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Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore “Meh”


Cross-posted from Stand Up! Blog.

I’ve been trying to find a way to put my views of the Stewart/Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” for a few days now, but at last, I do not need to. Mark Ames has pretty much done it for me, and inspired a few original sentences, too.

more-cowbellAside from the fact that the on-stage spectacle of entertainment was an outdoor variety show gone terribly bad, showcasing several of the worst performances I’ve ever seen — including by the highly talented Colbert and Stewart themselves… the real spectacle of the moment was the rally-goers themselves. I’m something of a veteran of political rallies myself; I’ve been to many dozens of them, all for leftist causes. This was definitely not one of those. The Stewart/Colbert rally was more like a celebration of unwillingness to protest; a gathering of hundreds of thousands who, instead of getting more engaged at a time of crisis, were slowly backing out of the room.

Here’s how Ames puts it:

That’s what makes this rally so depressing and grotesque: It’s an anti-rally, a kind of mass concession speech without the speech–some kind of sick funeral party for Liberalism, in which Liberals are led, at last, by a clown. Not a figurative clown, but by a clown–and Liberals are sure that this somehow makes them smarter and less lame–and indeed, they are less lame, because they are not taking themselves too seriously, which is something they’re very, very proud of.

satisfation1The difference I take with Ames is that I see a clear distinction between contemporary liberalism and leftism/radicalism. (Radicaldoesn’t mean extreme; it refers to someone who looks to the root causes of problems, as opposed to a reformist, who prefers to progressively make surface changes.) People who want to see fundamental changes in social structures and institutions — even at the expense of their own privilege — were collectively scratching our heads at the Stewart/Colbert rally. We knew these mostly weren’t the same people in attendance who would have ever gone to a leftist event in the first place. We thought, gee that’s a lot of passionless people (or maybe they’re passionate about being seen as uncommitted… as being, in the parlance of the day: meh). And we wondered to ourselves: what would it take to get those people to come out for an actual cause?

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One radical friend of mine noted that coworkers of hers who had never attended a protest in their lives, but who’d maybe gone out to an Obama event during the campaign and were now graduating to the new kind of liberal inactivism, assumed my friend would be going to the Stewart/Colbert gig in DC. They couldn’t understand, since my friend had participated in and even organized so many relatively small, unnoticed protests… how could she not be going to this Rally for Mediocrity? Well, it’s simple: she believes in causes, not anti-causes. Those of us who have committed huge parts of our lives to protesting (not uncritically, mind you), are maybe not the ideal audience for an event that seems an awful lot like a protest of… well… protest.

More from Ames:

A century-old ideological movement, Liberalism: once devoted to impossible causes like ending racism and inequality, empowering the powerless, fighting against militarism, and all that silly hippie shit—now it’s been reduced to besting the other side at one-liners…and to the Liberals’ credit, they’re clearly on top. Sure there are a lot of problems out there, a lot of pressing needs—but the main thing is, the Liberals don’t look nearly as stupid as the other guys do. And if you don’t know how important that is to this generation, then you won’t understand what’s so wrong and so deeply depressing about the Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity.

stark-raving-reasonableStewart and Colbert finally offered liberals a way to protest something safely. They’re not on either side anymore. They’ve abandoned the Left entirely, if they had ever flirted with it, because the Left is populated by crazies who stand up for causes in weird ways — instead of just mocking their opponents, instead of showing up to vote every four years or so. Stewart and Colbert found a way that jaded cynics could engage in a demonstration without becoming activists.

Stewart’s concluding statement, “We live in hard times, not End Times,” seems to have struck a nerve among liberals and moderates. It was a clarion call to chill out and not get so riled up about stuff like global climate change (which is, after all, a ways off… ish…) and unjust wars (which are, after all, not taking place here). Besides, what have riled-up people ever achieved (besides massive labor reform, civil rights, the end of slavery, women’s rights, the American Revolution, lots of other revolutions, etc. — not to mention the impending ass-handing to Democrats in the House and Senate)?

The funny thing is, I don’t think Stewart himself, or many of the rally attendees, would have considered this until the idea came up to somehow oppose the surge of far-Right activism. In doing so, Stewart and Colbert didn’t want to be a counter-force and risk looking foolish for a good cause, but rather they wanted to be a neutralizing antidote, kind of a muffler on the polarized America that makes them squeamish.

It’s one thing to be civil in a discussion. Only fringe elements are opposed to civility, per se. But being placid and meek at a demonstration makes no sense whatsoever. What does that demonstrate to political elites — that we’re miffed enough to show up, and we’re not going to take it all that much longer, probably? (Truth be told, the crowds at most leftist demonstrations in the US are every bit as un-rowdy as those attending Stewart’s shindig were. This has been very good for the status quo.)

Ames one last time:

You see, this is why so many cool Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers were so jazzed up about going to the Stewart rally–by definition, they were guaranteed not to look stupid by going to it, because it’s not really a rally. They’re not putting anything on the line. They’re just going to chant the equivalent of that annoying Saturday Night Live Update skit “Really?” No generation ever looked so cool so late in their lives as my generation. We did it! We achieved our dream! We don’t look as stupid as the hippies did when they were in their 40s! Woo-hoo! We still mock ourselves and we’re still self-aware, but best of all, we don’t look stupid by devoting ourselves to ideas or movements that other people might one day laugh at. We won! We won the least-stupid-looking-generation competition! Let’s gather together in an ironic, self-aware way, and celebrate how we’re not really rallying or laying anything on the line–not even now, not even when the whole fucking country is collapsing. What’s our prize, Don?

Meanwhile, behind Door Number 1, the country is in two losing wars and the worst economic crisis in 80 years; behind Door Number 2, over 40 million Americans are on fucking food stamps; behind Door Number 3, millions are being land-transfered out of their property like landless peasants in a banana republic–yeah, it’s bad, whatever dude, it’s always been bad, nothing ever changes much, don’t have a cow, deal with it…

I’m still scratching my head. In this economy, who can afford to go to a rally to protest taking a stand?

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Come to think of it, Stewart’s followers looked more at home in Washington than any of the oft-maligned Tea Partiers or Code Pinkers I’ve ever seen. Maybe they’re so calm because they’re the people Washington is working for, and they wish the rest of us would shut up and stop rocking the boat.

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