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Caught in Traffic: The Trouble with Jon Stewart’s “Tunnel” Analogy

November 8, 2010
Jon Stewart

Illustration by Kate Holterhoff

The votes are in, no not about Congress, about something important–Jon Stewart hates the media. Not surprising that a bunch of media outlets would be a little guarded about Stewart’s rally, but with all that news coverage of his speech in the past week you’d think that someone might have focused on what Stewart, well, you know, actually said. While a lot of coverage pointed out how Stewart called for compromise, it neglected to really discuss how. In his concluding speech at the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” Jon Stewart used analogy to great effect, likening America’s collective navigation of its political problems to the ability of thousands of cars to merge into a two-lane tunnel from an eight-lane highway.

But there is more to this analogy than meets the eye.

Stewart introduces his analogy with an unsurprising attempt to minimize the political identities which so polarize us in favor of our collective identity as Americans:

Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals, or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, very day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

Stewart then points to a large screen which shows a multitude of cars compressing themselves into the aforementioned tunnel, and transitions into an example of one such “impossible thing” that is actually an everyday occurrence:

Look–look on the screen. This is where we are, this is who we are. These cars. That’s a schoolteacher who probably thinks his taxes are too high, he’s going to work. . . . A lady’s in the NRA, loves Oprah. . . . Another car’s a Latino carpenter: another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan.

On the screen, the drivers are not visible—just their basically interchangeable cars. This works with Stewart’s replacement of binary political party identity with unified American identity. In his commentary, however, Stewart’s strategy is very different: individual drivers are picked out by way of idiosyncratic attributes with only a tangential connection to their political beliefs. There is a lady from the NRA, for example, but she likes Oprah—not exactly a conservative figurehead. In this way, Stewart makes all Americans perceptually the same by metonymically referring to them as cars, even as he highlights non-political differences between them in his commentary.
And now comes Stewart’s analogy: each of these cars “is filled with individuals of strong belief, and principles they hold dear—often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers’.” In spite of this, all the cars can fit through the tunnel. How?

Concession by concession: you go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. ‘Oh my God—is that an NRA sticker on your car?’ ‘Is that an Obama sticker on your car?’ Oh, that’s okay—you go, then I’ll go.

In Stewart’s analogy, the cars are political agents—voters, stakeholders, Congressmen—while the tunnel is some “impossible thing” that has to be done with the cooperation of all such agents. “You go, then I’ll go” is political compromise, and when this compromise-system breaks down, there are traffic accidents.

I confess that I got a little misty-eyed at this point in Stewart’s speech. It’s a beautiful picture of who we could be. However “impossible” our problems are to solve, however insurmountable our differences, we actually do surmount and solve on a daily basis.

But, as is often the case with political speeches, the spell only lasts a little while. Every analogy is imperfect, and this one is no exception. For example: my political beliefs don’t affect how I merge in traffic. But what if they did? What if some drivers fervently believed that cars should alternate one at a time, while others believed they should alternate three at a time? What if not everyone saw the same tunnel (that is, the same problem)? Just imagine some cars trying to merge into the two leftmost lanes, and others into the two rightmost lanes. HONK HONK!
At the end of the day, Stewart’s analogy is a pleasant oversimplification. All the same, something from it still lingers, warmly: compromise, fellow feeling, a sense of hope. . . .
Honking, obscene hand gestures, “Detour” signs. . . .

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