In irony we trust
If you take them at their Facebook word, at least 223,609 people plan to attend the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the National Mall in Washington on Saturday. According to enthusiastic posters on the social network site, the rally is either a) “the start of a massive, powerful movement … to turn back the vehement, reactionary discourse in this country” or b) “very much like a music festival.”
The Comedy Central satire twins don’t have an agenda exactly, although Stewart has a motto: “Take it down a notch, for America.” That’s enough for left-leaning pundit and new-media guru Arianna Huffington to pay a reported $250,000 to bus at least 11,000 people from New York to D.C. for the festivities, while bosses at NPR have banned its off-duty journalists from attending because the rallies involve issues that NPR covers. (Apparently, NPR now reports on “sanity.”)
But then, absurdity is certain to abound when thousands of Americans rally in the shadow of the Capitol dome — just four days before a hotly contested midterm election — to mostly make this grand political statement: In irony we trust.
Many in the legion of Stewart and Colbert fans say they see the event as an in-your-face response to the much-hyped gathering that launched the fall election season: August’s “Restoring Honor” rally that conservative Fox News Channel and talk radio icon Glenn Beck held about a mile and a half to the far right (if you look south) of the Comedy Central stage.
But Saturday may prove less a rejoinder to Beck than an echo. By the time the last punch line reverberates off the Washington Monument, the similarities between Beck and Comedy Central’s lampooners of self-important pundits and pols — and their quasi-political bookends to this year’s election — will probably appear to be greater than any differences.
How would that be for irony?
The echo starts with the fact that both Beck and Stewart’s “Daily Show” staff happen to be peddling fall book releases — “Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure” and “Earth (The Book): A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race,” respectively. And, in both cases, you can buy cool rally stuff online — a “Restoring Honor” picture book at GlennBeck.com; an “I’m With Reasonable” T-shirt at shop.comedy.central.com. The echo gets louder when you realize that in a time of grave national challenges, Americans are only coming out to march in the name of attitude over answers; they are parading their common bond to entertainment — whether it is Beck’s God-tinged righteousness or the cool detachment of Colbert and Stewart — rather than making their positions clear on specific policies or, heaven forbid, lobbying for them.
This was predicted a quarter of a century ago by a remarkably prescient pundit, Neil Postman. In 1985, the year after George Orwell’s dystopia did not exactly happen, the late New York University academic and media critic published “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which argued that the greater threat to serious democratic discourse would not come from Orwellian censorship but from TV entertainment “values” that would act as a mind-numbing drug. “Western democracies,” Postman wrote, “will dance and dream themselves into oblivion.”
If so, the National Mall in Washington is an especially ironic scene for that last tango. It was during a time of economic crisis much like our own — in 1894 — that the first large-scale protest march arrived at the capital’s great space, and organizer Jacob Coxey and other leaders were promptly arrested for their willingness to speak out.
For the next century, the Mall was increasingly where Americans rallied with clear and concrete demands of their leaders — against poverty and segregation at the March on Washington in 1963 and against the Vietnam War in 1969, and later both for and against abortion rights. There were charismatic leaders then, too, none more so than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 near where Beck spoke this year. But those who made overtly political statements on the national stage faced far greater risks — from Coxey to King, who would be assassinated for his views in 1968 — than today’s rewards of a raised profile and higher Nielsen ratings.
King’s assassination was arguably also one of a string of events, including the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, that created the national tide of cynicism that turned citizens away from straight-up politicians and activists and toward televised cultural totems such as Beck, Stewart and Colbert. There was palpably less excitement for an old-school Washington rally by remnants of the liberal coalition, including labor unions and civil rights activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, staged as a counterweight to anti-government Beck, focused on jobs and social justice.
But then how can a non-celebrity labor leader compete with the likes of Beck’s weepy unpredictability or Colbert’s biting satire — the inspiration for Postman-predicted mass movements built not around direct action but shared values?
Beck and some of his followers depicted the “Restoring Honor” rally as a conservative Woodstock that was not a protest — indeed, there was virtually no mention of President Obama or the jobs crisis — but a celebration of turning away from politics, at Beck’s urging, and toward God and family.
The dynamic duo of Comedy Central seem to have a similar Woodstocky vibe in mind — with fun and music — but they are also entering uncharted territory by seeming to elevate ironic detachment to the level of a political manifesto. One danger is that a rally that doesn’t meet the sky-high expectations of 200,000 attendees could undercut the hard-won reputations of both Stewart and Colbert for using comedy to speak truth to power in a way that traditional journalism has failed to do over the last decade. But a bigger issue is treating the challenges of 2010 — from rising poverty to unending war in Afghanistan to global warming, which are every bit as serious as those confronted on the National Mall in 1894 or 1963 or 1969 — with little more than humor and intellectual distance.
When King and his fellow marchers returned home from the Mall to the Deep South 47 years ago, they knew they faced nightsticks or worse on the rocky road toward the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, the challenge facing rallygoers is, as Stewart suggests, asking “the sitter if she can stay a few extra hours, just this once.”
Ultimately, it will be those kids at home who learn the history of whether 2010 was just an autumn of harmless entertainment or the throes of a nation amusing itself to death.
Will Bunch is the author of “The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama.” He is senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and a senior fellow with Media Matters for America.