Michael Moore vs. Jon Stewart: The Self-Destruction of the American Left

Michael Moore is one of the few heroes of contemporary American culture. He is a true patriot, a serious populist, and a clever provocateur, dedicated to striking politicians, jabbing corporate elites, and encouraging the American public into summoning the courage necessary to create a country of egalitarian love, benevolent community, and universal justice. The amazingly simple messages of his films – don’t outsource manufacturing plants because it will destroy American towns, don’t allow people to buy guns without precautionary measures, don’t deny people health care for seemingly arbitrary reasons to increase corporate profit, don’t go to war for specious reasons – have, in just a few years, gone from controversial to dully prescient and obviously correct.

Despite Moore’s popularity, his prescience, and his devotion to the cause of American improvement, the liberal establishment and their followers in educated circles of American life continually distance themselves from Moore with condescending disapproval and baseless mockery. I have recently argued with two self-proclaimed liberal college professors who attacked Moore for “ambushing” Charlton Heston and often “getting his facts wrong.” Their critique is parroted by many in the mainline press and soft liberal press. Mark Ames, writing for Exiled Online, does a terrific job of documenting and analyzing the betrayal of Moore from the American left. He cites the cannibalistic tactics of writers at the New York Times, LA Weekly, Salon, Dissent, Village Voice, and many other vogue publications of Democratic Party donors, to showcase what he calls the soft left’s “sleazy war against Michael Moore.”

Just as one is likely to hear criticism of Moore in liberal circles or carefully qualified appreciation, i.e. “I like him, but I wish he wasn’t so strident,” one will never hear any blasphemy spoken against the idol of modern, urbanite, educated liberal culture, Jon Stewart.

It’s impossible to understand the hatred of Moore from the cocktail party and faculty lounge scene of the liberal establishment without also understanding the same politically impotent group’s love for Jon Stewart. Understanding the juxtaposition of Moore andStewart reveals the true depths of the failure and soullessness of modern American liberalism.

Stewart is clearly a liberal with a particular agenda, but as Tom Junod, writing for Esquire, recently pointed out in a lengthy profile of the comedic news anchor, he refuses to stand for anything beyond “deciding who’s a dick in our politics and culture, without himself ever coming across as a dick.” Except when he does.

Stewart’s entire persona is based around a smug self-satisfaction that speaks for his audience’s sanctimonious self-confidence in being right. Whether he’s doing something righteous (blistering financial hack Jim Cramer), something easy and lazy (poorly impersonating the clownish Glenn Beck), or something weird (debating the lyrics of rapper Common, which he seemed to know nothing about, with Bill O’Reilly, who seemed to know less) he does so arrogantly in order to project the image his followers love when they look in the mirror: The erudite, sophisticated critic who knows better than everyone else.

The Hollywood Reporter polled registered Democrats and registered Republicans, asking if an actor or director’s political affiliations will stop them from seeing one of their movies. Most of the results were predictable — around half of Republicans won’t see a Sean Penn movie. However, I found it very interesting that 24 percent of registered Democrats refuse to see any Michael Moore movie, because they find him “embarrassing”, according to the article.

Apparently, the advancement of the liberal agenda is secondary to the projection of the liberal character. The liberal character enjoys irony for irony’s sake, parody for parody’s sake, and prefers detached satire as the ultimate weapon of political persuasion. The problem with the weapon, however, is that it is only polarizing, and far fewer people will find resonance in the message and style of Stewart than they will Moore.

Moore, while taking all the right positions and displaying all the right characteristics for a political and cultural leader – courage, boldness, uncompromised expression of contested beliefs – represents everything that the modern, educated liberal casts as inferior. Moore is obese. His appearance is consistently sloppy and working class. He’s a college dropout. He has an apartment in New York City, but continues to spend most of his time living in Michigan. He’s devoutly Catholic.

An overweight, relatively uneducated, Midwestern Catholic is the image that most liberals mentally sketch when they consider the cultural enemy. Stewart, on the other hand, is the physically fit, son of a physics professor, a college graduate, and an avatar of the intellectually superior style of yuppie political communication. His format allows him to express it perfectly – play a clip of a Republican saying something predictably stupid, make a bemused facial expression, and then cut it down in an exaggerated tone of disbelief or sarcastic agreement. Cue audience applause.

Moore is not only the aesthetic opposite with a radically different cultural formation. He is also Stewart’s communicative opposite. Moore is an emotionalist who brings moral outrage and romantic sentimentality to his films, interviews, speeches, and books. In Bowling for Columbine, he continually shows the audience and then later shows Charlton Heston images of children killed by gunfire. The most dramatic narrative of Fahrenheit 9/11, is the heartbreaking transformation of a flag waving war supporter to anti-war protestor of a woman whose son was killed in the Iraq War.

