On the September 16 episode of The Daily Show, John Stewart announced his “Rally to Restore Sanity,” calling it “a million moderate march… a clarion cry for rationality.” Signs toting the messages “9/11 was an outside job,” “Got competence?” and “I disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler” are said to be in the making. Part comeback to Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on August 24, part gag on bipartisan extremism, and complete retort to today’s state of political coverage, Stewart’s rally is scheduled on the Washington Mall on October 30, the weekend before Election Day.
Charlie Chaplin, or Buster Keaton, depending on who wins in a person’s own individual Beatles versus Rolling Stones-esque debate over the greater silent film comedian, was once known to say, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” This begs a question from me — what about medium-shot? In between the other two, its distinction is fuzzy, because it shows both facial expressions and body movements, but its use is universally known: to display importance and power. It’s an uneasy space, much like the one CBS writes that Jon Stewart exists in — “the uneasy space between comedy and sincerity.” What exists in this space is what Stewart is most revered for — satire. But look deeper and you see that satire is incomplete without the unease of irony. And there is power and importance in subverting politics into humor and vice versa.
There’s been a lot of mudslinging in our now debased political culture. It’s just as easy to call Obama a communist as it was to call Bush a facist. A lot of blaming. A lot of finger-pointing. A lot of name-calling. Not really any problem solving. Throw in a Bernstein score, and let’s have our parties duke it out on a dance floor like the Jets and the Sharks.
Politics took another turn towards partisanship on August 28, the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, when conservative Fox News commentator Glenn Beck held his own “Restoring Honor” rally at Lincoln Memorial — the very spot where Dr. King spoke his legendary message for tolerance through action. This year, Beck’s message, accompanied by Sarah Palin and King’s own niece, preached honor through God. Obtain an abstract with an abstract? That leaves a lot of room for error and misdirection, not to mention an entryway for obtaining results through not belief, but paranoia. On the rally, The Guardian wrote: “Deep intolerance bedecked with the magnificent language and ideals of King; it ranks as one of the most Orwellian moments in contemporary politics.” Beck claimed that turning to faith would honor America by making it less divisive, but recent events have shown religious faith has everything to do with the handling of national policy.
Enter Stewart, who has called himself representative of the “disenfranchised center.” It really should come as no surprise that playground squabbles aren’t really his thing. In his 2006 appearance on CNN’s Crossfire, he called the show “partisan hackery” and told its pundits, “You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.” When countered with the argument that Crossfire used political extremes to foster debate, Stewart responded that Crossfire was closer to theatre than genuine debate.
It’s an evolving issue. There used to be a time when news media represented a more balanced center, where journalists were paid to analyze the facts and didn’t wear their political beliefs on their sleeves. Yet as Ted Koppel recently pointed out in an NPR interview, you need a license to cut someone’s hair or fix a car, but you don’t need one to report the news. Now, as time speeds up in our text-and-Twitter culture, news is perpetually pressured to come out fresh and nothing sticks out fresher than breaking sensationalism. The thing is, our shock tolerance increases at the speed of Facebook news feeds and to keep up, news media counteracts by raising the stakes, and thus, by digging its own grave.
Hence the reason behind Stewart’s rally. It’s not just a reaction to Beck’s rally, but something deeper. According to Stewart, extremists with the loud voices only account for 20-30% of the nation’s population. This rally would give a voice to the “70-80% of Americans who aren’t extremists on the right or left,” and thus “take it down a notch for America.” It’s a call for accountability, dare I say, grown-up behavior, with Stewart’s orders to “Stop shouting, stop throwing things, stop drawing Hitler mustaches on people who are not Hitler.”
America, let’s consider ourselves on time out.
The irony of all this, the gray area, the medium shot I mentioned at the beginning, is that what we’re seeing is not necessarily what Stewart wants us to get. It seems like a joke, especially with the set-up of Stephen Colbert as Stewart’s faux nemesis in his “March to Keep Fear Alive,” but as Jeffrey Jones, author of the book Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement, has observed, “This rally is really about the serious side of satire.”
This rally isn’t about mobilizing the masses; it’s about making a commentary on the state of politics today. Stewart isn’t creating this event so people can fly to DC, have the time of their lives, and then go home to tell everyone, “Hey, there might be a shot of me on The Daily Show!” It goes deeper than that. Satire isn’t just about being funny; it’s about exposing certain issues we may otherwise be ignorant to and calling attention to the need for a solution. Moderates don’t typically take the Washington Mall in rallies, that’s the whole point behind this. They stay at home and let the reactionaries duke it out until their voices go hoarse. Then the moderates come out, cast their vote, live their everyday lives, and that’s it. They’re the balancers, but the problem is that extremists on both sides of the political spectrum have gotten so loud, it’s displaced the moderate fulcrum that helps to keep us in check. This rally, yes funny, yes satirical, yes ironic, but yes also serious, brings attention to all these one-sided debates that have somehow thrown basic human decency and decorum out the window.
It’s basically a duty to the public discourse and if media pundits aren’t going to fill in that center balance, then that leaves an open space for satirists to do the job for them. In Stewart’s case, as in many issues he takes on in that uneasy space between comedy and sincerity, the delivery is comical, but the message is anything but, especially when you stop to remember it’s a comedian posing as a journalist who’s doing a better job at extracting and starting dialogue than the news commentators themselves.
Now there’s irony for you.
Photo Credit: thanks to D.C.Atty via flickr