"So..." Jon Stewart mused during the wrap-up, "what exactly was this?"
It got laughs, of course, since he knew full well that none of us really knew what to expect when we decided to drop everything and stand around between the Washington Mall and the Capitol for four hours on a late October afternoon. Sure, if you were familiar with Stewart's brand of media satire and Stephen Colbert's reverse-psychology skewering of right wing punditry, you had a rough idea of how the day would go. But the organizers had been deliberately mysterious about the specifics, allowing anyone to read anything into it.
Regardless, The Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Keep Fear Alive had a clear narrative. Stewart, representing Sanity, squared off against his eternal friendly nemesis Stephen Colbert, who had proudly taken up the mantle of Fear. Sanity essentially translated as "turn it down a notch!" when debating issues in the public circle, while Fear sang the praises of scaremongering, demonization, and manufactured hysteria.
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The tone was set from the get-go, when Stewart had to persuade Colbert to emerge from his underground bunker 2,000 feet below the stage, where he was paralyzed with the fear that no one had actually shown up. When Stewart managed to convince him that, in fact, the crowd was enormous (guests Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters timed the crowd "wave" at 54 seconds, and that was before the audience reached full size), Colbert let himself be pulleyed up to the surface by the world-reknowned Chilean mine rescuers, and jumped out dressed like Evel Knieval (or Super Dave---not sure which) waving the Chilean flag.
Long live the red, white and blue.
“Hello, mulititude on the Washington Mall!” Colbert beamed. “Kneel before Zod!”
“No! No kneeling!” Stewart yelled. “These are reasonable people!”
“They're reasonable now, Jon, but soon they'll be a mindless panicked mob----once I release the bees."
The spokesmen for Sanity and Fear spent the next three hours battling it out with banter, barbs, and guest stars, who included such luminaries as The Roots, John Legend, Tony Bennett, Cheryl Crow, and Seven-Year-Old Girl. (The latter was one of the recipients of Colbert’s Medal of Fear, accepting it in the stead of the major networks who were too paralyzed by fear to cover the rally live. As has been pointed out by several astute commentators, this meant that a second-grade girl ended up wearing a medal with a naked man on it. Huzzah!)
Conversely, Stewart’s Medal of Reasonableness recipients included such surprise guests as Steven Slater---for admitting that perhaps he could have expressed his displeasure with rude airline passengers in a more constructive and less liquor-stealing manner--- and Velma Hart, for performing the easy but disconcertingly rare feat of asking the president a rational question.
The most epic part of the whole thing was when Stewart and Colbert got into a Sanity vs. Fear showdown via Yusef and Ozzy Osbourne. To me, the funniest part was how Osbourne was the only guest star to barge out onto the stage with no introduction whatsoever. Some things are self-explanatory.
In the end, Sanity and Fear ended up both agreeing to board Love Train. Unsubtle message? P’rhaps. But who cared?
Sanity having won the day and all being right with the world, I turned around and did a double take. That crowd stretched back as far as I could see. That had not been even close to true when the rally started. You know how thick that crowd was? As it began to disperse, I discovered that I had been standing two feet from a bench the entire time. (facepalm).
My mission now being to fight my way against the mighty human current to get back to the bus stop on time (You do not miss a free bus ride. Not an option), I can tell you that the streets were choked with people. It was kind of amazing.
The best part: Here we all were, coming from a rally celebrating unity and working together and all that good stuff, and what enormous display banner at the National Archives was overlooking all of this?
"Discovering the Civil War."
Ya just can't buy that kind of irony.
We may not have known exactly "what this was" before going, but it was well articulated by Stewart’s closing speech, which really was the core of whole event. If you haven’t already seen it on TV, I urge you to click below. It’s a very good way to spend the next few minutes:
And now, my Moment of Sincerity.
I had to admit--given that Stewart characterized this little shebang as a “Million Moderate March,” I felt like something of a hypocrite going to this. Although I’m a full, unquestioningly loyal supporter of sanity, my feelings toward certain elements in the body politic are less close to moderate than to, well, bitterly enraged.
I wouldn’t call myself a partisan (I've come to think George Washington was right after all when he said we shouldn't have political parties), but I have a lot of anger at the vindictiveness and spite that characterizes politics in the US. And even more, I have deep contempt for those who traffic in manufactured outrage. To me, it's particualrly insidious to exploit people's fears and prejudices around something you don't even believe in, yourself---political, racial, religious, whatever. While people on both the left and the right are guilty of this sin, I believe it's a fool's errand to subscribe to some false equivalency. There is no doubt where most of the blame for this toxic environment comes from, and well-intentioned people who try to mediate with "both sides do it" are basically prescribing Advil for a broken leg.
