Abraham Kuyper once said that there’s not a microbe in the universe that Christ doesn’t look at and declare “mine”. It feels like American political combative discourse makes the same claim today. Whether it’s chicken sandwiches or late night television, everything is turning shades of red and blue, which will likely lead to us all becoming increasingly black and blue.
I’m a political person. I’ve donated money to a presidential candidate this year. I watch lots of cable news, I sometimes take perverse delight in the combative rhetoric. I’d like to say political infotainment is a guilty pleasure, but I feel far too little guilt when enjoying it. I’m not against political conversations. They don’t scare me or bore me. But, as Sonny Bunch argues a few years ago in The Washington Free Beacon:
Politics is important; political decisions have consequences; and passionately arguing for your preferred political outcomes is nothing to be ashamed of,” he writes. “A politicized life is a different beast, however. It treats politics as a zero-sum game or a form of total warfare in which the other side must be obliterated. It alters every aspect of your being: where you shop; what you watch on TV; what sort of music you listen to; who you associate with. If you’re not with the politicized being, you’re against him — and if you’re against him, he is well within his rights to ruin you personally and economically. You, the political other, are a leper to be shunned.
When everything is political, nothing is political.
Aristotle thought that political science was the highest form of philosophical reflection because it deals with how rational animals come together communally to ponder the goods they have in common. Now we think of politics as a blood sport.
Jimmy Fallon is my least favorite late night host. That’s not because I think he’s unfunny or untalented. I just prefer the edgier and more sardonic style of Colbert and Kimmel. Fallon is at his best when he’s silly, or when doing impressions, or showing how ridiculously talented he is with the likes of Justin Timberlake. As an interviewer he sometimes wears kid gloves, which is why he was lambasted for playing with Trump’s hair this week. But in fairness to Fallon, he never signed up to be a prophet or to do political commentary:
Other people do that better…I leave that to Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey. The political stuff? Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, they have it. And Stephen Colbert, who is an animal. He’s amazing. Those guys are good at it. I don’t want to mess with that.
In response to the backlash that occurred after he concluded his recent Trump interview with messing up the Donald’s hair, Fallon asked, “Have you seen my show? I’m never too hard on anyone”.
Carli Velocci, writing for Paste Magazine, damns Fallon’s irenic response with faint praise, before going on to condemn him:
It’s nice to see that Fallon played to his own strengths. Most people would rather see somebody with the knowledge and experience interviewing senators than somebody known for cracking during live sketches on Saturday Night Live. Fallon dances with his guests. He doesn’t need to talk policy. In fact, he probably shouldn’t.
However, what Fallon and the people at NBC failed to realize with this strategy was that the majority of the audience that they are trying to court—the young, college-aged and 20-something millennials—are looking for something more substantial and political. You can argue that the way to get their fix is to wait an hour for Seth Meyers, but his show is more of a Weekend Update successor that’s dry and punchy and hasn’t lived up to the standards set by his peers… It’s not that there’s no place for somebody like Fallon in late night. Just glance over to Comedy Central where @Midnight was favored ahead of the recently-canceled The Nightly Show… Fallon was going to lose this battle no matter his response. Having both presidential candidates as guests isn’t a controversial move, but in the eyes of an audience that has latched onto its late-night hosts as one of its sources for political and news commentary, treating them equally and without any mention of policies and statements was…
Everybody has an opinion on Fallon. My mother, for example, is a Kimmel person, but will turn on Fallon because he’s mostly “harmless.” When I had to work late-night shifts at a newspaper, I would turn on The Tonight Show while I worked because it was good background noise and occasionally amusing things would happen. When he interviews the child actors from Stranger Things, it’s charming because he’s almost like a grown-up kid himself. It’s braindead entertainment and that’s what he’s always been good at…It’s just that at this point, with this election, the seemingly constant deaths of black people at the hands of police, the refugee crisis, the debates on what to do about Islamic extremism, among many other serious issues, it’s not enough to just be “harmless.”
