Due to time constraints, I was unable to travel to the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the National Mall today in Washington, but I did watch most of it on Comedy Central this afternoon. In addition to being a welcome break from a dismal afternoon of college football–at least if you’re a Purdue fan–it was also an entertaining media event, one that powerfully illustrated the power of comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to draw a crowd in support of their politically-themed humor.
It was fun to watch musical performers such as Jef Tweedy and Mavis Staples singing together, while Yusuf Islam and Ozzy Osborne had a humorous mock music competition. But of course the main purpose for the rally was to serve as an antidote to the Glenn Beck 8/28 rally that appealed to the politics of fear and divisiveness. As Stewart himself said during an earnest concluding speech, “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” a message that seemed to be echoed by the crowd that stretched across the Mall. And as an alternative to the comments from Juan Williams (and NPR’s awkward response), Bill O’Reilly’s blow-up on The View, and countless political ads, the rally came across as a means of embracing more healthy forms of political participation, a point illustrated by Stewart’s embrace of Velma Hart, who calmly and rationally challenged Obama on some of his policy choices. It’s a position consistent with other comments made by both Stewart and Colbert in other venues, including Stewart’s famous Crossfire appearance and Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
But it’s a position that seems to be absent from many, if not most, of the comments about the rally, even those that seem to be enthusiastic about it. Will Bunch, a media columnist for the Los Angeles Times reads the rally as an attempt to “elevate ironic detachment to the level of a political manifesto” before worrying (somewhat insincerely, if I’m reading him correctly) that the rally could undercut their reputations as comedians who speak truth to power. Similarly, Alexandra Petri argues (favorably) that the rally is the ultimate example of Millennial posturing, calling it “the ultimate anti-protest. It’s a Facebook group in the flesh.” Meanwhile, Carlos Lozada worries that the rally will shatter Stewart’s status as a sideline satirist, turning him into something more earnest.
What we saw instead was something other than mere “ironic detachment.” The satire performed by Stewart and Colbert has long been rooted in principle, and the rally is simply an expression of that, part of the “Stewart [and Colbert] lore” that Lozada worries will be undercut by the rally. The comments from Bunch and Petri both seem to underestimate the political power of satire, albeit with different investments. Petri seems to imply that Millennials are committed to little other than ironic self-expression, while Bunch worries that the rally signifies that we are laughing into “oblivion” (to echo an old anti-pop culture remark from Neil Postman).
Instead, the rally was a reminder that we can and should do better when it comes to the institutions that shape our politics. Although the rally avoided explicit commentary about some of the more insidious factors that have affected our politics–the Citizens United decision to name one example–it did offer, through its embrace of Velma Hart, an alternative to the heated cable news programming that Colbert and Stewart have been parodying for years.