October 4, 2010

The Column to Restore Rationality

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It was the Internet post heard ’round … well, the Internet. A member of the website www.reddit.com awoke in the middle of the night with a vision: Stephen Colbert would host a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In what would be the ultimate live-action satire, Colbert and hundreds of thousands of followers would play “Tea Party,” parodying their antics and their politics. As it turns out, Stephen Colbert is a pretty avid “redditor,” and it was only a matter of time before murmurs and whispers became rumor became reality. A few weeks after the original post, on Sept. 17, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert announced in succession their dueling rallies: Stewart’s would be the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” and Colbert’s would be the “March to Keep Fear Alive.” Let’s rewind the clocks for a moment and consider the inspiration for these rallies. On Aug. 28, Glenn Beck hosted a rally largely aimed at his Tea Party constituency from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The date was as inconspicuous as the venue, and both for the same reason: Aug. 28 marked the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. This was, to say the least, a curious choice from a man who has claimed that Obama is a racist, tacitly condoned a tax on the slave trade as demonstrating that our founders “felt like there was a value to being able to live here” and otherwise subscribes to a political philosophy that has systematically opposed nearly every civil rights advance made in this country’s history. To put the proverbial icing on this delicious cake of irony, Beck qualified his event as an attempt to “re-claim” the civil rights movement. I think “distort” might have been more accurate. So now, in response, we have not one, but two “competing” rallies, both thinly veiled criticisms of Beck, or perhaps more accurately, the demagoguery and hyperbole that characterize him, and by proxy, the Tea Party. This is all fine and good; if anyone is deserving of mockery on such a large scale, it’s Beck. But what I want to consider here is the message that Stewart (directly) and Colbert (implicitly) are offering, namely that the political discourse in this country is trapped in a race to the bottom, and if anything is deserving of restoration, it’s rationality. I wonder: For as much as we bemoan the Tea Party for ignoring the arguments of liberals, are we similarly culpable for writing off the Tea Party?Let’s take another look at Beck’s “Rally to Restore Honor.” Despite all of the (well-deserved) criticism regarding his co-optation of the civil rights movement, the actual message of the rally was surprisingly modest: Beck encouraged the rally to be apolitical, choosing instead to focus on the restoration of religious values. And for as much as I disagree with this sort of mass-evangelizing, it’s hard to characterize the event as extreme. Even with nearly 100,000 attendees (the only scientific estimates put the number around 87,000), there were few signs, no arrests and little trash. In truth, the Tea Party movement as a whole defies the radical stereotype it’s been given. A New York Times survey of the demographics and politics of the Tea Party reveals it to be less cohesive on a variety of issues than people often believe. While it remains the case that a vast majority disapproves of Obama’s performance as president (88 percent), only 14 percent are primarily concerned with social issues, 57 percent believe in at least civil unions for gay couples, 65 percent believe in the availability of abortion (albeit with some, unspecified limitations) and 57 percent don’t believe Sarah Palin is qualified to be President. As a liberal, I won’t say these statistics are exactly satisfactory, but it does demonstrate the existence of some common ground. The Tea Party is certainly not without its fringe members, but this is true of any political movement, and not reason enough to discredit the Tea Party in its entirety. My point here is that if we’re truly invested in restoring rationality to our political discourse, we certainly don’t demonstrate it by calling the opposition teabaggers, wingnuts and lunatics. Stanley Fish, in a recent New York Times opinion piece, notes that such ad hominem attacks only fuel the party: “The Tea Party’s strength comes from the down-to-earth rhetoric it responds to and proclaims, and whenever high-brow critics heap the dirt of scorn and derision upon the party, its powers increase.” I’m not writing this piece as a defense of the Tea Party — if anything, I fervently disagree with them on most of their positions. But winning back the minds of the Tea Party will require engaging — not ignoring — them. I’m very excited for Stewart’s and Colbert’s rallies. In fact, I’m quite determined to attend, and I plan on enjoying every second of satire that they offer. But I think we all should remember that there’s a message to all of this, and the message itself is non-partisan: Improving the tone of our politics cannot be achieved by blaming the other side. David Murdter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter