Jon Stewart is not a superhero

Last week Jon Stewart interviewed alleged historian David Barton on The Daily Show, an interview which has been posted in its entirety on the show’s website. Barton, whatever you think of him and his approach to history, is undeniably both a fast talker and an aggressive debater. He dominates the conversation, cutting Stewart off in mid-sentence when he doesn’t like the thrust of the question. He flatly denies that he said things, even when he said them on the record, knowing that few people will ever bother to fact-check him. And he comes armed with plausible-sounding talking points, which he claims are backed up by primary source documents.

(In a somewhat touching verbal tic, Barton always says “we have” these original documents, and indeed his organization WallBuilders does collect original manuscripts. Part of Barton’s rhetorical strategy, as Yoni Appelbaum has noted in The Atlantic, is to undermine trust in actual historians, and emphasizing his physical possession of these original documents is a very important part of that strategy. In the Stewart interview, he says his approach is “historical reclamation” — implying, not too subtly, that historians are somehow suppressing important information that Barton has been able to unearth through original research and buying a lot of antique books.)

The short version — if you don’t want to watch the videos — is that Stewart got pantsed on his own show. In an interview that’s longer than The Daily Show itself, Barton dances effortlessly out of Stewart’s grasp, strewing falsehoods and misleading statements as he goes and refusing to acknowledge any of his own previous statements when Stewart brings them up. And this is not the first time this has happened, either — in early 2010 Stewart was completely unable to pin down John “torture memo” Yoo, despite a dogged effort and, clearly, a great deal of preparation. Why this should have happened to Stewart — a smart man and a capable interviewer — deserves some thought.

To some extent, Stewart’s low-key, fact-based approach just doesn’t work with people who are shameless, including both Yoo and Barton. You can’t force someone into a corner who doesn’t feel bound by the walls of your morality. When Stewart got Jim Cramer to admit his own lack of foresight in pumping up the pre-crash economic bubble, it seemed to many liberals that Stewart had a magic talent for extracting raw truth from unwilling interviewees. But in fact Cramer either had a conscience or was willing to pretend to have one in order to rehabilitate himself, so forcing him to confront his own record in an honest, open conversation was an approach that made sense. The same tactic does not work with conscience-free stonewallers.

Stewart was also able to effectively torpedo Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson on their own show, to the point that CNN actually cancelled Crossfire. No one would accuse Begala or Carlson of being overly burdened with shame, but here Stewart’s other weapon was in play: he was working in his area of expertise. Stewart is essentially a commentator on how the newsmedia operate. He is a news critic, if you will. It was easy for Stewart to speak powerfully and knowledgeably about corrupt and harmful media practices, because that is his specialty. Law and early American history are not.

Stewart is a brilliant and well-educated man, which is why he’s able to comment with humor and insight on the media’s handling of quite a broad range of subjects: government, education, war, health care, even science. He has a thoughtful generalist’s second-tier understanding of many subjects, and this serves him well as a commentator and humorist. It serves him less well in a head-to-head debate with passionate and shrewd antagonists with deep knowledge of a narrow subject.

Stewart is not alone in this, of course; Bill Maher, another comedian-turned-political-analyst, is frequently not quick enough on his feet to unravel his guests’ talking points. But Maher hosts a panel show, which means he has allies available to catch him when he stumbles. Also, he hosts an hour-long talk show — admittedly with about twenty minutes of jokes — while Stewart gets a five-to-seven minute interview segment. And because Maher’s style is more abrasive than Stewart’s — because he has not painted himself as the reasonable middle — he can often puncture misleading rhetoric with a vicious joke even when he can’t manage to do it with logic. Stewart’s gentleness and seemingly instinctive inclusiveness often make it hard for him to go for the kill with a joke when he can’t get there with argument.

All of which seems to point to a need for a format change. The Daily Show is obviously not going to morph into an hour-long interview show a la Charlie Rose. But there’s no reason Stewart couldn’t periodically schedule two guests at once in order to facilitate an actual (if still quite civil) debate of facts. Why not pair John Yoo with Laurence Tribe or Glenn Greenwald or Larry Siems to debate the constitutionality of torture? Why not bring on Akhil Reed Amar or David McCullough to rein in some of David Barton’s more outlandish claims about our founding documents? Or — if too many guests would be unwilling to share a slot with their ideological opponents — why not at least schedule follow-up guests who can do correction on egregious errors or misrepresentations on previous shows?

