Cynicism and the ‘blinded symbiotic terrarium’

Lots of chatter  about David Axelrod’s hour-plus interview with Jon Stewart. (Yeah, it’s long, but worth listening to the whole thing.)

The chattering classes, naturally, have seized on Stewart’s comments about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But what really struck me was Stewart’s mention of the insularity of Washington and how relieved he was to be away from the media-political-industrial complex:

When you are in that soup, it is very hard not to begin to think that the world functions on that currency. … We saw it again with Larry Wilmore at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Larry Wilmore did the White House Correspondents Dinner and everybody went nuts. “My God! He’s done!” With what? “He’s finished!” He’s not running for anything. He’s not finished. “He’ll never get asked back!” I don’t think he gives a shit. And when you watch the post-show analysis, it was all based on whether or not he had helped himself … and in no way an examination of the foundation of what he was saying, which is, You are an incredibly corrupt and blinded symbiotic terrarium.

Now, frankly, I thought Wilmore was also a little off — not as wickedly pointed as Stephen Colbert, a little long and a little obvious (though I did laugh at the one about C-SPAN’s competition being “No Input-HDMI1”).

But Stewart’s point about Wilmore is well taken. I seem to recall Colbert has said he felt a sense of freedom doing the dinner because he had nothing to lose. Why should Wilmore feel any different? Washington isn’t the whole world to him. He has a life elsewhere.

(Tangential anecdote: The Doors appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1967 to perform “Light My Fire.” Jim Morrison was warned not to sing “higher.” He does. According to Ray Manzarek, after the show a producer was apoplectic. “He looked at Morrison and said, ‘Mr. Sullivan liked you boys. He wanted you on six more times. … You’ll never do the Sullivan show again.’ ” To which Morrison replied, “We just did the Sullivan show.”)

However, in a broader sense, I think that Stewart is too cynical, if that’s possible. He seems like a genuinely compassionate guy who was shocked to find out what Washington was really like, and thinks it was actually worse than he imagined. (The old George Carlin line: Scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.) His work on behalf of 9/11 responders left a scar.

He can’t believe that things are so dysfunctional that what, to him, should be an obvious fix — health care for 9/11 responders — gets tangled up in the system. So he attacks the whole D.C. apparatus, at which point Axelrod talks about cynicism with the system. To which Stewart says, “Don’t mistake this for cynicism.” Ouch.

He later added to the audience of University of Chicago students, “Please don’t misunderstand. Criticism is out of love and desperation, not cynicism.”

I can’t speak to the motives of the vast majority of politicians and their staffers. I’ve met only a handful, and though some were crass opportunists, many others were simply pragmatic. Still, the whole idea of the Correspondents Dinner speaks to the “blinded symbiotic terrarium” — and I think that’s something we all have to battle these days, because it’s easy to live in our own bubbles. (Kudos to one friend who passed up the dinner in favor of taking his kids to a ballgame.)

Humans are tribal creatures, and between our all-consuming jobs and our escape into our “black mirrors,” it can be hard to punch our way out. I know I struggle with it. (I mean, I’m sitting in a room, alone, writing a post on a computer, for Pete’s sake.)

I do take heart from another Stewart remark. Asked if he’s going to engage in the election campaign even though he’s no longer on TV, he responded, “When you’re not on television, you’re still alive.”

Score one for real life.


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