October 07, 2021

Article at Tim on Authory

The Elephant in the Room

Originally appeared on Patreon.

My family and I lived in the US from 2001-2005. George W. Bush was President, and the country was still groggy from the 911 attacks, while also executing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The public culture was incredibly gung ho, and commercial media was broadly supportive of the war/s. Dissent from that line was strictly policed. 

It wasn't just Fox News spewing out propaganda, or Rush Limbaugh viciously attacking anyone he deemed 'liberal' (see my earlier post about the Jersey Girls), it was The New York Times running stories based on false information about Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. It was the US Congress banning "French" fries from its cafeterias. It was flags on every lawn, on every porch, on every car window.

For anyone who had a slightly more questioning disposition, a stupid late-night comedy show on basic cable, The Daily Show, and its host, former stand-up comedian and bit actor, Jon Stewart, became the unofficial opposition.

Stewart and his team of writers pierced the veil of patriotic bullshit that draped most news media and, more importantly, did what journalists were resolutely refusing to do: hold the Bush Administration to account. The show became must-see TV for anyone who was sick of the gaslighting being perpetrated by the professionals, and it is really, really, really hard to overstate how important Stewart's dissenting voice was.

What The Daily Show did wasn't just satire: it was an essential journalistic service performed in the face of an entire media industry that had swallowed the official Kool Aid.

So, people like me, who hold that period of Stewart's work in a sort of awe, come to his new show as absolute fans, willing to give it and him the benefit of every doubt. Just so you know.

And there is a lot to like about The Problem with Jon Stewart, just released through AppleTV, and I look forward to future episodes. But I wanted to point out something that struck me while watching the pilot, something that I think is illustrative of how even the wisest people can have trouble seeing outside their own experience. How we can all simply miss the elephant in the room.

The show is, basically, a less comedic version of The Daily Show (TDS), going down the path that TDS alumni John Oliver has already paved. It isn't breaking new ground, though it is more focussed, tackling a single topic in each episode.

It takes a problem, sets out why it's a problem, discusses the problem with victims of the problem, and then discusses possible solutions to the problem with the people causing the problem.

An infinitely superior format to, say, Q&A.

In the first episode the problem investigated is the way the US Military and Government is mistreating vets, particularly those exposed to toxic waste when on duty, soldiers being forced to camp next to massive 'burn pits' the Army uses to dispose of everything from old uniforms to human waste and body parts, to batteries and other sorts of military equipment.

In the first segment of the show, the problem is set out succinctly.

In the second segment, Stewart conducts a roundtable with some vets who have not only been afflicted with life-threatening injury and disease because of the burn pits, but who have been kept from any sort of compensation or medical aid by a government bureaucracy that seems designed to achieve precisely that (lack of) resolution.

In the final segment, Stewart interviewed the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and tried to get him to explain how such callousness could be visited upon people who had served their nation.

It made for interesting viewing. The segments were well put together. The research was solid. Stewart was a compassionate interviewer with the vets, and a probing one with the official.

In between segments they did a few pre-recorded comedy bits, and they mostly fell flat, and at one stage, reacting to the way the in-studio audience was responding, even Stewart acknowledged the difficulty of combining comedy with a serious presentation.

Overall, the show was good, and it at least gave a public platform to veterans who have otherwise been mired in soul-destroying bureaucratic fob offs. It might even put some pressure on the Government to address what is clearly an obscenity.

But here's the thing that really struck me. 

What exactly was the problem here?

The show presented it as the fact that these veterans, once discharged, had to jump through ridiculous hoops in order to prove that what ailed them was actually caused by their tour of duty. The problem was presented as trying to change the regulations so that a presumption of causation was made in such circumstances, rather than force veterans to show to some nth degree that breathing in fumes from a burn pit while in Iraq was the precise cause of their lung cancer, skin disease or whatever it was that ailed them, and, in many cases, was killing them.

On this matter, Stewart probed the Veterans' Affairs Secretary, politely but ruthlessly, and succeeded in making the point––though not gaining the admission––that the regulations were bunk, nothing more than a government excusing itself from a responsibility that was rightly theirs.

At no point, though, did Stewart make what to almost any non-American watching was the blindly obvious point: why weren't these people just given bloody healthcare? And beyond that, why is the US still the only developed country that fails to provide an adequate public health service?

That was the real problem, that in America, even military veterans are not automatically able to access health care.

I suspect this misdiagnosis of "the problem" will happen again as the series continues, because, well, it's the zeitgeist, isn't it? We are really bad at confronting hard truths, and more and more, what ails us is precisely that: our inability to deal directly with the problem at hand, to even see what the problem is, and to instead waste our time dealing with what are, in fact, symptoms of some bigger, or underlying problem.

Climate change, mental health––just to name some obvious examples––are issues where we constantly sidestep the fundamentals and instead focus on peripheral matters. Where we pathologise structural matters or produce bogus technical solutions to what are deeper social or economic distortions.

Maybe there is room yet for a program called something like, What's Really the Problem with Jon Stewart.

Anyway, I will keep watching the series, and I might, at the end of it, do a wrap-up review and see how the whole thing played out.

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