Most of the posts and tweets showing up in my social media feed over the past couple days are lionizing Seth Meyer’s response:
I don’t take issue with most of the claims Meyers made. It just wasn’t funny. It was something you’d see on MSNBC or FOX News. Seth Meyers has every right to go on his show and do political op-ed pieces that don’t quite fit the genre of traditional late night and don’t really tickle my funny bone. But to say that if you’re not doing that you’re not doing real Late Night is a cure that’s worse than the disease. Is a restaurant that doesn’t mock Trump on its menus really doing food service? Is a dry cleaner that cleans the shirts of known Trump supporters living up to its laundering responsibilities? Is a daycare that doesn’t teach children that Trump is a racist really the kind of place you want your children?
We are as divided as a country as we’ve been since the Civil War. There’s no pundit on either side of the aisle that doesn’t say there’s too much partisanship and tribalism in America today. So is the answer more partisanship and tribalism? Is piling on Jimmy Fallon really lighting one candle rather than cursing the darkness?
I actually thought that Fallon’s recent interview with Trump was one of his better ones. There were glimpses of raw humanity shining through at moments. We need more of those kind of interactions today, not less:
Human beings seem to be addicted to politics and religion. At our worst moments when the passions are fused it’s often to “make a name for ourselves” as our ancestors did at The Tower of Babel as attested in the 11th chapter of Genesis. When Jesus is asked about the temple tax and confounds his interlocutors by telling them to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s he then does a funny thing. He asks a disciple to go fishing. Jesus assures him that the first fish he catches will have a coin in it to pay both of their Temple taxes. The story ends without telling us if Peter, the disciple in question, ever caught anything or not. Robert Capon’s reflection on the enacted parable is priceless:
The general thrust of my treatment of the coin in the fish’s mouth-and especially of Jesus’ words, “then the children are free” – is to interpret the whole passage as a proclamation of the end of religion…
The entire human race is profoundly and desperately religious. From the dim beginnings of our history right up to the present day, there is not a man, woman, or child of us who has ever been immune to the temptation to think that the relationship between God and humanity can be repaired from our side, by our efforts. Whether those efforts involve creedal correctness, cultic performances, or ethical achievements–or whether they amount to little more than crassly superstitious behavior–we are all, at some deep level, committed to them. If we are not convinced that God can be conned into being favorable to us by dint of our doctrinal orthodoxy, or chicken sacrifices, or the gritting of our moral teeth, we still have a hard time shaking the belief that stepping over sidewalk cracks, or hanging up the bath towel so the label won’t show, will somehow render the Ruler of the Universe kindhearted, softheaded, or both…
The point is, we haven’t got a card in our hand that can take even a single trick against God. Religion, therefore–despite the correctness of its insistence that something needs to be done about our relationship with God–remains unqualified bad news: it traps us in a game we will always and everywhere lose. But the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is precisely Good News. It is the announcement, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that God has simply called off the game…In Jesus, God has put up a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign on the religion shop.
He has done the whole job in Jesus once and for all and simply invited us to believe it—to trust the bizarre, unprovable proposition that in him, every last person on earth is already home free without a single religious exertion: no fasting till your knees fold, no prayers you have to get right or else, no standing on your head with your right thumb in your left ear and reciting the correct creed–no nothing…. The entire show has been set to rights in the Mystery of Christ—even though nobody can see a single improvement. Yes, it’s crazy. And yes, it’s wild and outrageous, and vulgar. And any God who would do such a thing is a God who has no taste. But it is Good News—the only permanently good news there is – and therefore I find it absolutely captivating.
We’ve got less than two months to go until the election and every day, every post, consumer choice and joke we all tell will be scrutinized by partisans on every side. We’ll all be tempted to justify all our statements, our choices, or our silence. Thank God that he’s gone fishing and caught the likes of us, and that’s the only justification we need.