Jon Stewart’s commitment to reasonable, thoughtful discussion — his unwillingness to employ the I-shout-you-shout strategy of a show like Crossfire or the bullying tactics of a Bill O’Reilly — is admirable. But it’s possible to maintain one’s commitment to that philosophy while admitting that you’re out of your depth. Attempting to engage snakes like Yoo and used car salesmen like Barton with humor and openness is a mistake. It’s not perceived as honorable. It’s perceived as weakness — as a flaw in the armor, through which the can drive their carefully crafted rhetorical blades. And when the daggers are out, it’s time to draw your gun.

Correctives to Barton’s performance on The Daily Show are, of course, available on the internet. Chris Rodda excerpts a section of her own book, Liars For Jesus, on the Talk2Action website, debunking what is clearly Barton’s favorite anecdote, that of the printing of the Aitken Bible of 1782, which Barton implies was printed on behalf of Congress for use in schools. He trots this story out as incontrovertible proof that our Founders were deeply concerned with the promotion of Christianity, especially in the education of our youths. In fact Congress merely authorized its chaplains to vouch for the general accuracy of the text by reading selected chapters and passed the following resolution:

Whereupon, Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an instance of the progress of arts in this country, and being satisfied from the above report [of the chaplains], of his care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorise him to publish this recommendation in the manner he shall think proper.

Make of that what you will. It sounds to me like the sort of thing Congress does all the time, entering resolutions into the Congressional Record commemorating Ramadan and recognizing “the Islamic faith as one of the great religions of the world,” or what-have-you. And while Congress declined Aitken’s request that it actually purchase copies of his Bible, the U.S. Postal Service, under the direct authority of the U.S. Government, did issue stamps in honor of Eid Al-Fitr in 2001. One assumes this was not because Congress and the Board of Governors of the United States Postal Service were attempting to make this “a more Muslim nation.” Occasional celebrations of a particular religion and vague statements supporting piety as a public good in no way open the door for legislating based on religious principles or an establishment of religion.

(Rodda sees in the above resolution a motive more mundane than heavenly — Aitken’s Bible was “an instance of the progress of arts in this country,” i.e., printing, which was the kind of thing the fledgling country was trying to prove it could do just as well as Britain. “The war had created an opportunity for American printers to prove themselves [because trade with England had been suspended], and Robert Aitken had done that. Printing an accurate edition of a book as large as the Bible was a monumental task for any printer, and Congress wanted it known that an American printer had accomplished it.”)

But suppose the Congress had, in 1782, commissioned Aitken’s Bible, or endorsed the religion contained in it? So what? Religious liberty was a much newer and less comfortable idea in 1782 than many of the other freedoms that would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The freedom of political speech traced its origins to the immunity members of Parliament enjoyed under English law; the idea of jury trial, too, had deep roots in English common law. But England had an official state church — as did many of the American colonies at the time of the Revolution. The Articles of Confederation, under which the newly free states were still laboring in 1782, does not mention religion except as a possible cause of war. The Constitution, whose sixth article forbids any religious test for federal office, would not be written for another five years, and the Bill of Rights, with its crucial Establishment and Free Exercise clauses, would not be ratified until 1791. Even Thomas Jefferson’s foundational Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written in 1777, would not pass the Virginia legislature and become law until 1786. And the 14th Amendment, which applied the “privileges” and “immunities” of the Bill of Rights to state as well as federal law, was nine decades away. The great “wall of separation” between church and state was, in 1782, still just a pile of newly-unearthed field stones.

Barton, of course, relies on most people’s fuzziness about early American history, especially the dates, to confuse and dazzle both his target audience (by and large, evangelical Christians who would like to project their ideas of Christian dominionism onto the Founders) and his interlocutors in the media. He knows well that the fact-checking done by people like Rodda will reach many fewer people than Stewart’s show, and he knows, too, that YouTube clips of his verbal three-card monty game against Stewart will be passed around in the echo chamber for years to come.

For the few interested in monitoring Barton’s careless way with the truth, Religion Dispatches and People For the American Way got links — hot, tasty links!

The sad irony in all this, of course, is that Barton’s fundamental point — that the Founders did not protect religious freedom to quite the same degree we do today — is an interesting and important one, worth our attention. The history of our civil liberties — liberties more strongly protected today than two centuries ago — deserves a better and more dignified champion.

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