Step Up To The Fucking Plate

Jimmy Fallon's deference to the powerful has never been more useless or more dangerous.

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I don’t think I have ever seen late night’s servility-by-design articulated as plainly as in this new Vulture profile of Jimmy Fallon. Emphasis mine:

Fallon’s interviewing style is the element that’s stayed closest to his original format. In recent weeks, Joe Biden, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Demi Lovato, and Jonathan Van Ness have come on to promote coronavirus–relief organizations and talk about the challenges of this moment. Fallon still treats his show as a fun, entertaining place for his guests to hang out, rather than an opportunity to ask tough questions. He didn’t see politics as his area before the pandemic, and his view has not changed at a time when it feels all the more important to hold political figures to account. Whether “it’s me or if it’s, you know, Joe Biden, I look at it as, Anyone that can give us some type of reassurance or make us feel good,” he says, struggling to explain how he sees his role. Later, his publicist sends me a statement from Fallon clarifying his stance: “We need solid direction and reassurance from leaders, especially at this moment. Whether it’s Joe Biden or Lady Gaga or Andrew Cuomo, this is an opportunity to give them a platform.” In other words, the approach that was until recently Fallon’s greatest limitation is right now key to his success. He doesn’t want The Tonight Show to be stressful. He doesn’t want to wallop the members of his audience with more of the realities they’re confronting all day. He’s still Jimmy Fallon, a guy who’s trying to find the positives in a horrible situation, confident that people want reassurance more than revolution.

The assumption at play here is that when powerful figures—at least the nominally liberal ones—provide direction and reassurance, they are acting in good faith. This assumption is at best credulous and at worst willfully deceptive. All politicians are propagandists; few are more shameless about it in this current crisis than Andrew Cuomo and Joe Biden. As the New York governor rose to national celebrity through his daily conferences, he also passed an austerity budget that starves hospitals, rolls back bail reform, and grants no relief to the millions of his constituents who rent. That’s on top of the weeks he delayed shutting down New York City, ignoring advice from health officials that could have slashed the death toll by 50-80%. Cuomo is directly responsible for the massive suffering and death in NYC right now, especially in its prisons, which have an infection rate magnitudes higher than the rest of the city. The politics he played in the midst of all this—threatening to shut down the state government if legislators did not cave to his budget demands—will unquestionably create more death and suffering. Yet in spite of his many disastrous failures to provide “solid direction,” the popular narrative around Cuomo centers only the reassurance. This should terrify anyone who prefers corrupt monsters out of power rather than in it for years to come.

Then there’s Joe Biden, who throughout the entire crisis has remained steadfastly opposed to Medicare For All, and who sent his own voters to their deaths when he and his surrogates declared that it was safe to vote in the Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio primaries. Here is a taste of the reassurance he had to offer on Fallon’s show last week:

We are the only country I'm aware of that goes into things of overwhelming difficulty. We overcome them, and we come out stronger. And I think that's what we have to focus—look at what the American people are doing, Jimmy. They're incredible. Instead of making fun of—like the President's going after governors he doesn't like and that kind of thing—what are they doing? They're going around their neighborhoods. Look, there's a friend of mine used to work with me down in South Carolina. He has a daughter in grade school. He sent me a video of the schoolteacher, the kindergarten teacher called all the kids in her class and said, "Here's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna ride by your house at such and such a time. You sit out in the driveway on your tricycle and wave to me. I miss you, I want to see you.”

[…]

You know, when I started to run for office this time around, I said, "We got to restore the soul of America." You're seeing the soul of America now. The American people, they're incredible. Absolutely incredible what they're doing. I watched one of the shows this morning between my phone calls where a doctor said how frightened he was to go into the operating room because so many people had the virus. But he said, "I watch these firemen, and they rush into fires, and I thought, 'Well, I can screw up the courage to do it, but I got to tell you I'm afraid.'" And that's real courage. Real courage is doing something that you're afraid to do and you do it anyway. That's what so many people are doing. We're gonna get through this.

This desperate pile of banal platitudes and condescending folksiness would be cringeworthy in any context, but it’s mind-bogglingly inappropriate to the context we’re actually in. Tens of thousands of people are not going to get through this! Courage will not cure an incurable disease, it will not manufacture ventilators or conduct mass testing and tracing, it will not create more ICU beds, it will not release incarcerated persons, it will not undo the structural racism that condemns black Americans to disproportionate infection and death, it will not give frontline workers hazard pay and protective equipment, it will not relieve rent, it will not pay the insurance companies that are set to raise premiums by as much as 40% next year. The courage of the common man alone will not alleviate what’s coming. For that we need the courage of our political leaders, who so far have had none.

The problem with Biden’s rhetoric, other than that it’s boring and stupid, is that it positions the virus as our enemy rather than the material conditions that allowed the virus to wreak such destruction. As such it elevates the power of individual perseverance over the necessity for specific political actions to address those conditions. That’s not to diminish the importance of social distancing; it’s great that people are doing everything they can to carry on some semblance of normalcy while making sacrifices for the greater good. But that semblance will not make any difference when millions of renters start getting evicted, medical workers start dying in droves, and supply chains start collapsing because the migrant workers who underpin our entire economy aren’t getting sick pay, healthcare, or the visas they need to work. Good spirits do not make the boot go away, they simply make life below the boot a little more tolerable.

Obviously I get what Biden’s doing. He’s trying to make people feel better. He’s selling himself as the guy who’s got our backs in times of crisis. But people who lie to us don’t actually have our backs, and reassurance that comes at the cost of honesty isn’t actually reassurance. It’s distraction. I suppose Jimmy Fallon might not see that as a problem, and may in fact value it: distraction is his entire job, after all. But it’s a mistake to treat distraction by entertainers as anything remotely equivalent to distraction by politicians. One serves to ease our pain. The other serves to increase it while we’re looking the other way.

I admire Fallon’s indefatigable commitment to making his audience “feel good.” Clearly it has brought millions of people great joy and comfort. I’m sure he and other hosts like to think that giving guests an uncritical platform allows their shows to avoid any appearance of partisanship. But powerful people have always used good feelings to launder immense violence and theft; the blank check to say as they please is really a blank check to do harm. This is difficult to measure, sure. Ratings don’t tell you how many people take Joe Biden that much more seriously because you didn’t ask about [INSERT EVIL THING JOE BIDEN DID], and certainly no softball interview is directly responsible for what a politician does once in power. Still, we all bear some responsibility for the second- and third-order consequences of our actions. Cultural gatekeepers like Fallon bear more responsibility than most.

I could accept his refusal to acknowledge that responsibility in the past. I cannot accept it now. This is no time to waste a national platform on trite hogwash from people drowning in blood. If the Jimmy Fallons of the world want the rest of us to survive, they’d better step up to the plate or get out of the way. You can’t make people feel good if they’re dead.


Header image via NBC/YouTube.