The Daily Show and the Smug Style

Jon Stewart - Smug StyleI noticed a couple of weeks ago that I had totally stopped watching The Daily Show. So I went back and watched a week of it. It’s still quite a funny show. But it is nothing you won’t see on countless other late night talk shows. There is nothing insightful about it. And I say this as one who had my problems with the show under Jon Stewart. I agree with Emmett Rensin in The Smug Style in American Liberalism. There was always a problem with it trying to be non-ideological and thinking that policy fights were really just a question of everyone accepting what the facts are.

But the new show with Trevor Noah is just an exercise is triviality. I have to question the idea of giving the show to a recent immigrant, given the tendency to see one’s new locale as charming and benign. And the United States is really not either of those things. Or at least not things that make for good social satire. Another problem may be his age. Certainly, John Oliver seems to be more in the tradition of Jon Stewart, and he is both older and less of a newcomer to the nation.

Oliver definitely is continuing the smug style of liberalism. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As I’ve noted in the past, when Jon Stewart hosted The Daily Show, I may have had problems with it but I watched it every day. And John Oliver’s long segments on Last Week Tonight are incredible. His most recent was an excellent example, but also telling because it isn’t about politics at all. It’s about scientific studies and the terrible job that the media does in discussing them. Check it out:

This is an old problem in statistics. If you do the same study enough times, you will occasionally get a study that finds something that is incorrect. This is something that drives me crazy about the way polls are presented. I often hear things like, “Candidate A and B are in a statistical tie.” This is because the two candidates are closer than the margin of error. But this is meaningless. The margin of error is just a measure of how many people were sampled. No one poll is very meaningful, although it might by chance be correct.

The reason that the smug style of liberalism is really not a problem to me is because our society is so out of kilter that just getting the facts right is a big deal. It reminds me of what I said about Paul Krugman years ago: he’s a lot more conservative than I am and I look forward to the day that I start disagreeing with him. That day is at hand, of course. Just check out his recent blog post, The Facts Have A Well-Known Center-Left Bias — a clear case of false equivalence.

But it is sad to see The Daily Show sink even below the smug style. It isn’t helped by the fact that Noah now has Donald Trump to slam night after night. It does make me wonder what will happen once Donald Trump goes away and Noah doesn’t have permission to go after so much else that is just as dangerous, but perhaps not as obviously so.

It’s sad to say, but I miss Jon Stewart’s smug style of non-ideological liberalism. I can’t imagine a day in my lifetime that we won’t need it.

Acrophobia and Free Will

Golden Gate Bridge - AcrophobiaI remember a time I was hosting a programmer from Romania (yes, that guy). And he wanted to take some pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge before he left. So I drove him over to the north side of the bridge where there is parking with a great view of the bay and the city. And it is just a short walk to the bridge itself. I went with him. But after only 30 feet onto the bridge, I had to leave him. I was suffering from extreme acrophobia. I was panicked.

I had suffered with acrophobia my entire life, yet this was a little surprising to me. As part of my work at that time, I spent a tremendous amount of time flying around in a little 2-seat Cessna. It was something that I very much did not want to do when the company had started. But the hardware/software system that we were developing was so complicated and fragile at the time that I was the only one who could do it. I managed it in part by just focusing on the work I had to do. But the truth is that it wasn’t that big a deal regardless. I have never had aerophobia — the fear of flying.

(I do have a very rational fear the wings falling off planes because I’ve known too many engineers in my life and I don’t have a high opinion of them. But that’s another issue.)

I’ve seen The Matrix a dozen times, and every time Neo goes out on that ledge, I squirm in my seat. I’m doing so right now just thinking about it.

The truth is that I don’t have to be on the Gold Gate Bridge to have a panic attack. I get pretty much the same thing walking over an overpass. And I’ve come to think that the basis of my acrophobia is my sense of free will. (I don’t believe in actual free will, of course.) It doesn’t much matter that I’m not suicidal. When I see a ledge that I could run to and throw myself over, I panic. It’s not the ledge; it’s my imagination that terrifies me.

I’m the same way when I watch films. I’ve seen The Matrix a dozen times, and every time Neo goes out on that ledge, I squirm in my seat. I’m doing so right now just thinking about it. The mind is a crazy thing and what goes on inside it is often much more threatening than what’s going on outside in the “real” world.

None of this is to say that I don’t have a general fear of heights. But if I’m in something like an aerial tram, I might be ill at ease, but I’m not freaking out. On the other hand, if the tram was open air, I’d be lying on the floor convulsing. And to be honest, I’m not sure I would want to get rid of this kind of fear. One of my better abilities is to visualize hypotheticals really well in my mind. I’d hate to lose that just for the sake of being able to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

How can you hate a fear that allows you to imagine what it would be like to take that step — even if the the reality is tragic?