In one of the English language’s greatest novels, Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley delivered one of the most profound warnings every delivered to humanity. In 1928, he made the point that the goal of the media is to control us as “machines,” and that by doing so, we lose our humanity – our honesty – our integrity.
Seventy-six years later comedian Jon Stewart delivered the same warning on the infamous gateway talk show Crossfire. When I saw it at the time, I was blown away. It literally formed much of my political philosophy. It was that powerful.
That day, the liberal host was Paul Begala, one of the most seasoned and articulate operatives in the Democratic Party. His opposition was Tucker Carlson, a smooth and righteous conservative who currently hosts the highest rated cable news show in history. The format was simple. One side defends their point of view and goes at it with all he’s got. Then the tables turn and the other side gets his shot. It was fun. You got to hone your talking points and cheer on your side. At the time, it was a ratings bonanza for CNN, and it ushered in a whole new era of cable news. Today, almost every cable news show follows that same basic format to some degree.
Stewart was funny from the start when he asked, “Why do we have to fight?” Why do you argue?” He was using his comedy to make a powerful point. His message was stunningly simple and stunningly clear for anyone who was watching. The point of debate in democracy is not to remain as two sides in constant opposition as if two poles of a magnet. The point of debate is to weigh arguments and find common ground – a balance, and it certainly is not to claim moral superiority and the opposition the antithesis.
“Stop, hurting America,” Stewart urged. “I’m here to confront you. You’re hurting us.” Both Begala and Carlson did their best to defend themselves with Carlson venting his frustration to the point of calling Stewart a “Dick.” He wasn’t being a “Dick.” He was telling the truth, and everyone could see it. He likened Crossfire to pro-wrestling and nothing more than “partisan hackery.” He talked about politics becoming dishonest. He asked where the candidates and their staffs went after a debate. Both Begala and Carlson tried to hide from the question. They knew where it was going. They go to “spin alley” Stewart chastised. “Don’t you think that’s kind of a drag for people watching at home, when you’re going to a place that’s literally called deception lane.”
That day made a difference in my life. No matter how much I believe in my cause, believe I have the moral high ground or believe my facts are compelling, unless I take the time to “hear” the opposition, truly examine their point of view or question the validity of my own arguments, I am not contributing to our democracy. Our democracy is not functioning right now, because our political parties have lost track of their obligation to the process. Narcissism in politics is just as destructive as narcissism in any other facet of life.
Donald Trump and Republicans are not always wrong, not always immoral and not always what our media portrays them. By the same token, we are not the extremes their media portrays us. For over twenty years now, we have been locked in a perpetual game of Crossfire where both sides tell half truths to make their point; where both sides care little about persuasion; and where the media continuously hones their skill in controlling us. We don’t need to see the movie. We’re living in a dystopian future, and our democracy has become the myth. The big question is, what do you do to get out of it?
Jon Stewart on Crossfire - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFQFB5YpDZE
Photo courtesy of The Nation.