Movement for a Standstill

Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity is bad for America, except for the America that buys or sells advertising time on Comedy Central.

Credit: Public Citizen

The world bores you when you’re cool.
—Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes, Sept. 29, 1986

Tomorrow morning, tens of thousands of people will gather on the National Mall, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, on the site of so many of our nation’s iconic political gatherings. There, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart will tell them to be less involved in, less moved to action by, and less earnest about politics.

They’ll be entertained, and they’ll have a good time, but make no mistake: Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity is a really bad thing for American politics, and especially for the American left. It’s cynicism dressed up as sanity, and detachment masquerading as reason. When Jon Stewart tells us on October 30th to behave reasonably, he’ll really be telling us to back away slowly from our political principles, whatever those may be, and watch more television.

The guiding principle of Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity is one that has served The Daily Show and its host well over the last decade: that Jon Stewart is an island of calm in an increasingly shrill, overwrought, and, well, insane political sea. Such a diagnosis feels accurate much of the time, and the show’s format accentuates it. The Daily Show cuts between clips—of shouting protesters, misleading and misinformed television news personalities (either or both of which almost always want scare quotes), and dissembling or grandstanding political leaders—and Jon Stewart, back in the studio, with the clever and commonsensical reaction that we all wish was the consistent tone of our nation’s political discourse.

This makes for excellent television, especially when Jon tells one of those offenders to “meet [him] at camera three” and tells it like it is, but (actually, as we’ll see, because) it depends upon a colossal misrepresentation, on the part of The Daily Show and its host, of the U.S. political arena. Back in the studio, Jon Stewart draws moral and political equivalences where they don’t exist. He equates Terry Jones, a Florida pastor with 50 parishioners, who said God told him first to burn the Quran on September 11 and second not to; and Code Pink, an organization with thousands of members, which claims that even though men do most of the killing and dying war is in many ways a feminist issue. He compares those who make the false, easily refuted claims that President Obama is (pick one or more) a socialist, a dictator, a Muslim, or a foreigner, and those who make the claim, controversial but certainly worthy of attention and debate, that former President Bush is guilty of war crimes (and so, maybe, is President Obama). He behaves as though Nancy Pelosi, on the left, and Sarah Palin, on the right, were somehow equidistant from the (wholly imaginary) center. He treats Lady Gaga’s statements for gay marriage rights and against war in Afghanistan as though they mattered as much to the Democratic Party as Rush Limbaugh’s invective against and for (respectively) does to the Republicans. When The Daily Show equates topics upon which reasonable people disagree with those upon which they simply do not, it’s playing both sides for laughs. It’s been quite successful.

What makes those equivalencies not just possible but actually good television is a formal property of television itself. In particular, it’s a property of the TV news programs that The Daily Show has sent up so effectively for the last 10 years. TV news takes viewers back and forth between video of the maelstrom outside the studio—the people making arguments and spectacles of themselves in the street, the House, or the Senate—and the show’s, and therefore the entire discourse’s, moral and ideological baseline: the purportedly neutral anchor, mediating the various opposed positions from behind his desk. Quick cuts between those things tend to assign value to the anchor because of his steady camera and his ability to look directly into it, creating the illusion of eye contact with the viewer. That tactic is unavailable to the putative crazies outside the studio, who are too busy making eye contact with real people in front of them to look at the camera.

Such irony of juxtaposition is what television does best. In 1997’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” David Foster Wallace concedes television’s efficacy in this respect and raises a further concern: “to the extent that TV can ridicule old-fashioned conventions right off the map, it can create an authority vacuum. And then guess what fills it.” Wallace was talking mostly about sitcoms and TV advertising, but Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity really has taken that concern to its logical extreme.

To propose to “restore sanity” by restoring cool is to confuse making fun of a thing with changing it.

Because what U.S. convention is more old-fashioned than a political rally? Than carrying a sign, chanting a slogan, standing up on a soapbox for what you sincerely believe in? Than what someone else may perceive as extremism, in defense of what you perceive as liberty? The foundation of televisual irony is to believe sincerely in nothing—least of all, as Jon Stewart’s affect on The Daily Show illustrates, in your own viability as an agent of political change. The Rally to Restore Sanity’s own website calls it “a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives,” sneering at those people who have been making the time to get involved in politics, in the tone of middle-school cool kids on the playground, to get a life, dork. “Shouting,” it tells us, “is annoying.” The Rally to Restore Sanity stops just short of calling itself the rally to end all rallies—the one that ridicules them off the map.

