a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Skeptical at the spectacle: moderate American liberalism jumps the shark

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 2nd, 2010

Somewhat to my own surprise, I tried to attend the Stewart/Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear” extravaganza on Saturday. Friends were arriving from Pennsylvania, so I thought whatever my reservations were about the event, I could set them aside to try to meet some people I like.  Maybe by really joining in, I’d come to embrace the event.

In the event, that didn’t pan out — they wound up stuck in a tremendous traffic jam somewhere in suburban  Virginia, and then in a Metro system unequal to a record-breaking overload.  And then their cell phone gave out. I spent about an hour above ground when I got to the Mall around 11pm, and then the next three hours or so tunnelling beneath it to wait (unsuccessfully) at L’Enfant Plaza for my friends, who apparently got off at a different station anyway. As my cell phone helpfully told me re text messages I tried to send: “Me (Failed).”

It seems the turnout was nothing short of spectacular: given that WMATA (the Metro system) reports 875,000 trips were taken on Saturday vs. an average of 350,000,a turnout in the vicinity of 300,000 seems like a reasonable estimate.*  People brought many funny signs, eclipsed Glenn Beck’s event earlier this year, and generally had a whale of a time.  All good things.

So how did I not love thee, Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear?   Let me count the ways.

First, I had thought Stewart and Colbert were antidotes to the mindless media habit of ‘equal opportunity criticism’ — in this case, equating Cheney on the right with Code Pink or Alan Grayson on the left, as Stewart did in his announcement of the “rally.”  Right: people who start an unnecessary war are on the same level with people who protest it, however disruptively.  Shouldn’t you be a bit disruptive about a heinous war?  Shouldn’t you be a bit dismissive of a party of “no” that offered no hint of compromise or alternatives to bitterly needed health care reform?

And if you’re not, shouldn’t you perhaps at least shut up and not wring your hands about people who are?  Not if you’re Jon Stewart.  Far from walking back his comments about the protest group Code Pink before the event, Stewart’s Daily Show delivered the back of its hand to Code Pink yet again by subjecting founder Medea Benjamin to a farcical interview lineup featuring her, a Tea Party Yosemite Sam looking fellow, a fake anarchist, and a paper mache puppet guy, ending with the admonition to all, “Don’t be a douchebag.”

Also, while I realize it’s a small, self-selected group and it’s a silly “hot or not” sign contest at the rally website, it bugs me that that group and mindset is such that posters like this get thumbs down (“insane”), while insipid ‘I’ll listen to your nonsense and nod, yay me’ posters like this get thumbs up.

Fight Fox
Some groups knew which side they were on.

Second, I question my connection to an allegedly, even ‘militantly’ sane crowd that flocked to a “rally” whose own instigator admitted he wasn’t clear what its purpose was.  Classically, “moderation” is an attitude or tactic that embraces compromise and thoughtfulness over conflict and stridency.  So far, so unremarkable — I, too, prefer to get my way without conflict and stridency; I, too, will adjust my thinking on the basis of new facts.  But “moderation” is now apparently also a description for “will travel hundreds of miles to make a vague statement that I hope aligns me with a purpose I’m not yet acquainted with.”  It’s one thing, moreover, to be blindly following the leader, it’s another to be quite as self-congratulatory about that as many event-goers were — no matter how well spelled their posters were.

Finally, there was the matter of the date.  Saturday, October 30 was the better one of two precious weekend days before what looks to be a watershed ‘counterreformation’ election that will set back, yet again, hopes for a functional (let alone just) economy, that will complicate (at best) hopes for a sane foreign policy, that will delay (for the foreseeable future) hopes of reversing the civil liberties defeats of the past ten years.

Make no mistake, this criticism is mainly directed elsewhere.  For 300,000 plus people — apparently, for the most part, reasonably smart, moderate-to-liberal folks — to conclude that the most salient political act they could perform three days before a major election was to travel to a comedian’s show on the Mall can only be viewed as a stinging rebuke to a Democratic Party that will probably get more of their votes today than any other party will.

