Jon Stewart walked into a minefield.
Last week, the Daily Show aired a brief segment on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, and the show’s position drew an inordinate amount of friendly fire, including from this site. Stewart clearly wasn’t happy with the way his original segment was received.
So what did he learn from the experience? On Monday night, he let us know.
Stewart returned to the conflict, in a widely-disseminated segment titled We Need to Talk About Israel. Every time he tried to bring it up, Daily Show correspondents popped up from behind his desk and drowned him out with shouted slogans and epithets.
The takeaway was clear: it’s literally impossible to sit down and have a calm, rational discussion about politics in the Middle East. You simply can’t have a constructive conversation about what’s going on in Gaza. Any attempt to do so will surely end in quagmire.
Here’s the problem: Jon Stewart is wrong. And I know that thanks to Jon Stewart.
You see, the very next night after Stewart aired his original segment on Gaza, the Daily Show played host to once (and future?) White House resident “Ready For” Hillary Clinton. And when the discussion turned to the Middle East [in parts 3 and 4] — miracle of miracles — the two managed to hold a civil dialogue their substantially different viewpoints for nearly ten minutes.
Granted, we’re talking about Jon Stewart and Hillary Clinton, two measured and reasonable individuals who are probably not — let’s face it — all that personally invested in Gaza. It’s not like I expected them to devolve into a shouting match. But it’s also not like Stewart had trouble wrapping up his solo segment. He only took a beating afterward, when the video made the rounds on Facebook and various supporters of Israel took exception to his facile (yup) discussion of what they consider a serious topic.
By contrast, Stewart’s interaction with Hillary appears to have attracted almost no negative feedback. Compare coverage of the dialogue with responses to Stewart’s first piece. Granted, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are not as plugged in to outrage expressed by the pro-Palestinian community, but the pro-Israeli articles lambasting Stewart are easy to find using the Google, while similar efforts failed to turn up similar criticism of his talk with Clinton.
Maybe it’s because Hillary expressed sympathy for the positions espoused by both sides before — as Yair Rosenberg put it — “drawing on her own extensive experience in the Senate and as Secretary of State to buttress her” criticism of Hamas. In other words, maybe it’s because Hillary knew what she was talking about and was therefore able to discuss the conflict with a modicum of nuance and balance.
And still, the lesson Stewart managed to extract from all this is that talking about the conflict will only earn him widespread opprobrium. Lesson unlearned. So let me try and make and make it real simple: It’s not impossible. You’re just doing it wrong. If all you can manage to put together is a segment that amounts to “Well, gee, that side has bigger guns,” then all you’ve managed to accomplish, Mr. Leibowitz, is throwing bombs. Don’t act so shocked when they blow up in your face.