Although The Daily Show regularly lampoons heavy-handed police tactics, most of the time devoted to Occupy Wall Street is spent mercilessly ridiculing the protesters themselves and concern trolling their movement.
On November 15th, shortly before 1:00 in the morning, police in riot gear staged a surprise raid of Zuccotti park to brutally remove the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Amy Goodman and the Democracy Now team were on the scene talking to protesters who reported that police tore down tents “without even checking” whether anyone was inside and pepper-sprayed, pushed, and beat protesters. They also reported that sanitation workers threw the protesters’ personal belongings into dump trucks, eventually hauling away 26 truckloads.
Protesters were told they could later claim the items, but Goodman observed, “look[ing] across the street at the scores of sanitation workers dumping the property into garbage trucks, it is hard to believe that anyone will be able to recover their belongings.” One protester told DN producer Aaron Maté that “everything me and my wife own” had been taken. He and his wife were out of work, unable to get housing, and had decided to join OWS. All their worldly possessions were in the camp.
The next evening The Daily Show aired a segment recorded just days earlier, delivering its most scathing ridicule to date of the OWS protest, with Samantha Bee at one point mocking a protester for owning personal property, an iPad. It occurred to me then that TDS team, and Jon Stewart in particular, function as latter day court jesters for the 1 percent.
Traditionally, the court jester served to amuse the monarch and his court, but also had a privileged position in that he was allowed to mock and ridicule the rulers when their behavior became too egregious or hypocritical. However, he could not go too far. His role was to admonish extreme behavior, but never to challenge the status quo. In her book, Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World, Beatrice K. Otto observes that the traditional court jester “is in a sense on the side of the ruler… [H]e is no rebel or revolutionary. His detached stance allows him to take the side of the victim in order to curb the excesses of the system without ever trying to overthrow it.”
Similarly, TDS ridicules and lampoons the excesses of the 1 percent, yet never really challenges the status quo. Indeed, TDS goes a step further than the traditional court jester by mocking not just the aristocracy, but also the peasantry, when the latter engage in direct action or civil disobedience to agitate for fundamental social change.
In the case of OWS, Jon Stewart ridicules the 1% (or more often, their enforcers) when he perceives that policing of the protesters has become excessive. For example, in a segment aired on 9/29, Stewart mocked the policeman who pepper sprayed at close range women who were kettled in orange plastic fencing. (Actually, he mostly poked fun at the policeman’s name, Tony Bologna).
In late October, when city officials in Oakland authorized the removal of protesters, Stewart took aim at the militancy of the police action. Stewart deadpanned, “So the city was concerned about a public safety threat, so they did this:” before airing video of police firing tear gas and flash grenades, giving all the appearances of a war zone. (This was the same event in which the Iraq war veteran, Scott Olsen, suffered a severe head injury from a tear gas canister.) “Seems a little heavy-handed,” Stewart remarked. He went on to ridicule police for dragging away “ruffians” such as an older college professor-type and somebody in a wheelchair, when every Sunday Oakland hosts scary-looking Raiders fans with face paint and skull masks.
Also in October, Stewart called out lawmakers for failing to implement the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, but, at the same time, managed to get a condescending jibe in at the protesters.
America cannot expect a bunch of disenfranchised park-dwellers to come up with a solution to its economic woes – they have a political ruling class to do that… If the people who were supposed to fix our financial system had actually done it, the people who have no idea how to solve these problems wouldn’t be getting shit for not offering solutions.
Condescension aside, the statement reveals gross ignorance of the people and activities of the movement. Many of the protesters are college-educated; they put together a 4,000 book library before the police destroyed it; and they have organized teach-ins with, among others, grad students and professors from the New School, labor journalist Steve Early, and Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz, one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, which helped organize the January 25th uprising.
Although Stewart consistently ridicules heavy-handed police tactics, the overwhelming majority of time devoted to OWS is spent mercilessly ridiculing the protesters. The primary methods include lampooning the supposed hypocrisy of the movement, focusing on the misdeeds of the few, mocking the unconventional, and concern-trolling. In the process, TDS contributors serve, intentionally or not, to strengthen the talking points and narratives of the most egregious right-wingers.
For example, one of the earliest talking points in the right wing media was that the protesters were “dirty.” Newt Gingrich advised the protesters to “go get a job right after you take a bath.” Ann Coulter compared the OWSers unfavorably with the Tea Partiers saying, “The Tea Partiers have a job, showers, and a point.” On the blog site RedState, Erik Erikson called the protesters “damn dirty Communists” while another RedState blogger called them “a slothful and dirty bunch.”
Samantha Bee did her part in a segment on October 6th, where she “investigated” claims that the protesters were dirtying up the restrooms of local businesses without making purchases. When one local told Bee that a sink had been broken off the wall of the restroom in his restaurant by someone trying to bathe in it, she was off and running. Confronting a random protester who gleefully admitted to using a restaurant restroom without buying anything, Bee lectured him:
Everyone wants to support what you’re doing, but when you go into the stores and use their washrooms and then the sink breaks and water goes everywhere and the place floods and there’s ass juice on everything, it’s not good for anybody.
