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Jon Stewart’s ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’ was a wasted opportunity for liberals

Marc Tracy
November 02, 2010
Jon Stewart speaks during the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”(Kris Connor/Getty Images)
Jon Stewart speaks during the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”(Kris Connor/Getty Images)

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.
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.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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