Moore’s new book, Here Comes Trouble, picks up where his latest documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, left off by exploring how his religious upbringing and family values shaped his political activism. Moore weeps, shouts, and uses words like “love” and “God”. All of this makes him tragically uncool according to the contemporary cultural ethos – an ethos that Stewart negotiates far more cleverly.

The cost of Stewart’s cleverness, however, is that to those who do not accept his soft liberalism and to those who do not share his cultural formation, he makes himself, in the words of cultural critic Lee Siegel, a “superficial fool”.

Stewart was at his most superficial and most foolish when he marshaled the disorganized and incoherent parade of politically lost souls known as the “Rally to Restore Sanity”. The event had its supporters and detractors, but it was difficult to find anyone who could give a precise summary as to what it was about. There were vague and borderline meaningless calls for people to behave more civilly and reasonably, but there weren’t any serious policy proposals or substantive sociological suggestions.

The majority of Stewart’s acolytes are under the age of 30, and through nightly viewing of The Daily Show, they are able to find their hero – a man who, with only one or two exceptions, will insist he is merely a comedian when pressed to answer any questions about his politics, agenda, or purpose. “Rally to Restore Sanity” succeeded as a cultural gathering of a band of jesters, who are frivolously amused by mockery of easy targets, but refuse to sacrifice the easiest of objects to surrender – the appearance of aloof hipness. Aloof hipness trumps emotional attachment for the Stewart generation.

Moore, even with his comedy, exemplifies a different model. His hilarious program The Awful Truth, which ran for two seasons on the Bravo Network, featured segments in which Moore staged a funeral in the corporate headquarters of a company refusing to cover a life saving operation for an employee. The employee played his best possum while lying in a casket in the lobby, while his loved ones acted out the part of mourners, many of them crying real tears. The humorous performance art accomplished the tangible end of getting the man coverage for his medically critical surgery.

On the second season, Moore responded to the Amadou Diallo shooting, in which police mistook the African immigrant’s wallet for a gun and killed him in a shower of 41 bullets, by walking the streets of New York to spray paint the wallets and cell phones of black men in orange, performing the magic trick of making a wallet transform into a gun by passing it from a white hand to a black hand, and quizzing patrol officers on the difference between a wallet and a gun. Before the segment began, Moore described a history of similar cases in which police officers shot black people holding candy bars, house keys, spatulas, hair clips, and remote controls.

His comedy fearlessly took on the tough targets. Moore was not content to taunt Rush Limbaugh from the sanctuary of a friendly studio filled with beaming sycophants. He confronted, and continues to confront, the villains of American society to demand restitution, even if it is only public humiliation, for their legal and lethal criminality.

Moore is often accused of “preaching to the choir”, but in reality he appears to be the only left-wing agitator attempting to have his homily heard by anyone outside of the church house. He makes movies for a general audience, and typically succeeds in drawing a diverse group of Americans to the theater. In addition to saving a man’s life, he is also responsible for Kmart removing all handgun ammunition from their shelves. When he was 18 years old, he became the youngest elected official in American history by winning a seat on his county educational board, which he used to advocate for racial integration in schools.

His movies, if only temporarily, consistently alter the public debate and discourse upon their theatrical release. He is one of the only recognizable public figures who are regularly invited on television to talk about the evils of corporate capitalism, the need for socialized medicine, and murderous nature of American foreign policy. As Moore himself recently acknowledged during an interview with Piers Morgan, “You won’t see Noam Chomsky on this program. You should, but you won’t. Because my movies reach a large audience, though, you’ll see me.”

Viewers who see Moore will see a man who is sincere, emotionally invested in his work, and, accept it or reject it, celebratory of a clear, coherent, and cohesive leftist agenda of sociopolitical reform. His work is a product of the Biblical pledge, which he learned from the priests and nuns of his youth, that God judges his children by how they treat the “least among you”, and that “the greatest among you will be your servant”. His work is steadfastly connected to a project of American improvement and a commitment to enhancing the quality of life for the mistreated, misunderstood, and misjudged.

Michael Moore is a populist and Jon Stewart is an elitist. The blind liberal embrace of the superficial smugness of Stewart and detachment from the heroism of Moore is the most powerful and convincing illustration of the suicidal tendencies, moral bankruptcy, and spiritual decay of the American left.