Jon Stewart as American historian…

Jon Stewart is very smart, but he’s no historian.  He got little traction when he challenged David Barton on the history of Christian nationalism, and he messed up in describing the scenario wherein Mitt Romney could have become president and Joe Biden vice president (an electoral tie), thus potentially provoking a huge casting problem for Saturday Night Live (Jason Sudeikis plays both men).

But I was impressed last night when he used 18th- and 19th-century American history to slap down the gripe from Fox News that the recent election demonstrates “the decline of traditional America.”

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What say you, fellow historians?  A teachable moment?  A teachable clip?  Does Jon Stewart get it right?  Will your students get it?

9 thoughts on “Jon Stewart as American historian…

  1. I was fortunate enough to be the historian called by the Daily Show earlier in the week to provide the historical ammo for Jon Stewart’s spot-on take down of O’Reilly. Here’s a link to my blog for the full set of primary source quotes I provided.
    My small connection to the segment aside, I was very impressed with the narrative that Stewart provided about the nativism and the discomfort of the privileged set as a running theme in American history.
    Ed O’Donnell

    Edward T. O’Donnell
    Dept of History | Holy Cross College | Worcester, MA | 01610 | 508 826 1572
    Twitter: @InThePastLane

  2. Ed, You know that a million hearts broke with envy when you suggested you were the historian-on-the-spot for the Daily Show. Nice to know our work has influence in the world outside the academy! Great piece on it too, thanks for sharing. And yes, I too was impressed with the nod to history, and the complexity and respect with which he treated it.

    Was this your first experience with them?

  3. I think one significant omission here is the 60’s of this century, a critical decade where traditional mores in American life changed. And to omit it is to miss much of conservatives message; but of course including it would help to make their argument, so I can understand why you left it out. Here’s to cherry picking from history on both sides of the aisle.

  4. I don’t think this counts as “cherry picking from history” – O’Reilly and numerous other conservative commentators spoke about “traditional America” in explicitly racial/ethnic terms, so the segment addressed that line of commentary. Talk of changes in social values in the ’60s is a separate topic altogether.

  5. Tim, I hear you-sort of. I think Aaron’s comment is spot on, but I think the O’Reilly’s of the world really have difficulty figuring out what it was that made the days of the Beaver so “great.” Perhaps it was the fact that they were kids (I actually think this is a big part of it). Regardless, I’m not sure O’Reilly knows what to do with the 60s (however defined) because the libertarian in him wants to love it and it’s spirit but the traditionalist in him wants to hate it and it’s loosening of freedoms. I don’t at all think the cherry-picking comment is fair, though, because O’Reilly doesn’t mention the 60s at all. He’s talking about Latino voters putting a black man in office, despite the votes of older white men.

  6. I agree with much of what you say, Aaron and Kevin. But one thing O’Reilly specifies (from the clips we’re given anyway) is that the whites establishment has been dominant until very recently. The historical examples of Irish, Catholics and the Mormon’s doesn’t refute that argument, it somewhat misses the point, what I probably should have said instead of cherry picking. So much of what we see between Repub/Democ. arguments.

    Sure, we have had a certain amount of changing demographics in this country, but it’s also true that whites have been dominant politically, for better or worse. The 60’s did have a significant impact on this in raising the political power of blacks and in somewhat lesser but still significant ways with women. I wasn’t referring to the change in values, though certainly the values of the Beaver’s did change from the 50 to the 60’s.

    There is an argument for tradition in this country. Despite our being a country of anti-tradition, white Protestants have been dominant for the majority of our tradition. We’ve changed and adapted with immigration through the centuries, but that doesn’t refute a certain amount of tradition that two plus centuries has created.

  7. Tim: Alright, now we’re getting somewhere.

    I’m not so sure we’re an “anti-tradition country,” or even sure what that would mean. But the question then becomes, what is our tradition? And perhaps that’s the difference between what O’Reilly is saying as opposed to Jon Stewart. What O’Reilly is talking about is white male Protestant privilege, which I guess is a tradition in so far as it has been around for a long time, culturally and politically if not always legally. And even there, if that is the tradition, it has been modified a lot by immigration over the years (especially regarding the question of who gets counted as white).

    Stewart’s tradition, on the other hand, deals with the constant influx of immigrants challenging the white male Protestant Anglo-Saxon privilege, even though many of those immigrants groups are now technically seen as “white.”

    An interesting point to ponder is if there is something distinctive about Latinos and African Americans that makes them fall outside Stewart’s tradition, leading to O’Reilly’s lament. And if so, what is it? Samuel Huntington tried to describe this in “Who Are We?” but that was a terribly clumsy book universally (and justly) panned.

  8. As I re-listened to the clip and checked out the full transcript from O’Reilly’s Nov. 12 show, I found a number of different threads could be discussed – ethnic group, race, religion, etc. But from reading O’Reilly’s transcript, I would say that if there is a main point, it is not male Protestant privilege but traditional values vs. secularism.

    Stewart deals with this by telling O’Reilly not to worry – because of course he’s not a religious person, so of course he doesn’t see any problems with the decline in religion and religious mores. And his examples do not deal with this. As a Christian, I am not quite so threatened by the decline in faith of in the U.S. (though I am concerned), I don’t think it means the end of God in the world – in fact there has been a recent upswing in religion in the academy. But to tell someone not to worry about such things is a smug comment at the very least.

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