November 1, 2010

The Downside of Sanity

Print More

I think my reaction to Saturday’s Rally to Restore Sanity can be explained by a sign held up about 20 feet in front of me. It read, “This sign is blocking your view.” It was sort of funny, I guess, if not particularly original — Jon Stewart had recommended self-referential signs on The Daily Show in the weeks leading up to the rally, where other gems included, “This is a sign,” “I am supporting this sign,” etc. But this guy’s sign really was blocking our view. I wish he would’ve just put the fucking sign down.

As a concert, the rally was okay. As a chance to be with friends in a city, it was excellent. But as a rally, political or otherwise, I’m not so sure. Straight-man Stewart’s reasonableness, against punchline Colbert’s fear, was prized above discussion/mockery of the issues proper. The rally’s apolitical nature was billed as a strength, but it wasn’t. Nor was the rally really even apolitical — Stewart and Colbert did spout politics, they were just weak politics. And I don’t mean weak in the bleeding-heart liberal sense, but rather in the intellectually unrigorous, unreasonable sense.

A reiterated idea of the rally was that Muslims are people too. All well and good — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and The Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens, both trotted out at least in part for their adopted faith, were respectively the second-best and best parts of the rally. Indeed, the fact that TAFKaCS kept getting interrupted by Ozzy Osbourne as part of a peacefulness/craziness gag was one of my main gripes of the day. (Also, TAFKaCS and Abdul-Jabbar were both, in a way, interesting choices as Muslim ambassadors: the former recently dropped “Islam” from his name (he now goes by “Yusuf”), and, at 7’2”, the latter is perhaps one of the few people who would stand out more on an airplane than “people in Muslim garb” in the eyes of the Juan Williams crowd.)

But in Stewart’s button-upped final appeal, the presence of the two men was implicitly brought in to support the idea that, even though “some people who happen to be of Muslim faith attacked us,” we should not let that tarnish our acceptance of Islam and its adherents. That sounds nice, but it’s wrong. The people who attacked us, at least those who did so on 9/11, attacked us not irrespective of their faith but because of it, or at least because of their interpretation of it, however isolated and baseless that interpretation may have been. They in no way speak for all Muslims, but nor did they “happen to be of Muslim faith.” Stewart’s point doesn’t live up to the heightened discourse he calls for, and, very often on The Daily Show, delivers.

The problem isn’t with Stewart’s intellect, it’s with the rally’s — and, increasingly, TDS’s — assumptions. The rally took for granted the notion that one could talk about tone with no context, that reasonableness could be called for with no … reasons. But polite disagreement is always polite disagreement about something. The closest thing to substantive cooperation at the rally was an original song in which Stewart and Colbert switched off verses (the last such duet between Stewart and Colbert, part of A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!, was unbeatable from a purely lyrical perspective — Colbert to Stewart: “I’ll keep Jesus, you keep your potato pancakes, / but I hope that you enjoy ‘em / on behalf of all the goyim.” Stewart: “Be sure to tell the pontiff / my people say gut yontiff [Yiddish for “happy holidays”].” Priceless.).

The patriotic message of the song was nothing new: “Oh, it’s the greatest, strongest country in the world…” But can we all really agree on that? And even if we can, isn’t Colbert and Stewart’s use of vague America-loving as the foundation for agreement on a specific goal (reasonableness) a little like every political ad ever? Isn’t it, in fact, like Sarah Palin’s assertion at Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally in August that we should all just agree to agree with her because “I raised a combat vet, and they can’t take that away from me”?

Indeed, it was at times difficult to tell whether Restoring Sanity was spoofing Restoring Honor or reenacting it. Before Stewart and Colbert took the stage (and, inexplicably, after The Roots and John Legend), the hosts of MythBusters came out to engage the crowd in some eerie groupthink. A world record was attempted in the category of World’s Largest Wave, and, one presumes, established for the first time in Most People Laughing Like a Mad Scientist and Most People Jumping at More or Less the Same Time. I believe they were going for Richter effect on the last one. Can the TDS-er’s characterization of the Tea Partier be better summed up than as an artificial groundswell orchestrated by white males for no apparent reason? If so, then do Stewart and Colbert fall into the same trap as Beck et al.? Or are their sheeple part of some elaborate meta-commentary, mere pawns disguised as rally-goers? It’s possible — a lot of them were wearing costumes.

And another thing about reasonable civility: It’s frightening. It’s what the party in power invokes in order to stop too much rabble from being roused. It’s what makes the bad guy in Inglorious Basterds not just a scary Nazi, but a bone-chilling presence. Its restoration is also a historically ignorant fairy-tale. Hyperbolic name-calling hasn’t gotten meaner, it’s just gotten dumber. As seen on an excellent video on reason.tv, John Adams was once called a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” The offender was a hack hired by Adams’ political opponent, Thomas Jefferson. Adams in turn called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Perhaps the greatest dime ever dropped involved 18th-century British statesman the Earl of Sandwich. Sandwich told hater Sam Foote, “you must either die of the pox, or the stocks.” Foote instantly replied, “that depends on whether I embrace your lordship’s mistress or your lordship’s principles.” Pwned.

Closely linked to the Rally to Restore Sanity’s wayward calls for politeness was its fetish for moderation. In the weeks leading up to the event, Stewart hyped it as the “Million Moderate March.” Moderation is perhaps worse than civility, and certainly more difficult to define. It is totally dependent on the extremes it hopes to moderate; the centrist, more than the party-liner, is beholden to the crazies.

For proof of the destructive power of moderation and civility combined, we need look no further than specific legislative incidents. Ask yourself, would Stewart and Colbert have favored inside-voice middleground-ness during Congressional discussions of the Patriot Act? Perhaps no single piece of contemporary legislation more exemplifies the spirit of civil moderation than Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Faced with vitriol from both sides, Bill Clinton, the most self-avowedly centrist president of the last 50 years, passed a law whose defining feature was the extent to which it attempted to offend as few people as possible. By the rally’s logic, we shouldn’t push loudly for Obama to finally repeal DADT, but should rather celebrate it for the pussy-footedness that went into passing it.

The principles of the rally took away from the insight and funniness that so often characterize TDS and The Colbert Report. So if not for civility and moderation, then what? We can’t hope to lower the volume of subjectivity to zero, and we wouldn’t want to. Being mean can be fun. Kid Rock sitting at a piano isn’t Kid Rock. Nor can we hope to bring the oft-depraved 24-hour news cycle, a product of its time if ever there was one, to a halt. We must strive, then, not for an elimination of subjective reporting, but for a recognition that it is everywhere. This is, by my count, the fifth article piece of Sun content on the rally, and the third opinion piece on it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Yes, news organizations and writers are biased, but that doesn’t mean they have to stop writing. We’ve all got to get laid somehow.

Jake Friedman is a senior in the College of Arts an Sciences. He may be reached at jfriedman@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Jake Friedman