We shouldn't expect the semi-monthly (at best) New York Review of Books to have timely commentary on the news, but it can still be relevant sometimes. The new issue, dated December 9, includes a print appearance of a blog entry Janet Malcolm initially published early in November soberly scolding John Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" in Washington on October 30. For Malcolm, Stewart's demonstration against media-driven extremism amounted to little more than "a giant preen-in." Participants, she sniffs, -- including herself as a reporter -- "had all come to Washington in order to congratulate ourselves on our decency and rationality."
Stewart has earned Malcolm's polite contempt because he speaks in favor of "the little reasonable compromises we all make" as people who "don't live their lives as only Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives." Malcolm's response: "What compromises? (Didn't this kind of blurry apoliticality give us George W. Bush via Ralph Nader in 2000?)" If that isn't enough for you to draw your own conclusions about Janet Malcolm, here's a little more. "Stewart," she complains, did not "blame the right for the darkness we live in now," preferring instead to focus on his pet peeve, the amplification of partisan animosity by profit-motivated corporate news media dedicated to the 24-hour news cycle. Malcolm seems to think that she's defeated this argument by citing a New York Times writer who pointed out that "less than 2 percent of all Americans" watch the opinion shows that so annoy Stewart. But Stewart's point, as far as I understand it, has never been that the talkers have caused our country's economic problems, but that they get in the way of solving them because many of the most influential people are among the 2 percent who do listen to those shows.
Malcolm is more impressed by the One Nation Working Together rally held in Washington on October 2, but is depressed by what proved to be a much smaller turnout than Stewart drew. In a proper world, she clearly implies, the Oct. 2 event would have drawn the multitudes, but given the union and activist composition of that rally, I suspect that a different idea of "working together" prevailed there than Stewart has proposed. Malcolm must believe that all it takes to change things today is get a crowd together to make demands upon government. She's right to recognize a feeling of urgent need that may be inadequately acknowledged in Stewart's satires, but she's wrong to dismiss the new structural factors that keep those needs from getting met. To be blunt, Malcolm appears to offer no more effective solution to the nation's ills than to elect more Democrats. And like many a Democratic sympathizer, she deplores any reluctance to identify the cause of the people entirely with the Democratic party. She may think that the TV talkers reach only a small audience, but her readership makes the audience for partisanship just a little larger.