Jon Stewart is becoming a pariah to those who once lionized him as a folk hero.
His mortal sin? Defending Joe Rogan, which these days is like defending cyanide or Pol Pot. On the most recent episode of his podcast, “The Problem With Jon Stewart,” the comedian interviewed Joan Donovan, a Harvard professor and expert on misinformation. And for the second time in a week, Stewart angered those now calling for Spotify to duct-tape Rogan’s mouth and zip his muscled body into a burlap bag before throwing it into Lake Buchanan.
On the issue of “RoganGate,” as his podcast termed it, Stewart chose his words carefully while seeking perspective, a quality that defined his time on “The Daily Show.” In many ways, Jon Stewart was the Joe Rogan of the early aughts. He’s remembered as a liberal blowtorch who incinerated Republicans. He did. But people forget he also turned his satirical flame on liberal folly and interviewed guests – Donald Rumsfeld – who were reviled bogeymen to his audience.
I’m pretty sure Stephen Colbert’s bookers will never ping Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Stewart once told me there was nothing more important than honest dialogue. That is exactly why he is not piling on Rogan, as so many others have done. Stewart raised an interesting point on his podcast this week. He was against the Iraq War. But at the time, his opinion, including the belief Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, was dismissed as “misinformation” — the same term Rogan’s critics now brandish as a silencing cudgel.
“The New York Times, right, was a giant purveyor of misinformation and disinformation — I don’t know that the Times was purposeful — but misinformation,” said Stewart. “And that’s as vaunted a media organization as you can find. But there was no accountability for them. And I think where I get nervous is in the run up to the Iraq War and in the prosecution of the Iraq War, I was very vocal and sometimes cursed about that. But the mainstream view – the New York Times – was (Iraq) had weapons of mass destruction …
“My point is these are shifting sands. And I think I get concerned with, ‘Well, who gets to decide?’ On the Iraq War, I was on the side of what you would think on the mainstream as misinformation … But it turned out to be right years later.”
It’s a legitimate point. And one that, in the context of Rogan, is sure to make skulls explode. That is why there were headlines on Friday such as, “What Happened to Jon Stewart?” The media consensus is he has lost the plot, that defending Rogan is tantamount to arguing the Earth is flat or proselytizing on how cauliflower is delicious.
The media could not be more wrong. As Stewart noted: “It’s very easy to attack Rogan. And I’m not saying that’s not your right and that there aren’t things there to talk about. But what I’m saying is, let’s be careful because the sands can shift.”
In other words, you may strongly disagree with what a Rogan guest blathers on about in the course a three-plus hour interview. I often do. My wife hates that I listen. But I do because Rogan is willing to discuss ideas that are now all but censored elsewhere, which is more terrifying than any allegations of “misinformation.” And Stewart is right: the sands can shift. When Rogan was having discussions about a possible lab leak theory of COVID-19 early on, the experts dismissed this as a ridiculous conspiracy theory. Now the experts aren’t so sure.
The conventional wisdom is that ideology and partisan rage are tearing the culture asunder as irate mobs hurl grenades from silos. No doubt. But there is also a war between liberal and illiberal that transcends the left-right chasm. And that liberal comics — Joe Rogan, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher — are suddenly the enemy to some on the left should horrify everyone else on the left.
Enough with the circular firing squads. Stop eating your own, liberals. Joe Rogan is on your side for almost every social issue. Where he parts company, as does Maher, is over issues of identity politics and political correctness. And you know what? They’re not wrong.
When Stewart defends Rogan, what he is defending is free speech. Jon should change his first name to George. He is echoing George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” And amplifying George Washington: “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
Joe Rogan is not a monster. Jon Stewart is not a disgrace. They are just two fellows trying to have honest dialogue, two comedians trying to call balls and strikes at a time when the game itself is deemed “problematic” by outrage mobs. Stewart’s defense of Rogan is so refreshing.
It is also completely on-brand and in-line with everything he stands for.
“I still believe in engagement,” said Stewart. “How do you learn nuance without engagement? How do you get understanding without nuance? And I guess that’s my fear, that we lose that.”
It’s a fear we should all embrace.
And it’s why I applaud Jon Stewart’s brave defense of Joe Rogan.
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