But both Stewart and Colbert on the one hand, and the event-goers on the other share responsibility as well.  The only conceivable political value to the extravaganza — even from a nonpartisan point of view — would have  been “changing the game”: mobilizing unlikely voters to vote with a national event drawing millions of viewers.  While there were a few hand-lettered signs like mine (“Vote – What’s The Worst That Could Happen?”) to that effect sprinkled among the many wonderfully wry, witty messages, there was no sustained effort to encourage the one thing even an avowedly moderate event for the “middle 80 percent” could unambiguously support.

“Jumping the shark” is an expression derived from an embarrassing “Happy Days” episode towards the end of that TV show’s run.  It means, roughly, “suddenly becoming passe or irrelevant” — and specifically, engaging in a stunt to attract attention and deflect it from something’s declining value.   While a major party that seems to operate by the curious slogan “We’re Less Right Than They Are” and a comedian suddenly finding his inner David Broder should be asking themselves questions today, so should the event-goers.  Judging by their signs, they seemed to know there are sharks in the water.  Judging by their signs, they also seemed not to want  to pick a side, or value actually fighting for it once they do.  That leaves them — and the moderate American liberalism they claim to represent — joining a party and a comedian in all but jumping the shark themselves.

* Subtracting average weekday traffic, the event outdrew August 27th’s combined Beck/anti-Beck turnout (not even in WMATA’s top five Saturday traffic volumes) by about a factor of three.
EDIT, 11/2: “statement that I hope” for “statement on behalf of I hope.”; “wasn’t clear what its purpose was” link added.
UPDATE, 11/2: It was an anti-media rally, writes Jason Easley.  If so, Stewart is in the process of adopting many of the media’s worst false equivalence and ‘center must be right’ habits.
UPDATE, 11/3: Chris Hedges’ take is similar to mine in “The Phantom Left“: “The liberal class wants to inhabit a political center to remain morally and politically disengaged. As long as there is a phantom left, one that is as ridiculous and stunted as the right wing, the liberal class can remain uncommitted. If the liberal class concedes that power has been wrested from us it will be forced, if it wants to act, to build movements outside the political system. This would require the liberal class to demand acts of resistance, including civil disobedience, to attempt to salvage what is left of our anemic democratic state.” Hedges tweezers up this wince-worthy quote by Stewart for inspection: “Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own?” Which Marxists? What are they doing wrong exactly? I seem to remember they were among the handful of white people who *weren’t* racist before that was safe in the 20th century. I thought you got to say what you think and associate with whom you want. Stewart seems like a precocious grade schooler here:he knows lots of big words and he knows the story he’s supposed to tell, but it’s pretty vapid, conventional wisdom for an alleged Lion of the Left.
UPDATE, 11/10: In fairness, Stewart’s full remarks make the one Hedges pulled seem more a counterfactual than an accusation: “So, why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own? We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is — on the brink of catastrophe — torn by polarizing hate and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do.” I.e., he’s saying we work with people *accused* of being such things, presumably because we deny the “untrue picture” of the accusation. Ie., Obama is not a Marxist, and Tea Party people are not necessarily racists and homophobes. It’s still not great — Marxists don’t necessarily subvert the Constitution (whatever that means), and are on a different plane than racists or homophobes. But it’s not the blatant “how dare you work with them” statement it looked like to me at first.

8 Responses to “Skeptical at the spectacle: moderate American liberalism jumps the shark”

  1. jon Says:

    Very good post. Stewart’s attitude towards Medea Benjamin and CodePink is disgraceful — thanks for calling it out. And agreed that rallies preaching to the choir in DC aren’t the best use of time and energy three days before an election. Disappointing.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Yeah, Stewart’s gratuitous knocks on Code Pink and Grayson were what miffed me from the outset. The whole announcement left me cold, and I obviously never warmed up to any of it. I can see decrying the American media circus — a tilted playing field where people of good will and good faith *need* to resort to showmanship to make a point that doesn’t ‘fall in the forest where no one can hear it.’ But that’s not what Stewart did, he just said their methods disqualify their points and purpose in a way allegedly analogous to the way Cheney’s methods disqualify his. Yet it’s not Cheney’s methods, it’s more importantly his *purposes* that matter, and that distinguish him from Code Pink. — So now I’m probably preaching to the choir myself. Thanks very much for your comment, Jon.

  3. RobertNAtl Says:

    Agree – a fundamentally unserious event.