The protester calmly replied, “I don’t disagree.”
Certainly the proprietors of the fast food restaurants who were complaining to Bee had a justifiable grievance. The sheer numbers of people using their restrooms were overwhelming their ability to keep the place clean and allow their customers to use the facilities without waiting in long lines. However, the protesters had nowhere else to go. The city refused to allow Porta Potties at Zuccotti until late October, and when Mayor Bloomberg finally relented, he stipulated that the city would not provide them; they would have to be paid for out of private funds.
Of course, these facts don’t support the comedy stylings of Bee, who decided she would help “heal the country” by marching a protester into Panini’s and introducing him to the manager. “This is Bobby,” she announced, “and he’s going to buy something.” When the protester told the manager, “I actually don’t have any money,” Bee responded with mock disgust and outrage. “Oh, for fuck’s sake! Fine.”
The segment ends with Bee following Bobby into the restroom, presumably to make sure he doesn’t attempt any “crotch bathing” in the sink, and her voice over: “If you want justice for all workers, you also have to believe in justice for the workers in your neighborhood.”
Perhaps Bee intended the piece as just an extended toilet joke. Nevertheless, it established several themes that have been repeated in a number of TDS segments ever since – the hypocrisy of the protesters (don’t they care about all workers?), their failure to comply with established conventions (you must buy something if you want to use the restroom), and concern-trolling (we want to support you, but you’re not behaving perfectly so that we can).
Stewart himself reiterates a couple of these themes in segment aired on 10/17. He begins by announcing that the OWS website has collected nearly $300,000 in donations. Stewart, who makes $1.5 million a year and lives in a $3.8 million home, registers mock shock and disbelief: “You have $300,000? You’d better change the title of protest.” He then displays a photo of a protester holding a sign that changes its caption from “We are the 99%” to “We are the 7%.” Apparently, the protesters are hypocrites unless they are penniless; paradoxically, they must also be prepared to purchase food every time they want to use the restroom. (Interestingly, that same week, protesters voted to allocate $3,000 of their funds to purchase supplies to clean up the park.)
Stewart then shows a photo of a butler serving, presumably, hash brownies. Feigning outrage, Stewart cries, “They’ve got a butler! Son of a bitch!” Then, affecting the voice of an English butler, he mugs, “Sir, your hash, sir,” intentionally or not, calling up stereotypical images of protesters as pot-heads.
But these are just incidental comments on the way to the gem Stewart’s been building toward – the infamous photo of the guy with his pants down, apparently defecating on a police cruiser. “For all their popularity, for all the participants, for the thoughtful critiques of our power structure, there’s also this: Guy taking a shit on a police car.” Stewart then begins one of his trademark scoldings:
“No! No! Bad!”
[Stewart pretends to spray the guy, as if training a dog. He rolls up paper and smacks his palm with it.]
“No! Naughty! No!” Stewart scolds, wagging his finger at the camera.
“‘Cause here’s the problem. Unfortunately, protests are often as much about optics, as they are about substance. And you do not want this (shows photo of tanks lined up) to be your Tiannamen square. You have tapped into a real injustice that people feel about the global financial markets.” Smirking, he concludes, “And nothing can derail your movement faster than someone who is unable to derail their movements.”
I’ve really never understood toilet humor, but I do get that this photo is irresistible to many comedians. Nevertheless, focusing on the misbehavior of a few is a time-honored method of discrediting a movement. Stewart thus both reinforces the “bad optics” at the same time he purports to be concerned about its effects. It’s hard to believe Stewart doesn’t realize the protesters already understand “optics” and therefore hard to take this piece of “helpful” advice as anything more than concern trolling.
It’s also hard to believe that TDS didn’t know, or couldn’t easily find out, that the photo itself is suspect, taken at the request of the Daily Mail, a newspaper known to be hostile to OWS, by a photographer who admitted he didn’t know whether the individual was a protester or just a street person, of a police car with 81st precinct, Bedford Stuyvesant, markings, while Zuccotti park is in the 1st precinct.
Stewart repeats the pattern of focusing on the misbehavior of a few and offering advice on proper protest deportment in a November 3rd segment. He begins with news video of violence in Oakland, with voice over reporting that protesters damaged and defaced a Whole Foods store. Again, Stewart launches into a scolding:
No! No! No damage. [Mocks hand gestures of OWS indicating disapproval].
I know it’s not all of you. It’s a small percentage, a small number of you. But you will always be judged by your worst elements. And it’s very tough to wrangle a leaderless movement. So may I suggest a method that worked best on me when I was younger: Peer pressure.
