The much-ballyhooed "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear"-- brainchild of America's Ironists-in-Chief Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert-- came and went this past Saturday in Washington, DC. Although the crowd-count estimates vary (as they always do), most put the number at somewhere between 200,000 and a quarter-million attendees. (TRANSLATION: For Midwesterners, that's somewhere between the total populations of Des Moines, Iowa and Lincoln, Nebraska. For Southerners, it's somewhere between Montgomery, Alabama and Greenville, North Carolina. For East Coasters, between Yonkers and Buffalo, New York. And for West Coasters/Southwesterners, its between Modesto, California and Glendale, Arizona. Apologies in advance to Pacific-Northwesterners, but the range between Spokane and Seattle is just too wide to be of any use to you in this case.) For those of you keeping score at home, that's basically a SH*TLOAD of people, in layman's terms, who made it out to a political rally for.... uhhhh, err, umm... what was it all about, anyway? A rally for ironic engagement? For no more "politics" ? For indecision? For sanity "and/or" fear? Or maybe just for Comedy Central?
As Bob Dylan once said: there's something going on here but you don't know what it is, do you, Dr. J? (Well, okay, he was technically addressing "Mr. Jones," but same sentiment anyway.)
It would be hard to gleen an overarching theme from the political signage at the rally, a kind of self-parodic and intentionally ascerbic ambiguity that was itself part of the motivating principle behind many people's attendance. As Jon Stewart performatively reminds us each evening on The Daily Show, what passes for "political discourse" in this country is too often regrettably vacant of meaningful substance, relying as it does on sound bites, misinformation, "spin" and "truthiness"-- all of which reduce complex and nuanced (and important) issues to sloganeering and, in so doing, eliminate any possibility for rational deliberation about them. The truth is, as we all would admit when we're using our inside voices: politics is messy. It's neither easy nor wise to pretend otherwise, to try to strategically over-simplify it, to act as if the interests of over 300 million American citizens can be aggregated and addressed in a way that each of them will find satisfactory. The "Rally to Restore Sanity"-- and its coincidental, uncanny doppelgänger, the "Rally To Keep Fear Alive"-- were intended to be, in their novel 21st-century styling, an iteration of the age-old political strategy of consciousness-raising. (Gasp! Combo Marxist-and-feminist reference!) In that sense, both rallies were what philosophers like to call "meta-"exercises. Everyone tried to step back for a moment from the mudslinging madness, the he-said/he-said character assasinations, the Hitler-analogue hurling, the pork-barrelling, the filibustering and gerrymandering and I'm-gonna-take-my-toys-and-go-home obstructionism to just, for just a moment, dial it down a notch. The whole point of the rally, such that there was one, seemed to be to give moderate, reasonable and informed discourse a moment in the spotlight. Or, at the very least, a minor speaking role.
As an admittedly left-leaning (oh, who am I kidding? I'm solidly Left), socially progressive, communist-sympathizing, democracy-loving believer in the powers of rational deliberation between and among informed citizens, I'm ALL FOR "dialing it down a notch." I've had more than my share of choking back throwup-in-my-mouth during this season of political advertisements here in Tennessee. (Most of the ad campaigns here can be summed up thus: on the Right we have "I'm a good ol' country boy, a Christian, an NRA member and a protector of unborn babies who drives a truck, not a 'Washington politician,' and I will oppose every single thing that Nancy Pelosi does" OR, on the Left, "C'mon, give me a break, I'm from Tennessee, too! I'm a country boy, too! I have a truck! And I am not Nancy Pelosi!") Even during the anti-Harold Ford, Jr campaign by Bob Corker in 2008, which was incontrovertibly backwards and racist, I didn't find myself so consistently itching and crawling with the political-creeps as I have during the current (MIDTERM!) election campaign. I'd like to believe that this isn't peculiar to Tennessee, an intuition that I think can be confirmed by watching (debatably-rational) talking heads prattle on every day on every channel about Obamacare the so-called Tea Party Takeover. Although, as a rule, I'm generally more inclined toward proactive political engagement-- by which I mean the kind of engagement that forces our differences to the fore, and in real confrontation-- I have also found myself in recent months exhausted enough by pro forma discursive hyperbole to have considered attending the DC rally, if only to show my unwavering support for that most regrettable of our collective political casualties: SANITY.
So, why didn't I go? To be honest, the truth is that I just didn't have the money or the free time to spare for a weekend jaunt to DC... reasons that no doubt mark me as an inadvertant collaborator and in absentia participant in the rallies, even despite my protests that follow. But I do want to register a few (minor and not-so-minor) complaints to justify my non-attendance at what may turn out to be the most significant-- or at least, most generationally characteristic-- political event of my life. (The election of Obama notwithstanding, of course.) Here's the thing: I'm all for the so-good-it-hurts kind of morally and politically instructive irony that Stewart and Colbert have not only mastered but also managed to funnel into something like an identity, even when it's bitingly sardonic (even somtimes mean) irony. And, yes, I'm one of the many 18- to 40-yr-olds in this country who really does think that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are more informed and more politically astute than most of the people that I find on my ballot when I step in the voter booth. I get both a deep, moral satisfaction and a healthy, hearty laugh out of their eviscerating send-ups of contemporary Tartuffery. I happen to be (what I'm sure most people who know me would describe as) a "loud" person-- especially when it comes to politics (and philosophy, music, pop culture and deconstruction)-- but, at the same time, I know that the best way to neutralize loudness like mine is to not shout back. It's a fundamental life-lesson we all should have learned from the first Rocky movie, or from Muhammed Ali's famous rope-a-dope boxing strategy. Blowhards and bullies will eventually wear themselves out if you don't engage them on their own terms. So, I genuinely appreciate the effort of Stewart/Colbert to passive-aggresively combat the deafening flame-war din that passes as political conversation today. But I worry, and oh how I worry, that what they may have inadvertantly inspired is....
