Whether or not you know it, comedy news “annihilates,” “demolishes,” “eviscerates,” or “destroys” at least one thing a week, whether it’s racism, white privilege, Donald Trump, the GOP, Mike Pence, gun nuts, or the white supremacists hiding beneath the ‘alt-right’ banner. Yes, according to the various articles that tumble into my social media feeds every morning, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal, and both Seth Meyers’ and Stephen Colbert’s respective late-night gigs are veritable killing fields for right-wing hypocrisy ― to such a degree, in fact, that, going by the news from Facebook, I find it difficult to believe there still is an American Right, or that Donald Trump’s official presidential portrait will be anything more than a photo of some dental records.
Perhaps this is a cheap point to belabor: that internet headlines are maybe a wee bit excitable when it comes to talking about anything politically confrontational. That our praise for any given John Oliver segment or our anticipation of its ultimate social effect can get a bit hyperactive is an issue even Oliver himself has addressed. It’s an issue that is brought up time and time again in discussions about the sort of political and rhetorical bubbles the way in which we consume media facilitate.
So, to call attention to it once more might seem hackneyed. Perhaps it is. But as I scrolled through Facebook and Twitter over the past couple days, my mind couldn’t help but drift to this tried and true criticism of online news. Because, in case you hadn’t heard, there’s been yet another evisceration. They’re saying it’s a big one, too. Just this Wednesday, see, The Daily Show host Trevor Noah is rumored to, not only, have slaughtered 24-year-old Tomi Lahren ― host of The Blaze’s Tomi and racist prodigy; it also seems as though he may have committed an act of journalistic bravery that is wholly unprecedented (for someone who’s not white and named Jon Stewart, at least), and rescued American political discourse from the brink of destruction.
It’s all self-congratulatory bullshit, of course ― a toxic and dangerous rewriting of reality. I might even go so far as to say that my experience since Wednesday sums up nearly everything that’s wrong with how the white liberal establishment has dealt with the fallout from this presidential election.
Now, I don’t have too many issues with Noah’s Daily Show interview, or with Noah, himself. What’s rankled me so intensely over the past few days has very little do with the actual conversation between Noah and Lahren, which exists in both 14- and 26-minute versions for those who have not yet encountered it. It’s a perfectly serviceable (above average, even) piece of content for The Daily Show. It might even, as many have been saying, signal an evolution for Noah as a commentator of American politics.
No, what bothers me is how worshipful of this 26 minutes of footage many online have managed to be. What bothers me is how deeply ignorant of its content many of those who have distributed it and sang its praises seem to be. What bothers me is how fantastically many young white liberals have missed the point.
When you scroll through the majority of hot takes regarding this Thunderdome of preaching-to-the-choir, you see two main genres of analysis. The first is predominantly interested in Trevor Noah, and his evolution as a late night host. These articles discuss the comedian’s unwillingness to let Lahren’s bullshit go unquestioned; they cite specific jokes; they revel in the frustrating inability to not kow tow to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show legacy (remember Jim Kramer? Remember Crossfire? Remember ‘Papa Bear’?!). The second is more interested in that favorite fetish of white liberalism: discourse. These articles go out of their way to talk about how brave and how important it is that Trevor Noah faced off against Tomi Lahren, and rebelled against his program’s privileged position in the “echo chamber” pantheon (as though Tomi fans are desperately clamoring to watch the video). These articles point to the YouTube link embedded in their header, and say, “Do you not see the power of debate and discussion? Do you not see how important it is for us to talk to one another?”
“If you can direct me to the timestamp on the video where the discourse starts, I would be deeply grateful. Because, I can’t find it.”
And, honestly, I really don’t. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if you watched Trevor Noah’s conversation with Tomi Lahren and came away renewed in your conviction that people like Lahren deserve our breath and our ear, your headphones must have popped out in the first fifteen seconds. If anything, The Daily Show’s Lahren interview was proof positive that it’s time that white people with the privilege of engaging in conversations with the conservative right that don’t involve the questioning of their very worth pipe down about how important discourse is. It was pretty ironclad evidence that not every argument deserves the time it takes to cut it down.
I have watched that full interview. I have watched it multiple times. And if you can direct me to the timestamp on the video where the discourse starts, I would be deeply grateful. Because, I can’t find it. Trust me, I’ve looked. What I have been able to find is a whole lot of a white supremacist questioning a black man’s worth with phony statistics and virulently racist misdirection, while he tries to prove to her that she doesn’t get to ignore systemic violence against people of color.
In what world is that a debate? In what ways are these two positions equally valid?
