Jon Stewart’s ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’ was a wasted opportunity for liberals
I am an Earthling
So we probably have other things in common too.
—Sign seen on the National Mall last weekend.
“Revolutionaries-for-a-weekend should never get hangovers,” wrote Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night. No doubt a few over-eager attendees at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Saturday rally on the National Mall in Washington conceived of themselves as latter-day Pentagon-levitators—the anti-Vietnam War activists of Mailer’s armies—much as one over-eager columnist conceived of herself and her generation (which is to say, my generation) as going down to our very own Yasgur’s Farm. But I am here to tell you that the operative word in the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” was “and/or.” The event could have been whatever you wanted it to be, which meant that it was nothing at all. It’s not exactly what a Mall rally the weekend before the midterms called for.
At least Mailer’s point about the hangover remained applicable. After a too-long trip for coffee—nobody, not the coffee shops or the Metro Authority (which hauled a record-for-a-Saturday 825,437 passengers) or the organizers themselves guessed the event would draw remotely so many people—a few of us took the bus south down 11th Street toward the Mall. One imagines L’Enfant designed the city for just these sorts of days: a bright, warm fall afternoon, when the denizens of the jagged, swampy hills of the north would pour into the sunken, flat expanse of the Mall, with its undeniable symmetry and open access, and engage in some imagined future ritual of democracy.
But the rush of people met a dam just north of the Mall, where an hourglass effect and an ill-placed row of Porta-Potties made things unpleasantly impenetrable. The next 45 minutes were a slow slog eastward toward the Capitol through a three-dimensional, fluid wall of people, emerging behind the stage, where people with press passes and people who knew people with press passes mingled in an almost pastoral setting with passersby and Human Rights Campaign volunteers.
It was here that the actor Sam Waterston, driving past, took a sneak picture of me.
I knew that Waterston had already spoken not because I could hear him—the audio was truly terrible, which no doubt helped cause the mass exodus that began well before the event was through—but because I could make out his show’s trademark chung-chung sound, which bracketed what I now know was Waterston’s stentorian, deadpan reading of a Colbert-penned ode to fear. (“Did you hear that? No? You’re probably going deaf./ It’s your kids back home cooking up some crystal meth.”) But I admit I was surprised when Waterston, sitting alone in the back of a black Town Car that inched away from behind the stage, snapped the picture of me—me in my corduroy sport coat, earnestly striving to look professional on the theory that maybe there would actually be something to cover—backed by the rest of the crowd. He had a giddy, grandfatherly smile on his face, which confirmed my sense that I was at the rally less to stand for a certain set of principles (there was no set of principles) or to be entertained (as I said, you couldn’t hear a thing), but to be an extra in the cast of exactly the sort of non-event alchemized by warm, young bodies and media hype into Great American Spectacle—exactly the sort of non-event, in other words, that Jon Stewart, in his more pious moods, gets a kick out of shaking his head at with a fake non-grin on his face.
Having a grandfatherly television actor appropriate my youthful mojo for his iPhone collection was merely the most focused part of the spectacle, which tried to package itself as irony but was actually something much more depressing and wrong. The rallygoers’ signs—like that from the above-mentioned Earthling—seemed more dedicated to showing off the makers’ wit than anything else. And the hosts’ fundamental message, too—despite Stewart’s celebrated appeal to media decency toward the event’s end—was one of irony made impotent by context: that the best way to beat back the extremists storming the gates of the mainstream is to laugh at them. Stewart had up to 250,000 people watching him, depending on the estimate. But, as Stalin said of the pope, how many divisions has he got?
This is the back of my sign.
While the rally’s opportunity cost was arguably great—a liberal could plausibly see it as a gigantic missed chance—it was basically a poorly run party that confirmed Stewart’s downward trajectory from exciting comedian to, at times, important political spokesperson to, now, the second and no doubt lesser coming of Al Franken. Stewart’s somber, deeply boring speech, which lectured the press that it ought to “hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen,” was so trite and bland that it cannot be taken seriously even by not-serious people. It was as though Stewart were determined to be for the mushy middle what Colbert is for the Fox News right: a parody. And even this character was undercut every step of the way by Stewart’s need to be the comedian, the better to excuse himself for not taking a stronger stand. “The press is our immune system,” he declared. “If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker, and perhaps eczema.” Chuckles.
When I first heard that Jon Stewart was going to hold a rally in favor of moderation, I smelled a rat. Moderation is neither good nor bad: Certain people are right about things, and certain other people are wrong about those things, and how moderate they are has zero bearing on how right or wrong they are. Moreover, Stewart’s moderation happens to be particularly false and damaging, because, say what you will about the demerits of the fringe left and the fringe right, the fringe left is, well, on the fringe, while the fringe right is about to unseat the majority leader of the Senate, win several other Senate and House races, collect hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and book royalties and speaking fees, and have a big impact on the selection of the Republican Party’s standard-bearer for 2012 and what he or she will stand for.
Jon Stewart speaks at least in part as a man with a job dependent on ratings. He is paid to get high ratings by a corporation. Stewart’s a smart guy, and so his corporate interests would naturally make him afraid of actual liberalism—the perfect explanation for his adoption of anti-liberal moderation. Those ratings, meanwhile, are about to face their greatest threat yet, as the one talk-show host with similarly strong cred with the young’uns, Conan O’Brien, has a new show that just happens to start at the same time as Stewart’s and just happens to debut next Monday. And, hey, didn’t Stewart’s crew just publish a new book?
I was upset that so much of my generational cohort failed to see this, that so many would even be able to have a good time. I felt betrayed. I became obsessed; one late night, I found myself adapting Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America” and emailing a few friends:
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Jon Stewart?
I’m obsessed by Jon Stewart.
I watch him every day.
His show stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I watch it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility.
Everybody’s serious but me.
As it turns out, I was much more serious than the event demanded. Stewart will never have the influence of Ginsberg’s totem of irresistible and rotten Americana: midcentury Time magazine.
Everything will probably be OK.
Incidentally, if you’ve read David Brooks, you’ll know that my generation’s Woodstock will be not this but some networking get-together. Whatever this was, though, I arrived on Friday night via Greenbelt, Md., near where Interstate 95 dead-ends into the Capitol Beltway. The buses from New York to downtown D.C. had sold out over a week before, no doubt because of the rally; mine stopped first in Baltimore and then deposited me and about a dozen others, many of whom, I gathered, were headed for a homecoming weekend of tailgating in College Park (Maryland would crush Wake Forest, 62-14), at a half-empty parking lot abutted by an office park and the terminus of the Washington Metro’s Green Line.