And what replaces them? Not, say, a get-out-the-vote effort for the midterm election that takes place three days after the rally. Not a mobilization of the thousands of Northeast college students (a pretty easily mobilized, energized bunch) in attendance to tutor in D.C. public schools the next day, or a cleanup on the Potomac or the Anacostia Watershed. Instead, they’ll be told, and they’ll exhort others who are organizing such efforts, to tone it down, to chill out, to be cool, lest Jon Stewart, who is pretty much the coolest kid in the whole school, tease them.

The hard part about all this is that neither The Daily Show nor its audience is apolitical. The Daily Show features guests who are serious, motivated, and engaged, and who otherwise wouldn’t get such an effective platform to air their views or sell their new books. Stephen Colbert may have appeared in character before Congress, but his testimony ended with a sincere plea for the rights of immigrant laborers. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart consistently defends the right to gay marriage, the case for environmental and economic regulation, and so on. And of course, together they provide some of the most trenchant and withering media criticism anywhere, and level most of it at the right-wing media, Fox News, Tucker Carlson, and Glenn Beck. The title of The Rally to Restore Sanity pretty obviously mocks Beck’s Restoring Honor Rally, held on the anniversary and site of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Beneath the irony, Stewart and Colbert have something to say, and they have the nation’s attention.

If the sanity Stewart restores amounts to nothing but a series of lines shared on Facebook, then that’s a waste of energy for everyone who doesn’t buy or sell advertising time on Comedy Central.

For that reason, it really is (sincerely, earnestly, annoyingly, dorkily) outrageous that Stewart brought Bill O’Reilly on The Daily Show and invited him to speak at the Rally to Restore Sanity. O’Reilly, who declined, has spent his career disrupting whatever might pass for sanity in the U.S. media landscape, and arguing against the politics of The Daily Show, its writers, and its audience. It’s offensive when Stewart, holding up signs he proposes people carry to the rally, offers one to “non-ideological” attendees that reads, in the familiar typeface of the ad campaign for milk, “Got Competence?” Surely there’s enough liberal-arts education in The Daily Show writer’s room to know that a claim not to have ideology is itself an ideological position, and there’s enough savvy to know that, say, sending Colin Powell to the United Nations to lie about Iraq’s WMD capabilities is wrong, not incompetent. It’s a waste of the power and political capital at that rally to say, as its website does, that “if we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence… we couldn’t. That’s sort of the point.” If you have a message, in other words, you’re out of the club. It’s only in the rally’s title that it mocks Glenn Beck—everywhere else, it fails to distinguish between Beck’s rally and King’s. It lumps them together and ridicules them both for their earnestness.

Again, and of course: The Daily Show is funny, and it’s funny in no small part because the U.S. political arena is ridiculous. To propose to “restore sanity” by restoring cool, though, is to confuse making fun of a thing with changing it. The rally in Washington sells out the legitimate political and media-critical claims that Stewart and Colbert make, because if all those people gathering in Washington don’t believe in anything, then all they have in common is that they watch Comedy Central on weeknights. The only important thing about them is their eyeballs, their attention, their power as consumers—they don’t have voices of their own, or if they do, they’re being told that “shouting is annoying.” If the change that Jon Stewart effects, or the sanity he restores, on October 30th amounts to nothing but a series of lines repeated around water coolers and shared on Facebook, then that’s a waste of time, energy, and resources for everyone who doesn’t buy or sell advertising time on Comedy Central. Political conviction isn’t the same as insanity. Cool isn’t a cause; it’s a pose.

Jacob Leland is a writer, musician, and lapsed academic who lives in New Orleans. He plays saxophone in the band Los Po-Boy-Citos and teaches English at the Isidore Newman School. He has published in The Hemingway Review, Safundi: A Journal of South African and American Studies, OffBeat, and sfist.com. More by Jacob Leland