, so as to not get himself too brain-melted by the endless frenzy of that period. He didn’t even join Twitter until this past January.
Empathizing with the habits and tastes of those who are culturally dissimilar is always healthy, but it’s a major struggle to understand why some people still voluntarily watch late-night network TV. Nonetheless, Stewart appeared this week on the first back-in-studio taping of his protégé Stephen Colbert’s late-night show. There he issued what amounted to a new Papal encyclical. In that signature weary, deadpan delivery everyone knows and loves, he averred that the “lab leak” theory of COVID origins — previously a contemptible heresy — should not just be seriously considered as plausible, but had in fact become trivially obvious. So obvious that you’re now the dummy if you don’t think so. Watch as Colbert awkwardly wrestles with the implications of what his longtime hero Jon Stewart is saying; he looks almost pained. Six months ago, anyone who broached this topic on Colbert’s show would’ve been assumed to be some sort of QAnon crank. But here’s Jon Stewart, repeating Steve Bannon talking points. Colbert, understandably, appears quite disoriented.
Stewart recognizes when to “read the room” and direct a course correction in the prevailing sentiments of popular liberalism when its dogmas have become too untenable to continue. Who else was going to do it, Joe Biden? Nowhere near enough funny-guy sway. It takes the cultural prestige of a leader like Stewart to truly make a difference. And when he decides it’s time for one of those gentle-but-firm course corrections, liberals listen intently — because liberalism is underrated for its ability to adapt and self-correct, at least in the arena of public presentation. This is best accomplished by reframing its past failures as a big joke, and there’s no one better positioned to do so than Stewart.
Accordingly, the rapid transformation of the lab leak theory from shameful racist trope into cool-kid conventional wisdom need not occasion any recriminations or blame — just more self-deprecating laughter. Never mind that during all the Zoom banter Stewart presumably participated in over the past 15 months, the theory was either scornfully dismissed or ignored. That’s all in the past; Trump is gone. Eventually Stewart got it.
But he wasn’t imparted with this knowledge by some divine revelation. A campaign of Twitter sleuths and Medium posts is what punctured a false consensus. Stewart merely consecrated the shift within a certain strand of the cultural mainstream, thereby granting license to liberals who need permission from their entertainment idols before they form opinions about anything.
This volatility within liberalism is often fodder for mockery. It can make adherents look and sound incoherent. But malleability is part of liberalism’s strength; after all, conservatives are always complaining that liberals control most every institution. To what do they attribute this...?
It’s why the big “face-off” this week between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden, desperately hyped by the flagging corporate news industry, could result in Putin lavishing Biden with praise for his statesmanship and sterling moral character, and no Democratic elected official taking issue. Memories of how similar diplomatic niceties were portrayed vis-a-vis the previous President simply vanish. Stephen Colbert didn’t sneer at the “collusive” implications. The last five years of spy-thriller hype can just wash away, with the snap of a finger.
It’s why Ashli Babbitt — an unarmed protester shot dead at point-blank range by an agent of the state — was presumed worthy of summary execution by the nation’s liberal class, even as they make other questionable police killings the guiding impetus of their entire political program. Babbitt had bad ideas, she was deluded by YouTube misinformation, she was a de facto white supremacist, whatever. She might’ve even been trespassing at the time the bullet was pumped into her throat. The public still doesn’t have the name of her assailant — this information has been concealed by the relevant police agency. But Jon Stewart wouldn’t go near that one... yet. Promoting a certain interpretation of January 6 still has a utility for liberals that clinging to lab leak denialism no longer does.
So much of it all is a facade — but facades can overlay the accrual of real power. Stewart just has enough self-awareness to poke his head through the facade every now and then, when the conditions are safe, and help right the ship.