  4. Charles D Says:

    I think “the most salient political act they could perform three days before a major election was to travel to a comedian’s show on the Mall.” What else could they do? They were being given a choice between failed economic, domestic and foreign policies and failed economic domestic and foreign policies. The only real difference between the two parties is that Democrats are more civil. Stewart’s attempts to draw a false equivalence between Code Pink and Olbermann and the Tea Party and Limbaugh sounded more like lip service to his corporate masters than a serious critique. After all, Stewart and Colbert are entertainers in the pay of a major media conglomerate as are all the other pontificators we hear from daily.

    The Rally to Restore Whatever needs to be the rally that ends rallies. Rallies are useless as are elections when the political system is a broken hulk in the control of corporate interests.

  5. dandelion Says:

    Jon Stewart is the poster child for the deadly political effects of irony. Change only happens at the point of pain and passion. The comically detached pose of irony that both Stewart and Colbert adopts directly drains away pain and passion. Finally, irony values nothing; and when nothing is of value, everything can be stolen without protest.

    If history repeats itself, decades-ago marches on the Mall were steeped and soaked in blood and tragedy. Stewart’s march is farce and nothing more and it’s a terrible terrible indictment of the left that this march was actually considered any kind of action worth taking.

  6. Gideon Balzar Says:

    I think that the ‘equivalence’ they were referring to was in the manner in which you address your political opponents, and their policies. (Americans, left and right do this, not all right wing ideas are bad, just most of them). Lets stop name calling and concentrate on salient arguments that prove your point. Calling someone a moron does not advance your argument one bit. No, agreed, you did not start it, now, forget that and end it, it is within your power to do this.

    best regards

  7. Gideon Balzar Says:

    I just fired my proofreader, please pardon the bad grammar/spelling in the previous post


  8. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thanks for such excellent comments — as you can see by my late response, I’m taken a bit by surprise, this is usually a fairly sleepy little blog.

    I think there is a place and a need for what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are both extremely talented at: being observers, analysts, and entertainers. I think that Colbert’s skewering of George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner remains an all but revolutionary, brave act that was perhaps the single most effective, devastating dissent Dubya ever heard. I’m always just awestruck with admiration for Colbert when I think about it.

    So I would qualify Dandelion’s disdain for irony — it may be detached and arch, but at its best it can be wonderfully, heroically clarifying, even liberating. On the other hand, as a political stance in its own right, I agree with you, Dandelion: it seems empty to me, at some point you have to answer the old song “which side are you on?” — or you’re just watching from the sidelines as people with heart struggle on the field.

    But irony is powerful when it’s pointed *up* at the powerful. I guess I think it’s kind of snotty and clueless to point it sideways or down at a relatively (relative to Bush and Cheney) powerless group like Code Pink. They and Grayson and others had determined, with good reason, that the only way they can be heard is by civil disobedience or something very like it. They face a war machine and a media Wurlitzer that is overpowering, and so they do slightly outrageous things to prick the consciences of politicians, pundits, and viewers. They are the shock troops who give the rest of us the space to say “yeah, maybe not that, but half of that.” The power imbalance between them and the FOX’s, Bush’s, Limbaughs etc makes them fundamentally, irrevocably unequivalent. What they do is fair. What O’Reilly or Cheney do is not. Even if they look similarly outrageous.

    Re the rally itself, maybe like you say, Charles D., rallies are themselves passe. The “One Nation” one I went to a few weeks ago was choreographed to within an inch of its life, and felt like a kind of smaller Democratic Party convention, just held at the Lincoln Memorial. Union members — and I love ’em — were there in droves, but they were often a little old and a little tired and liked sitting in their lawn chairs and taking in a nice day, and they wore hundreds of identical SEIU or UAW or what have you t-shirts that seemed to almost *lessen* their impact.

    But then a woman got up and spoke and said “I’ve been unemployed for two years now” — and that got to me and I think to others. I think the next time a rally like that is planned for DC, they ought to quietly pass the word: bring a tent, a sleeping bag, and extra clothes, this won’t just be another rally with tribal drums and paper mache puppets — it will be a Hooverville, a Bonus Army. It will say we’re not leaving until we get some satisfaction.

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