Jon Stewart took Bill O’Reilly up on his challenge to debate the invitation of Common to a White House poetry reading last week. If you haven’t heard much about this controversy, don’t worry: The two people in America it seems to most concern, at this point, are Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart. Which is part of the problem with this “issue” and the ensuing “debate.”
On Monday night on The O’Reilly Factor, O’Reilly said he thinks the invitation “elevates [Common] as a poet” when in O’Reilly’s view Common is “controversial all day long.” O’Reilly and others have cited Common’s shout-out in song to Joanne Chesimard/Assata Shakur, an ex-Black Panther who was convicted of killing a New Jersey officer in a 1973 shoot-out.
Stewart’s rebuttal was, essentially, that he “imagines” what Common believes is that Shakur was unfairly convicted of the crime. He extended the logic of what Stewart called “the selective outrage machine.” He suggested that if the White House was going to reject people who write in rhyme from entering the White House, then Bono (whose U2 recorded “Native Son” about Leonard Peltier, another activist convicted, amidst great controversy, of murdering two FBI agents) and Bob Dylan (whose “Hurricane,” about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, also controversially convicted of murder in 1966), both visitors to the White House, should not have been allowed in, either.
The more effective and pertinent argument Stewart could have made -- one that might have forestalled O'Reilly swatting away Stewart's points by lumping Common in with Bill Ayers and other activists with whom the President has had associations, friendships, or meetings, thereby dragging the debate away from the arts and into politics -- is that artists aren't role models and shouldn't be expected to be considered as such. Common wasn't at the White House as a symbol of radical protest; he was there to read poetry. (Kyle Anderson placed Common in his pop-culture context in a blog post here last week. It's unlikely that anyone reading this who knows Common's music would rank him as a provocateur as an artist.)
The spectacle of two white guys explaining to each other, and their audiences, the artistic or political significance of a black artist would be fine if there was also any equally prominent place on cable where actual black people also debated these questions. Wouldn't that add something to the discussion? At the least, black pundits probably wouldn't have made the mistake Stewart did when he referred more than once to the event at the White House as a "poetry slam" -- it wasn't; it was a poetry reading. Billy Collins, Aimee Mann, and Rita Dove (who were among the other guests) don't "slam" poetry in the competitive manner; they recite it.
One thing that came across was both men's supercilious attitude toward the event that provoked this "debate." "It's a poetry slam, who gives a damn," said Stewart, in a dismissive tone you hear all the time from famous people who make a lot of money about an art form for which few people ever become famous or ever make any money. There's something philistine about that on the part of both Stewart and O'Reilly.
What came across most forcefully this night was the sight of two media grandees, one expressing "mad love" for the other and only half-joking because he knows his "foe" helps his position in the culture. And the other media mogul smiled broadly, beaming out mad love for his opponent, knowing they were both in on the joke, and the joke was trumped-up outrage from opposing political and show-biz poles.
(Note: O'Reilly said he taped an interview with Stewart about "the Presidential race," not involving Common, that will air on The Factor on Tuesday night.)