October 30, 2010
“I thought about, but never seriously considered, making a bigger sign,” read the piece of paper taped to the back of one man’s sweatshirt. “God hates hommos! She prefers baba ghanoush,” went the word-play on another rallier’s cardboard. This was not the angry anti-war protest that rocked Washington in 2003, or Glenn Beck’s revival at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer. This, rather, was the anti-anger protest, a call for moderation in the place of extremism of any kind, put on by a pair of comedians.
In Washington DC on October 30th, hundreds of thousands gathered for the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” hosted by Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. The crowd’s energy was enough to overshadow some technical difficulties: the stand-up comedy performance and musical acts were hard to hear halfway down the Mall. Not letting this sour the mood, people entertained themselves by cheering on young ralliers scaling tree trunks to get a better view of the stage. “Yes you can!” those below shouted as climbers shimmied up, one by one. Some stood victoriously amongst the branches of an autumn-shaded oak, while others slid shamefully down to mutters of, “No you can’t.”
It was hard to tell whether this was a political rally or not. Almost no mention was made of the looming November 2nd elections. But what, then, was the goal?
“We need to tone down the media, show them that we are against the strategies they use, the way they hype up events,” explained one 40-something Kansas City resident, carrying a sign that read, “God hates rallies.” Two University of Maryland college students said that they had come to “show that less people think like the Tea Party,” and stand “in opposition to the craziness in the media.” The Tea Party, they said, is not “representative of America.” A 52-year-old speech therapist from New Jersey stated her desire “to be counted as here, to beat Beck’s rally.” Comedy, she explained, “is the voice of sanity right now.” As a watcher of MSNBC, she contrasted herself to Fox News fans who attended Glenn Beck’s August 2010 “Restoring Honor” rally. She was also “thrilled to see so many young people here” and recalled the fervor during the Obama campaign that motivated youths to canvass for votes and cast their own for the first time.
Many people I talked to weren’t satisfied with the afternoon’s handful of musical acts and Stewart-Colbert skits. “I was expecting more speakers,” complained one 23-year-old. A political analyst I talked with expressed frustration that Stewart and Colbert said nothing about voting.
The rally was meant to show that great numbers of people want something better than newscasters like Fox and the sensationalist way they portray our politics. Gauging the rally’s efficacy, therefore, will depend on how the mainstream media portrays the event, and whether there is a shift in the reporting styles of the broader political mediascape. Given the emphasis directed toward Fox News as the culprit of media “insanity,” it is interesting to take a look at their coverage of Saturday’s rally.
Stewart and Colbert poked fun at cable news and unnamed others for constantly “telling us new things to be afraid of,” although Stewart went on to argue that “most of those fears are overblown; they’ll never come true.
He urged the crowd to use their TV remote controls as a “weapon… change the channel”
More interesting than Henneberg’s brief and bare-bones report was when, on November 2, Fox TV newscaster Greg Gutfield turned the joke back on Jon Stewart. He called the rally “unnecessary” in comparison to the Tea Party movement, which he claimed is “reacting to real stuff: the insane spending, the bottomless deficit … Stewart’s rally says, ‘Ignore that; look, Cat Stevens!’” Gutfield thereby dubbed Saturday’s event the “rally to ignore insanity,” and described its message as “We’re cool, you’re crazy, but nevermind the country’s downward spiral.”
It doesn’t seem that Fox News, the Tea Party, or other conservative factions were fazed by Saturday’s event. Nor were voters on election day. The intentional moderateness of it seems wishy-washy, not strong enough to overpower the voices of activists on either side of the American political divide. Furthermore (one shudders to think that a Fox newscaster might actually have a point here), the rally emphasized a political stance of distance, rather than engagement. This seems dangerous in the particularly dire circumstances our nation finds itself.
Up on stage, Stewart even went as far as to say that most Americans have too much “shit to do” to be actively protesting against government. And yet, two hundred thousand Americans were able to find the time to travel to Washington, D.C. for a comedy show and a few musical acts. The kind of satirical critique that Stewart and Colbert put forward last weekend on the Mall seems to have struck a chord with many Americans who are discontent with right-wing media, as well as both conservative and progressive forms of activism. The fact is, people did show up. They came to act and yet were told only to change the channel on their TVs.