This column criticizes the Rally for Sanity. I don’t intend it to attack my many beloved friends who had a great afternoon in D.C. blowing off steam and embracing humor and catharsis at the rally or the goodhearted celebrities and musicians who participated. Saturday afternoon’s onstage lineup was entertaining, and the signs that creative rally-goers made were even more clever and fun. Kudos to the sloganeers, the creatively-costumed, the subversive or just merry bands of friends who went down to D.C with purpose or purposelessness. And particular kudos to the folks who brought pro-tax messages to the rally–I loved it and have never seen anything like it before.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with meeting the insanity of the Tea Party with irony, a tradition that began organically last spring when progressive infiltrators began showing up at Tea Party rallies with jest-filled signs.
And yet a major problem remains. The Rally for Sanity’s organizers and the mainstream coverage of politics that they were explicitly critiquing actually have a lot in common. They are both exemplars of the same overarching flaw in our so-called progressive and intellectual class. It’s a problem of timidity in the name of politeness and a confusion of equivocation with objectivity. It’s the mistake of being scared to engage with and sift through ideas because one side’s ideas might prove to be right, and so instead reducing political debates to those about “tone” and “message.”
Everyone on both sides needs to calm down, this flawed outlook implies. Really? Who on our side is threatening to bomb clinics? Who on our side is calling each other baby-killers? Who on our side is pressing for xenophobic immigration laws that would separate families and strand young children?
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But no, we all need to calm down. So the extreme right-wing will keep spouting violent rhetoric and accusing us of being godless un-Americans while well-intentioned people like Stewart and our President himself will ask “why we can’t just get along?” claiming that those of us (often those of us with wombs) who genuinely find the political moment threatening are overreacting. And so they will address their rational plea to an in-the-tank audience that already wants harmony, an audience that can be as uncomfortable with heated rhetoric from its own side as it is from the opposition. Obama and Stewart could say “let’s be friends” and “you’re a total d-bag” to Glenn Beck supporters, and the ensuing response would probably have the exact same level of disdain and outrage because they’re not really listening.
So yes, the rally’s wry nonpolitical “we’re above all that” tone made me deeply sad, even as I chuckled at signs pointing out their own limitations: “My political beliefs cannot fit on a sign.” I was sad because instead of mocking the Tea Party for hating gays and women, for believing lies that our president is a terrorist and a Muslim, and for (in angry confusion) supporting with votes the same billionaires and corporations who have robbed them of jobs and financial security, the rally mostly mocked the Tea Parties for, well, rallying. And that’s distressing because the one quality of this hate-spewing movement that we progressives should be emulating is their ability to show up en masse and get angry and focused on their political goals.
The masses gathering at rallies is, in fact, a crucial part of the process of change. Look at the effect that hundreds of thousands of Obama rallies had on his core constituents during the last elections–we were fired up and ready to go, right? Sure, rallies can feel futile at times. But the Tea Partiers remember what we knew two years ago. A rally itself won’t get a victory in policy. But it will get media attention and send attendees back home fueled up and eager to get organized online and in local political groups–and by donating money. And that is how agendas get passed. Our opponents’ anger is going to send them to the polls on Tuesday, while Stewart and his ilk’s “moderate” frustration with that anger is going to send people home from this weekend rally psyched and energized… to go where, exactly?
Not to the polls, not to canvass, not to phone-bank, apparently. Because Jon Stewart refused to even politicize the afternoon’s discourse to the level of “please vote on Tuesday” or “google ‘get out the vote efforts’ so you can be part of this political process.” Or the benign “think about what issues matter most to you personally, and then find someone who can help get those issues out in the open and support him or her.”
Stewart was probably utterly scared of being painted as a liberal counterpart to Glenn Beck this weekend. He begged the media (which unsurprisingly has completely failed at covering the rally in an un-bewildered way) not to paint him as scornful of the Tea Party or Beck’s followers. And he’s right. He wasn’t really targeting them in particular; he was just spoofing all people who care a lot. He has chosen to take on irrational people for their passion and their involvement, not for their irrational beliefs. And in doing so he’s fallen into a trap laid by the very same mainstream media he so despises, doing the same dance away from the term “liberal” as they do by following their creed: avoid analyzing the issues and just analyze their presentation.
Personally, I’d love to have seen us counteract the Beck event with a rally to protect women’s right to choose or to advocate for gay marriage or to plead for peace or to do all three and legalize marijuana too, despite the fact that such rallies don’t change minds in Washington. Because it would have reminded us that specific issues matter, whether they’re being whispered or shouted about. No matter how much I love things that are “meta” and ironic and laugh-inducing–I’m a pop culture blogger after all–a rally to make fun of rallies is just not my cup of Tea.