Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Stewart, Santorum and the culture war

TNR's T.A. Frank didn’t like (subscription required) Jon Stewart’s interview with Rick Santorum last night, but I agree with Ann Althouse, who thought it a decent interview:

Stewart made his points subtly, in the middle of the mushy niceness. Santorum kept talking about the "ideal" of the man-and-woman-with-children family, and Stewart accepted that ideal but asked why not include other people in that positive model even if it's a step away from ideal. He noted when Santorum equated heterosexuality with virtue and got Santorum to back away from that equation a tad.

I think Stewart was trying to make a connection and a lot of the blather was the kind of small talk that establishes that one can talk. It drew the audience in, and it drew Santorum into a relaxed dialogue. (Did you see Santorum smiling about Victoria's Secret?)

Sure, Stewart could have shredded him with harsh questions, but that's not the only way to talk about politics.

It’s hard to strike the right balance in a situation like this. “Tough” questioning would simply have polarized the discussion and made it unpleasant - not good TV. Stewart made an admirable attempt to avoid that without lobbing softballs. In fact, comedians are the only people I’ve seen even try to do this lately in a cable universe devoted to the bipolar shout-fest. Bill Maher conducted one interesting experiment a few months back on "Real Time." He had Ward Churchill of “little Eichmanns” fame on with a man whose brother had perished in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Such an encounter at first seemed purely a stunt, one almost guaranteed to devolve into a voyeuristic disaster, all the psychic and political wounds of the past few years erupting in our faces. The segment had a crackling tension, the sense that any moment it would explode. But Maher kept it civil, and pretty soon Churchill was squirming, obliged to face a real person instead of his imagined America of corporatized exploiters. It was great television.

Why is it only comedians – well really, only Maher and Stewart and maybe Letterman – can create a middle ground, tenuous and unstable though it may be, for discourse between blue and red? They do provide a kind of safety valve – a rare, cool and shaded space in the media where shouting talking points doesn’t work. There’s always the risk that such encounters will end up going mushy. But let’s give these guys some credit for showing that the culture wars need not always be fought to the death.