Jon Stewart’s ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’ was a wasted opportunity for liberals
My goal at the rally was to meet up with representatives of J Street and/or the New Israel Fund, two groups of the left that had set up tables at the rally to make their presence felt (“Sanity, Sanity Shalt Thou Pursue,” crowed NIF’s website), but with the crowds and concomitant shutdown of cell-phone service, that was a lost cause. (“The rally clearly tapped into a deep well of frustration with the polarization and vitriol that so often dominates the political debate,” J Street’s Amy Spitalnick emailed me afterward. “Restoring sanity to that debate when it comes to Israel and the Mideast is part of the reason J Street was founded.”) Next was a sweep to the south side of the Mall, where I tried and failed to find the Government Doesn’t Suck rally of federal employees near the Air and Space Museum—as the son of a man who put in 35 years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I am sympathetic to their desire not to be grouped in with elected politicians.
You have read in news reports about Colbert’s onstage antics; the sanity awards, which went to, among others, near-perfect Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga; and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s complicity in being demonstrated as an actual example of a non-scary Muslim. The only performances I recognized were various musical numbers: Ozzy Osbourne singing “Crazy Train”; Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock crooning their country duet, presumably so that the organizers could cite the presence of Red-America culture; and a closing rendition of “I’ll Take You There,” with the glorious Mavis Staples. But because technicians were ill-prepared for the throngs, only a small percentage of the thousands—the tens, the hundreds of thousands—who schlepped to the Mall could have followed along.
A little before 3 in the afternoon, a companion and I ducked into the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In the basement, a few dozen rallygoers sat on benches and against the wall in an unlit room with black walls and viewed a film, Flooded McDonald’s, by Superflex, a Danish art group. In real time, we watched a McDonald’s get flooded with water from an unknown source, spilling everywhere and then rising. Images of Golden Arches slowly covered in water were punctuated by gross close-ups of ketchup. A plastic statue of Ronald McDonald, smiling and waving his right hand, bobbed on the currents until, in the film’s most traumatic moment, he toppled over. I left as the deluge was about to submerge the counter.
I need a stimulus.
If you wish to see an early inkling of the contradictions that, on Saturday, Stewart heightened to the shark-jumping point, rewatch his famous Crossfire appearance from just before the 2004 elections (which was also the previous time he had a book to sell). You probably remember Stewart ranting that Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson were “partisan hacks,” and you probably remember Carlson being a smug asshole. But what you forgot was Stewart trying to play it both ways: to be the funnyman who is simultaneously above and below partisan discourse, in a way that magically gives him supreme authority and plucks him out of all accountability.
In the clip, Stewart is not using humor to reveal deeper truths, like a Shakespearean fool; he is using humor to deflect and duck ripostes to his arguments, which he cares about, even as he denies the very existence of arguments of his own, while still hoping that those arguments, about the destructiveness of political hackery and the media-industrial complex, carry the day. “Right now you’re with the politicians and the corporations,” the Viacom employee told the Time Warner employees. He continued: “Well, we have civilized discourse,” comparing his show with Crossfire—while, in the next breath, lecturing Carlson on how he was not allowed to compare Crossfire to his show: “I didn’t realize that news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.” (Well, only when you tell them to, Jon.)
We let Stewart get away with that staggering and blatant hypocrisy because there was a close presidential election a few days away, and because Carlson was a smug asshole (Stewart’s greatest talent is his choosing of enemies), and because, during a time of right-wing dominance, Stewart’s attack on the partisan hackery of both sides was, as the Leninists would say, objectively useful—pro-Democratic in effect, and very likely in intent, too.
Stewart wisely spent the following six years as a ninja assassin: ducking in the shadows, shooting fat targets from long range, never exposing himself. He was a very valuable assassin! But when you are standing on a stage in front of the Capitol in front of hundreds of thousands of people, it can be difficult to find a place to hide. Your hypocrisy is going to leave you exposed. On Saturday, Stewart kept the bullshit “I’m just the comedian” stance—What, me make you worry?—but dropped even the implication of liberalism. Instead, he stood for moderation: moderation as its own good, moderation as the philosophy—that government governs best which governs closest to whatever that moment’s middle is, never mind where the middle should be. It was the worst sort of sanctimony, because it was not even coming from someone who has done the dirty work of politics and then announced that he has wasted much of his life doing the work of the gutter. It was coming from a comedian who has sat behind an anchor desk for nearly 12 years and who tells us what to do while claiming that desk protects him from our responses.
Oh, and one other thing: It’s really all the media’s fault, he announced, finally. Incredibly, four days before elections, Stewart snatched agency away from the hundreds of thousands of attendees and millions of viewers. “The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder,” he said, not bothering to name what actually may have caused those problems, or what those problems may actually be. “There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned,” he continued. “Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez is an insult.” As David Carr of the New York Times pointed out, leaving aside how many people in the country have even heard of Williams and Sanchez (who, in case you are among the majority who has not, were fired from NPR and CNN over matters of political correctness), this is a stunning false equivalence. You can believe that the Tea Partiers’ mass belief that President Barack Obama is advancing a socialist agenda and NPR’s and CNN’s decisions are equally wrong—they’re not, but you can think they are—and still recognize the far larger threat to the republic posed by the Tea Party’s mainstreaming of malevolent silliness. You can, but then you’ve chosen a “side,” and Stewart, as a comedian, is the Switzerland of the punditocracy.
The penultimate paragraph of Stewart’s keynote went like this: “If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you, I can only assure you this: You have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted.” This was very funny, if unintentionally. (We’re here for you, Jon.) But it was also depressing: Was he sure there was nothing else he could bother to ask of us?
Stewart was asked at the post-rally press conference, “Do you guys think people should vote?” He answered: “I think people should do what moves them.” Read that again. Then clip and save for whenever somebody tells you that Jon Stewart’s brand of moderation really tilts toward the left, or that he is actually sending dog-whistles to the liberal crowd. Go vote? Stewart the entertainer had become the mirror image of his once-favorite political foil, who in the face of an existential threat was afraid to ask for anything more of his people than that they go shopping.
Sane people don’t scream.
We use our “inside voices,” inside the voting booth.
In Among the Believers, V.S. Naipaul recounts his travels through post-revolutionary Iran, a place suffused with belief and its “emotional charge.” He travels with a young man named Behzad, who was raised a Marxist and initially welcomed the ayatollahs but soon realized a disparity between them and him and then didn’t know quite what to think. Behzad’s tragedy is that he was duped into supporting something that he should have opposed. “Behzad was neutral because he was confused,” Naipaul explains. “He was a revolutionary and he welcomed the overthrow of the Shah; but the religious revolution that had come to Iran was not the revolution that Behzad wanted.”
I wonder how many people Stewart—or perhaps someone better situated—could have drawn to the Mall for a rally against the Tea Party that looked, walked, talked, and acted like a rally against the Tea Party. I know I would have gone, and it would not have been as a cynic on a measly expense account. The antidote to Glenn Beck isn’t “sanity,” it is a powerful, rational, and clear argument for why Glenn Beck is insane.
And I wonder whose fault it is that, four days before the Democrats will lose the House of Representatives, the most powerful statement liberalism had to make was a humorous shrug. To echo a favorite campaign phrase of the current president, whose own compromises serve as a useful template for mapping Stewart’s: Stewart was not the one we were waiting for.