The Last Public Intellectual: the Legacy of Jon Stewart


Kayhan Parsi

Publish date

August 4, 2015

Topic(s): Media

by Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD

A dozen years ago, polymath and federal appellate judge Richard Posner wrote a book called Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Posner took to task the group of public intellectuals he surveyed in his book (e.g. scholars, artists, public officials, etc.) for the low level quality of their work. As David Brooks (another person targeted in his book) observed: “We stink. Our logic is flawed. Our use of evidence is shoddy. Our ratiocination is crude.” Posner’s analysis focused on the likes of Allan Bloom, Amitai Etzioni, Toni Morrison, and even Bill Moyers. Although many of the names on his list are people recognizable by people in the academy, most would not be remotely recognizable by the vast majority of individuals who comprise the “public.” And this brings up a serious problem with the notion of a public intellectual–the “public” part of this moniker is quite limited. A traditional public intellectual may reach hundreds, sometimes thousands of individuals–more like quasi-public intellectuals. Of course, this has changed with the advent of social media. But back in the late 1990s with traditional media still ascendant, Jon Stewart was a revelation. A former stand-up comedian, Stewart re-invented the Daily Show to be a show like no other. He pushed satire beyond mere laughs to thoughtful and even incisive social and political commentary. He exposed hypocrisy, fallacies, and plain old stupidity. By the end of his run this week, Stewart became more than just a political satirist.

In an earlier AJOB article, I proclaimed that Jon Stewart was our greatest public intellectual. Unlike anyone else on Posner’s list, Stewart was able to harness the power of the media through the age-old craft of satire. For 16 years, he’s lambasted public officials and members of the media. And unlike other public intellectuals, Stewart’s enterprise was communal—it depended upon a cadre of talented writers and comedians to review and interpret the world of “real” news in a way that was both insightful and incredibly funny. Stewart’s work has even spawned a literature that reflects upon his impact as a cultural figure (see, the Daily Show and Philosophy, editions one and two, and the more recent work Is Satire Saving our Nation?).

Why is Stewart important to our field? As I’ve argued elsewhere, Stewart highlighted the misinformation that swirled around the Affordable Care Act (see the interview with Betsy MCaughey). And a decade ago, Stewart highlighted the folly of a Senator (in this case Senator Frist) attempting to diagnose Terri Schiavo from a video tape. As noted by bioethicist George Annas, “Jon Stewart replayed them on the Daily Show. Stewart observed, ‘Not only do I believe that Senator Bill Frist may be a terrible doctor, I think he doesn’t realize C-SPAN has cameras.’” These kinds of witty observations were Stewart’s stock in trade. A public official would say one thing and then Stewart and his team would instantly show another video clip where that same person was contradicting himself.

So what is the legacy of someone like Jon Stewart? He reinvigorated the art of satire and popularized it like no other. His colleague Stephen Colbert pushed it even further, creating a ridiculous parody of a right wing talk show host. Combined, they served as a one-two punch against the idiocies that passed off as news or public policy. Did Stewart make a difference? As Sophia McLennen states, Stewart has emerged as our nation’s best satirist. His approach may not have changed his targets’ minds, but it has hopefully encouraged other members of the public to engage in political discourse and even get involved (see the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear). McLennen further observes that “Today we have a more critically active generation of young voters than this nation has ever seen—and Stewart played a large role in creating that momentum.” Getting us to laugh is one thing. Getting us motivated to change things is much tougher. And that’s no laughing matter.

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