As much as I absolutely loathe the anti-intellectualism with which so much of the Right (and too much of the Left) is enamoured these days, I really can see in this weekend's rallies a lot of what those anti-intellectualists find so objectionable. Let me offer what is, I think, an illustrative anecdotal aside: When I was an undergraduate (Philosophy major), I remember my father coming to visit me once at college and going out to dinner with me and my friends. As a 18- or 19-yr-old at the time, I of course thought that all of my friends were super-smart and politically astute and witty and hilarious. But when we left dinner, I remember my father saying to me, with one of those truly disappointed faces that you only recognize in the visages of parents: "Your friends are all so proud and so cynical. It's really kind of sad." At the time, I thought-- as young, hubris-marinated smartalecs are inclined to think-- that he just didn't "get it." But now I'm older (not quite the age my father was then, but getting closer by the day) and I can appreciate his exasperation with his dinner-mates' affective disposition that pretended, ever so deliberately, to be above-it-all. He was right, I now see, that we were "proud" and "cynical" and in our own way "sad." We were (or thought we were) so smart, so removed, so disgusted by the petty little goings-on of the hoi polloi, so ironic, and ever so proud of ourselves for being so superlatively critical. We were "against" everything, but none of us, for the life of us, could have formulated something that we were "for," not even if it meant a free dinner. In retrospect, I can see now that we were embedded in just another mundane phase of post-adolescence, in which it was very important to us (for very important reasons) to mark ourselves off as autonomous and reflective and educated. But our disposition was, at its heart, little more than the flailing, grasping, ungrounded and ever so common affect of fundamentally unprincipled young people.
Without articulable governing principles, without a cause or a rule that one can be for, without some motivating first premise from which one can derive the host of arguments and positions that come to form an informed citizen, we were just adolescents-- by which I mostly mean, angry, rebellious, directionless, fully equipped with range of affects and yet unable to generate any effects. I worry that too many in the crowd at this weekend's rallies were the same. They're mad at "politics as usual"-- for good reason-- and they're disaffected by a discourse that echoes vacantly in their ears and their lives. But what does their attendance at the Stewart/Colbert rally signify, other than that exasperation? What does it positively signify? What does it demand? What does it refuse? I mean, I get it that calling for a "restoration of sanity" has a palpably ironic and shaming force to it, like that of the child who pointed out the Emporer's nudity in front of His Majesty's passive and adoring subjects. I like that kid as much as the next person, for many of the same reasons that I like Socrates-- I think we need more of both!-- but I wouldn't vote for either. I'm not even sure that I would count on either of them to effect any real political change. I doubt I'd even want them as neighbors.
I'm worried that there might be too much self-congratulating going on among the throngs of people who identify too-reductively with Stewart and Colbert, with the Emporer's demystifying child, with Socrates, with the so-called "educated elite," or with the hundreds of thousands of the rest of us who are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Those figures and the sentiments that they inspire are only the first step toward thinking more critically, toward tearing away the veil of truthiness and spin, toward understanding what IS well enough to formulate some reasonable idea of what OUGHT TO BE. But if one only takes that first step and then proceeds no further, if one only sits at home and laughs/cries ironically at the insanity (and inanity) of it all with Colbert and Stewart, if one is unable to formulate anything more substantively principled than the claim "I don't like what is happening now," then I'm not convinced that one has developed a civic posture any more mature than Bartleby the Scrivener, who goes to work each day, more and more disaffected and less and less really effective, responding at each demand for his performance with the (in)famous retort: I would prefer not to. I want, desperately, to believe that this weekend's rallies was something more than a quarter-million Bartlebys shrugging their shoulders in exasperation, and not because I think widespread exasperation is an insignificant political phenomenon. Rather, I want to believe that that exasperation is only the first step to something more transformative, even revolutionary, than exasperation all by itself can ever be.
Thank the heavens, or whatever overarching-goodness analogue you prefer to substitute, for Jon Stewart himself. It turns out that The Voice of irony is also the voice of Reason, as it should be in every good democracy. Stewart's closing remarks to the Rally (below) were measured, empathetic, inspirational, sober and, most importantly, eminently sane. Just like he promised. If I'm wrong in my criticisms above, if there were in fact a quarter-million reflective and caring and sober and reasonable people there who think like this, then I have hope. Hope for a change I can believe in. I know we're going to lose the House in the upcoming midterm elections, but let me go on the record as saying I would prefer not to.