To be politically tuned in, even a little bit, is to be constantly subjected to palpable spite. Years of this have turned me into, really, quite a cynical sumvabitch.* I regret that. It feels pretty goldurned lousy, to tell the truth. But I'm just not able to "feel strangely, calmly good" as Stewart claimed to at the rally's end. The well has become too poisoned, too toxic, for me to summon up any real optimism that the Sanity will spread from our little 200,000-strong rally and permeate the minds of, say, those who cheer on the head-stomping of a woman anti-Rand Paul protester.
It's maaaaahhhghty crazy out there, George.
So I didn't come to this rally with exactly the right spirit. I certainly agree that we all need to calm down and talk to each other like human beings, but it's also hard to let go of the anger. I suspect I'm hardly alone, but it still eats at me.
My own feelings aside, there was a genuinely important message in all this tomfoolery.
Stewart’s liberal sympathies are no secret. Neither, by reverse psychology, are Colbert’s. So automatically, their rally was read by many in a very superficial way, either as simply an attack on conservatives, or most simplistically, an effort to whip up the malaise-plagued Democratic base.
But Stewart kept true to his word that this rally would be largely nonpolitical, and with good reason. His point went far beyond the banality of partisan sniping.
As on The Daily Show itself, the larger message here is that the newsmedia, by turning everything up to the same decibel level, by cramming events into artificial, forced narratives, and most of all, by lending credibility to hyperbole that doesn't deserve it, only ends up confusing and stymieing the national dialogue. (“And giving us eczema.”)
We live in a time when manufactured fear and over-the-top rhetoric has become so normalized that we barely notice it anymore. Desensitized to violence? We crossed that bridge a long time ago. (Hey kids! How many of you are playing Grand Theft Auto IV right now?) Now we're desensitized to violent rhetoric, which the media has given the public platform once responsibly denied to it. And when it's not violent, it's characterized by fear. Look at this! Absorb it! Fear it! No time to think! Ooga-Booga!!!
Out of everything that Stewart said during the closing speech, I think this deserves to be highlighted:
“The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous, flaming ant epidemic.”I find this to be a pretty accurate assessment of how the dynamic works. Often, commentators provide "analysis" on situations that they themselves played a great role in shaping, yet act as if it’s something completely outside of themselves, as though they exist in a vacuum and had no impact on the subject they are analyzing to death. They do this again and again, and it can be a destructive and dysfunctional pattern, especially where politics are concerned.
This NY Times article, in my opinion, captured two different sides of the response coin. On one hand, the writer is probably correct about this...
But here’s the problem: Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans. People are scared of what they see in their pay envelopes and neighborhoods, not because of what Keith Olbermann said last night or how Bill O’Reilly came back at him.Good point, and one that I know I personally tend to ignore when directing my ire at the press, blasting them for what I see as the role that their irresponsible obsession with forced narratives plays in our politics.
On the other hand, I find it to be a disingenuous dodge when the writer wraps up with this...
But personally, I enjoy Mr. Stewart in his regular seat where he is less reasonable, less interested in obvious targets and less willing to suggest that all political ideas and movements are like kindergartners, worthy of understanding and respect if only the media would get out of the way. His barrage against the news media Saturday stemmed from the fact that, on this day, attacking the message would have been bad manners, so he stuck with the messengers.When the messengers become the message, that kind of parsing is meaningless. The flaming ant epidemic would not be the flaming ant epidemic without the dedicated hyperventilating that goes on in cable news and elsewhere, and for the press to step back and surgically remove themselves from the equation, as this writer seems to be doing, is dishonest at best.
At any rate, I hope this ain't over. Sanity needs to fight on! I hope it does, and if so I hope to see you there, wherever that may be.
P.S. R2D2 4 ever.
I've put up a bunch of photos on Flickr. If you haven't seen the signs people made for this rally, I can't urge you enough to check these out. They're hilarious.(Be sure to read the captions below! I tried to form a semi-coherent narrative out of them.)
Question: What do you think of Stewart’s message? Do you agree or disagree with his analysis? What do you think can be done to bring things down to earth? Are you becoming desensitized to this environment, or do you feel largely outside it? Do you feel it's affected us in any way as a people?