Before we go any further, you have to watch the video of Jon Stewart destroying Tucker Carlson on CNN’s “Crossfire”. It’s quick but violent, and can be seen here or here or here or here, or if you’re a pussy, you can read the transcript here.
Pretty stunning, isn’t it? It may have been the most incredible piece of television to air in the last five years, though its embarrassing frankness will never end up on those Best TV Ever™ moments like when that guy threw the hatchet at the dummy’s crotch on Johnny Carson. Nope, this will be filed away in CNN’s “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened” bin of self-delusion.
The upshot of this clip will be, well, nothing (of course), but like the Nixon/China cliché, this is the sort of smackdown that could only have been delivered by the least likely of sources, during the week when his book was at the top of charts. Jon had his moment, and he fucking used it.
The clip is uncomfortable-making. It throws away all the rules of television grace, and it might even seem a bit disingenuous of Stewart to tackle “Crossfire” when everybody knows the show is a farce anyway. What he did, though, was remind a few of us what it was like to feel “outrage.”
Outrage, as a concept, was never given to us as children. My generation, if I’m still allowed to use that word, had cynicism bred into our DNA; it was innate. Baby Boomers had to come by their cynicism the hard way, but us? Like Leonard Cohen sang, we always knew “the dice were loaded,” so none of CNN or Fox or MSNBC’s warped behavior comes as any surprise.
Jon Stewart, however, is a very early Generation X-er, and is still capable of outrage. Deep in my gut, as I watched this show, I felt the embers flicker of a similar disgust, as though I had briefly woken up from a long sleep, and remembered a time when Walter Cronkite would provide a sure, solid word about the events of the day. I remembered what it was like to turn to the media for facts, and it was so, so painful to fully grasp how low we’ve sunk.
The BBC and PBS are still relatively accessible to most Americans, so there is always respite from the sulfur-laced vitriol and quarter-baked waffle batter that passes for ideas on cable news, but the Stewart clip reminded me of much we have learned to put up with, and it was awful.
The problem is that Tucker Carlson found a niche for himself on the network, being the Alex P. Keaton bowtie-donning neo-iconoclast, and understood that if he played his part, he, his wife and his kids would have a nice income and possible book deals. If there had been room for a leftist counterpart, and if my neck were normal-sized, I would have jumped at the chance too.
But like all neo-con ideologues, he lost his shame sometime around the mid-to-late 90s. When Carlson criticized John Edwards for getting rich off of “Jacuzzi cases” – referencing a suit brought by the family of a girl whose intestines were sucked out of her body by a public pool – I knew he’d lost his mind.
In this clip, Jon Stewart, one of the legendary cool kids from a graduating year further in the past, has come back to school and reminded Tucker that he has lost his way. Stewart is taking a look around “Crossfire” like it was the old high school gym festooned with cruel posters about the opposing team, and can summon up nothing but disgust.
That’s what happens when you go looking for outrage, and only find numbness and spectacle. The question is this: will we ever care enough to bring shouting matches like “Crossfire” to their knees? Do we even want a civil discourse? Baby Boomers were late adopters of irony; maybe us Gen Xers can muster up a latter-day conversion and finally find something to offend us.