As Canadians, those of us who bussed down to Washington for this past weekend’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear found ourselves in a privileged position. Certainly, our twelve-ish hour drive through the night may have left us groggier than the legions of others who had shown up in D.C. for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s so-dubbed “Million Moderate March.” (Luckily, Democratic Party volunteers were on hand, slinging lukewarm Dunkin Donuts coffee.) But at least initially, it seemed as if we might enjoy a certain remove from the rally, an ability to take in the spectacle with a bit of healthy clinical distance.
After all, we’re not Americans. And as such, the issues at play only affect us in that second-hand way where the political climate in America tends to inflect the larger global political conversation.
But what exactly were the issues at play?
The general thrust of the Rally, as delineated in the weeks leading up to it, seemed to be this: Stewart and Colbert, who have not unproblematically emerged as America’s foremost political satirists, wanted to host a rally to prove that American politics isn’t dominated by the overbearing voices of the most ardently partisan right and left-wingers. Truth—unlike “truthiness,” which Stephen Colbert in character as “Stephen Colbert” has defined as “the truth we want to exist,” a more impassioned form of knowing that rises from gut intuition and not, say, from information—tends to lie somewhere in the middle. It was precisely this middle that the rally hoped to attract.
A bunch of eager Torontonians board the buses to Washington, D.C. last Friday night.
But politics, or even apolitics, seemed almost incidental.
Many on our buses came because they were die-hard Stewart and Colbert fans, and because they wanted to take part in an event that was defined, if nothing else, by its own sense of momentousness. You know: crowds crowding around for the sake of being part of a crowd. Like something out of a Don DeLillo novel. Others merely wanted to seize on an incredibly affordable daytrip to Washington. (As one person joked, “I wasn’t invited to any Halloween parties, so I thought I’d check out Washington.”)
There were also plenty of Canadians who wanted to take part in the event in a show of solidarity with our friends to the south. After all, up here gay couples can get married, sick people can smoke pot to feel better, and we have a fairly functional socialized health care system. And our nation hasn’t sailed off the edge of the planet. But while there were some specific motivations, most of us just wanted “to be there.” To be “a part of it,” without really having a solid what the “it” was, and what exactly was on the agenda.
The motivations of the tens upon tens of thousands of red-white-and-blue-blooded Americans in attendance seemed no more cohesive.
Perhaps that is what the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear best illustrated: that, as a nation, America is very confused. You have Tea Partiers squabbling over the meaning of the Constitution, invoking the idea of civil liberties in the service of one or another dubious political end. You have lunatic fringe Liberals calling to put the Bush administration on the stand for war crimes. And you have a political rally where a few hundred thousand people show up unified by nothing else but their hazily shared belief in hazy ideals like “moderation” and “sanity,” and their shared affection for two comedians on MTV Networks Entertainment Group’s bank roll. (The mind reels at how many more hundreds of thousands may have shown up if Eric Cartman, The Situation, or ventriloquist Jeff Dunham had made the bill.)
In keeping with the rally’s focus on togetherness-as-eclecticism, its bill did cast a fairly wide net. Ozzy Osbourne appeared on stage with Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens). Sheryl Crow, Tony Bennett, The O’Jays, and The Roots performed. Sam Waterston from television’s Law & Order read a poem. R2-freaking-D2 was even there. The boundaries of taste, demographics, and politics—despite the whole thing being a very thinly veiled rally cry for Democratic Party support in Tuesday’s midterm elections—were all collapsed with curatorial precision. But as Jon Stewart asked in his “sincere” closing address: “So, uh, what exactly was this?”
Whatever it was, it hardly seemed serious. With all the people in goofy costumes, foisting apathetic signs, and electioneering for one-or-another fake political candidates (including the Dark One Cthulhu himself), the Rally, as we noted on the ground on Saturday, seemed something less than moderate.
In his closing speech, though, Stewart took a stab at seriousness, acknowledging that in doing so he may be crossing some boundary that comedian-pundits dare not cross. And he’s right. Most comedians aspire to craft something as memorable as Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch or George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television,” not “I Have A Dream” or “Ich bin ein Berliner.” It was a seriousness Stewart couldn’t sustain, lapsing into japery and made-up words (“conflictonator”) at the risk of losing his captive audience. (Quite literally captive, considering the ass-to-ass attendance.)
Worse than lapsing into joke-making though—after all, he is a comedian—was Stewart’s slip into platitudes and sloganeering. “We live now in hard times, not end times,” he said. Along with: “We can have animus and not be enemies”; “If we amplify everything nothing is heard” (cf. George Saunders’ essay “The Braindead Megaphone,” which actually teases out this idea, instead of just letting sit there like a bumper sticker mantra); and half-a-dozen more. The audience lapped this up, as if applauding their own capacity for intelligence, forgetting that you can’t fight t-shirt slogans with t-shirt slogans, no matter how much more clever or ironic or detached your t-shirt slogans may be.
It’s precisely the kind of shtick that has earned Stewart his stripes as a pundit. On The Daily Show, he’s taught a whole generation or two of viewers how to not think critically about politics by repackaging some largely out-of-context clips from FOX News, CNN, or C-Span, and then mugging at the camera, as if a knowing smirk or a look of absolute befuddlement is itself the punch line. He makes us feel not only savvy, but smart. Then he nudges us into laughing, and more importantly, being in on the joke, as if to say “This isn’t us, is it, gang?” Perhaps not. And perhaps the Million Moderate March proved that there are many, many Americans (and a few busloads of Canadians) who are in on the joke that is America’s tip towards political extremism.
We should be careful, however, to confuse this with leadership. Just as we should be careful to confuse a snicker and a shoulder shrug in the direction of the Tea Party with politics. Maybe confused times call for confused messages, and in this light, maybe the Rally for Sanity and/or Fear—which itself served as a staging ground for two fake-competing comedy icons to rub their own brands of satire against each other—makes sense. Then again, that many thousands of people would cross state and national borders just to hear a comedian issue an age-old edict of political civility is illustrative of how irreparably muddled cable news and Comedy Central have rendered the political conversation.
So let’s go back to our own privileged, uniquely Canadian position. What’s to be learned from all of this? Well, as our own civic, provincial, and federal politics edge closer to hard-line, immoderate Conservativism, perhaps we should make an effort to remain civil, yes, but also to not let an acerbically raised eyebrow do the work of thinking for us.
We should also remain, as ever, thankful that Rick Mercer is nowhere near funny enough to want to believe in.
Photos by Dean Bradley/Torontoist.