The violence occurred during a day of action in Oakland, that included an attempt to shut down the port. Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan told the LA Times that of the estimated 7000 protesters, only about 60-70 were involved in the violence. The peaceful majority didn’t need Stewart’s tip about peer pressure. According to the LA Times:
Throughout Wednesday, members of the crowd had attempted to redirect and dissuade those self-described anarchists. When they broke windows and defaced several banks with graffiti, some Occupy Oakland protesters returned to scrub the walls of a Wells Fargo bank branch. Another placed a sign on the shattered window of a Chase bank branch that read, “We are better than this.”
While Stewart highlights the misbehavior of a few as a pretext for concern trolling, John Oliver takes a different tack, focusing instead on the “peculiarities” of the protesters, suggesting these make it hard for “normal” people like him to fit in and participate.
Like Stewart and Bee, Oliver offers a perfunctory comment of support for OWS before moving on to the main event, lampooning the protesters themselves. He begins with video of street theater; women dancing with dollar bills taped over their mouths, articulate protesters with whom Oliver would agree if only they weren’t wearing costumes, and drum circles; before moving on to debate a protester on the value of the OWS hand gestures. “You can’t just make up gestures!” he insists. “Clapping already exists! Applause is already there!”
Next, he tries out the human microphone, telling the apparently good-natured crowd:
The human microphone. While well-intentioned. Is incredibly annoying. And embodies everything. That people find frustrating. About movements like this.
Also like Stewart and Bee, he presents himself as a guy who just wants to “help,” musing, “Every movement needs their attention-grabbers… Maybe if I could help them strike just the right balance, it might be a bit more palatable.” To that end, he sits down with a group of “normal” people representing “the 98% of Americans who might agree with the protesters’ message, were it not for the protesters themselves.”
Ultimately, the group affirms general agreement with OWS’ economic critique, but there’s the Jets game to watch, kids to get to bed, and so on. Oliver’s point, made in the last 20 seconds of the 5 minute segment, is that “normal” people need to join the “weirdos” who are actually trying to build a movement for social change. But so much time is spent on the oddities of the OWSers, the piece feels instead like pure ridicule.
The most egregious segment to date has to be Samantha Bee’s piece on the “class divide” at the OWS camp. In it, Bee purports to show how a movement that “was born out of the loftiest of ambition” had become divided into two classes, the “college hipster elitists” and the “downtown bums” with their drum circles. Conversations with protestors are heavily sliced and diced to support this thesis, but that is fairly typical for this kind of comedy.
Nevertheless, the piece feels forced, and Bee’s body language reflects this. Lacking the subtlety of Larry Wilmore and the wit of Stephen Colbert, Bee falls back on physical tics, such as exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures, in an attempt to wring a laugh from her audience.
The overall message of the piece had right wing bloggers chortling all over the internet: The OWSers are hypocrites and social inequality is inevitable. Andrew Brietbart’s website exemplified the mood: “Even Jon Stewart couldn’t stomach the layers of hypocrisy – and filth – at the heart of Occupy Wall Street.” (Stewart introduced the segment by referring to the protesters as “the least toileted generation.”)
Two weeks before Bee’s segment aired, the New York Daily News ran a piece on the class divide at Zuccotti, describing the rift as arising not among OWSers, but rather between that group and hangers-on with an entirely different agenda. Reporter Harry Seigel describes the situation:
The “model” civilization that’s sprung up at Zuccotti is itself increasingly divided between the stakeholders in the nascent movement who feel invested in the emerging economic, social and cultural causes of “the 99%,” and hangers-on, including a fast-growing contingent of lawbreakers and lowlifes, many of whom seem to have come to Zuccotti in the last week with the cynical encouragement of the NYPD… The rift between them is growing. And two of OWS’s core values, generosity and inclusion, are being put to a crucial test.
Of course, the real story doesn’t serve the TDS agenda. And it should be clear by now that they have one – and that it doesn’t favor OWS. Individual bits can be funny, but taken as a whole, the body of work communicates a specific political position. Even if one accepts (and I don’t) the “false equivalency” that “both sides” – the one wearing the boot, and the one with the boot on his neck – deserve equal skewering, far more time has been devoted to ridiculing the 99% than the 1%. And that’s counting the anomalous pro-99%, John Hodgman segment that I’ve excluded from this analysis.
It’s a point of view that gives lip service to protesters’ grievances, but ultimately trivializes both the people and their concerns. It’s a point of view that says you can protest, but only if you do so with a minimum of inconvenience to the rest of us, behave like a “normal” person, and work within the existing system. If any one of you steps out of line, you are all responsible and your demands may be invalidated. It’s an agenda that says economic inequality is inevitable; it even emerged among you. And therefore you are hypocrites to claim you believe in, and are working toward, a more equitable society.
Stewart and TDS are entitled to their point of view. They don’t owe it to me, or to “the Left,” or OWS to adhere to any particular political ideology. But when challenged on their point of view, it would be refreshing if for once Stewart and company have the balls to own it, instead of cringing behind the copout, “I’m just a comedian.”