This is, perhaps, the fundamental blind spot of white liberalism: the inability to understand that debating racism is not a political or academic pursuit for people of color. It’s a matter of life and death. As a white man, I have the luxury of sitting across from an individual who thinks that police should have the right to murder innocent black men, and, while I may be fundamentally revolted by these views, I never have to contend with the thought that this person not only thinks my opinions are less right―they think my life is less valuable.
That’s a fucking privilege if ever there was one.
We white Americans are insulated from certain ugly realities of racial violence, even if we think we intellectually understand them perfectly. We can see police violence as a moral and political threat, without having to contend with it as a physical threat. We can see openly racist criticisms of the BLM movement as ugly and ignorant, but we’ve never had to hear the implication of each such criticism―that our suffering is not a worthy concern, that it’s our own fault.
So, when we fetishize “discourse,” we are fetishizing a fiction. Because the issues that most need to be fixed do not revolve around questions that have multiple valid answers, like whether or not we should consider bailing out a corporation. The issues that a Trump presidency will most aggressively bring to the fore are questions about equality of life and experience, about which Americans matter, and whether there are Americans who matter less.
These are not questions the answers to which are up for debate. There are opinions on these issues that we should fight with everything we have against normalizing, against making space for, as though they are the stuff of mere intellectual disagreement. Discourse is powerful because it validates. White supremacy should not be validated. And there is no excuse for, in blind worship of the open flow of ugly ideas, demanding that the most vulnerable of Americans be the ones who have to validate these things, that people of color make space to let white nationalists in outdated Forever 21 attire tell them that their lives are unimportant.
“The issues that most need to be fixed do not revolve around questions that have multiple valid answers”
If your takeaway from this presidential campaign and its wellspring of bigotry is that discourse is a viable answer, you must have been living a different 2016.
This is a campaign during which a former Speaker of the House defended a fraudulent statistic under the pretense that, when it comes to numbers, feelings and facts are equally valid.
This is a campaign that brought to power a president-elect who has recently spouted blatant lies about voter fraud, which one of his surrogates defended by saying, “There’s no such thing...as facts.”
This is also a campaign defined by a media that claimed that fact-checking was an act of bias, and that refused to question gleeful falsehoods or barely concealed racism, because commitment to objective truth sometimes involves ignoring what’s true.
All of this was on display in Trevor Noah’s interview with Lahren, and I’m not alone in saying so. In many ways, Noah’s sparring partner was a perfect miniature of the movement she represents. She liberally invented statistics to support her bigotry. She openly mocked victims of violence, and ignored Noah’s attempts to force her to face up to these problems, however dogged he was. Tomi Lahren outright compared Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan. She painted a picture of black men as a threat to law enforcement. She demanded that Trevor Noah not just contend with her falsehoods, but defend his value as a human being, defend his right (and the right of all people of color) to life and dignity.
And I doubt Noah’s valiant willingness to engage her in the ugly mire of white supremacy with facts and humor and openness did a thing to change her mind.
This is what “discourse” entails: not an intellectual duel about political theory, but a chance for white supremacists to enact open rhetorical violence and encourage blatant actual violence in the name of giving everybody a chance to speak. That so many were able to ignore this reality in the wake of the Noah/Lahren “debate” is shocking, if not horrifying. That so many have consistently been willing to―as they claim allyship―trade the physical and emotional safety of threatened Americans for some intellectual high ground is disgusting. Because that’s what this amounts to, when the dust begins to settle: the childish fantasy that bigotry can be talked away, the strange delusion that racism is a rational and reasoned position that might yield to the right kind of logic, the fetid lie that the illusion of civility among the racial majority is worth preserving at the expense of the security of everyone else.
Perhaps, given the right circumstances, it’s a good thing that this clip is being so widely circulated. Free from the self-serving liberal commentary about how when we sit down over coffee with a white supremacist everything turns out alright, The Daily Show’s latest is a jarring demonstration of what we are demanding of people of color when we push the “discourse” fantasy, when we pretend that treating racism like a valid position is a model for democracy, when we would rather throw our fellow Americans to the sharks then rock the boat.
And if you’re unsure whether that’s the trade-off, please re-watch that interview, and then re-read the excuses being made left and right to normalize and sanitize the hideousness of what Lahren is given the opportunity to say. Watch how eager white liberals are to equate Lahren’s facsimile of professionalism with legitimacy for her beliefs.
Because, apparently, as long as white supremacists dress nice and go light on the slurs, we should give them the time of day. We should invite them in. We should act as though lack of outright violence is somehow the same thing as benevolence. We should continue the great white project of confusing decorum with decency.
In an example of herculean erasure, David Sims of The Atlantic wrote of Noah’s Lahren interview: “In the wake of the 2016 election even a bare minimum of respectful discourse stands out.”
Mr. Sims and others like him might have to excuse my unadorned rebuttal, but: oh, go right to Hell.