Can Jon Stewart Restore Our Sanity?

TDS_RallyPoster by Olivia Scheck

I can’t decide what to wear to next weekend’s “Rally to Restore Sanity,” the Jon Stewart march on Washington to take place the Saturday of Halloween weekend. I spent $30 plus shipping and handling on the foam I’ll use to make my life-size Olivia Scheck silly band costume, and I want to get as much use out of it as possible. On the other hand, I’m still holding out hope that the rally will be more than an opportunity for people to actively abstain from throwing feces at Tila Tequila, as promised on the event’s website – that it might instead serve as a powerful symbol of the public’s opposition to the state of American political discourse.

Since Stewart announced the rally (and Stephen Colbert announced his competing “March to Keep Fear Alive”) last month (the two have since joined forces, renaming the event the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear ”), Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey have both leant their support. Even President Obama seemed to endorse the rally, or at least allude to it, even if he couldn’t remember the actual name, while he nearly bored the teenager sitting in front of him to sleep.

Others have been less supportive. Bill O’Reilly refused to attend for obvious reasons but also because he felt it was “a Halloween thing and [he didn’t] have a costume.” Slate’s Timothy Noah said Stewart should cancel the march, fearing what effect “the spectacle of affluent 18-to-34-year-olds blanketing the Mall to snicker at jokes about wingnut ignoramuses and Bible thumpers” might have on the election, to be held just three days later, as did Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post, who argued that the rally seemed too “earnest” and might undermine Stewart’s role as “media critic in chief.”

Either of these predictions could turn out to have been accurate. (Colbert’s in-character appearance before congress last month did, after all, spark an unexpected backlash from Republicans and Democrats.) Or the rally might have no significant ramifications for the election or for its hosts.

Still, it seems to me, there is a chance, however slight, that the rally might be a memorable, awesome and even historically important event.


***

When I first heard about the rally, I immediately began writing an email to friends to suggest that we organize a trip to D.C.. By the time I returned to my inbox there was another mass email waiting for me – a friend from D.C. encouraging us to come down for the rally. When I mentioned it to my parents later that week, they told me they’d already booked their hotel.

But my suspicion that the rally might turn out to be somehow significant stems not only from the reactions of the people around me (which, I grant, may not typical), but also from the fact that the rally seems to address the principal challenge to political progress today: the victory of political posturing over political dialogue, the interest in being able to say that you are right rather than in determining what is in fact the most beneficial course of action.

Of course this tendency isn’t new or unique to American politics. My own view, best articulated by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is that humans are actually wired to behave this way during instances of disagreement, acting more like lawyers, committed to defending their own moral and political intuitions, than like scientists in search of truths about the world. We see this tendency – to search for evidence that proves our point rather than that which might undermine it – in our own discussions with friends and colleagues, but nowhere is it more overt than in partisan politics.

This is not to say that there aren’t issues on which liberals and conservatives genuinely disagree and on which they would continue to disagree even if both sides were to truly attempt to appreciate the other side’s perspective. While liberals and conservatives are sure to disagree on the proper course of action in certain instances, we are more likely to arrive at a mutually agreeable state of affairs if we recognize that our opponents’ views are based on a legitimate, if different, set of moral intuitions. We are also more likely to understand the facts of a given situation.

As Haidt quotes from the Chinese Zen master Sent-ts’an:

“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.”

In Haidt’s view and in mine, progress depends on our ability to see this tendency in ourselves and overcome it. If we can engage in a discourse that’s not simply meant to assert our own rightness, then we might actually have a chance of enacting policies that better serve the public good (to the extent we can agree on what that is exactly).

***

The Rally to Restore Sanity is, according to its website, for “people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler.”

It’s been called a “million moderate march,” but that moniker doesn’t seem quite right. I don’t think that the people who show up on Saturday will travel to D.C. to advocate for more moderate political policies or because they seek to mock the anger and passion that have flooded the recent political landscape, as has also been suggested. They will come, I suspect, because they yearn for a discourse that isn’t just politicians earning points for their respective parties, because they want a government that strives to understand and improve, not obstruct or complain.

Whatever the programming, I do think the event will be in some way earnest; but I disagree that earnestness will mean straying from the show’s current wheelhouse.

“Like everything that we do, the march is merely a construct,” Stewart told NPR’s Terry Gross during a Sept. 29th interview at Manhattan's 92Y. “It's merely a format, in the way the book is a format, a show is a format … to be filled with the type of material that Stephen and I do and the point of view [that we have]. People have said, 'It's a rally to counter Glenn Beck.' It's not. What it is was, we saw that and thought, 'What a beautiful outline. What a beautiful structure to fill with what we want to express in live form, festival form.' “

In this statement Stewart seems to downplay the significance of the rally, insisting that it won’t be so different from the programming we see most weeknights, and perhaps dashing my hopes for a genuine expression of public outrage. But who could deny that “The Daily Show” is, on some level, an earnest and significant voice in American politics?

Later in the interview Stewart discusses his relationship to politicians and the traditional news media by way of zoological metaphor:

“The way I always explain it is: When you go to the zoo and a monkey throws his feces, it’s a monkey. But when the zoo keeper’s standing right there and he doesn’t say ‘bad monkey,’ somebody’s gotta be the zoo keeper.”

It’s not the usual language of political insurgency, but that’s just what we’ve come to expect from America’s most trusted newscaster.

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