This past weekend I attended the Comedy Central Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. For a gathering of 200,000 Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert fans, there was a severe lack of drugs.
Despite previous expectations, stereotypes about Stewart and Colbert’s targeted audience, and claims rally just being “liberals hooking up,” the crowd was distinctly older and more diverse than I had anticipated. During a jaunt on the Metro the day before the rally, we encountered a family – Ma, Pa and kids – who had traveled to DC from central Pennsylvania. And as we checked out the sites on the mall the day before, it was difficult to count the impressive number of older couples and families wearing Stewart/Colbert paraphernalia.
In the end it was not some grand youth rally, nor some liberal love-in, nor some giant hookup fest (at least not at the rally itself, maybe at the bars that Saturday night). So then, what was it?
In the end, the rally accomplished two major goals. First, it rebutted irrational fears of Muslims. Secondly, it demonstrated that two comedians with little actual message could get more people to show up than pundit with an established, forceful message.
Now, the musical numbers were fine. And the juxtaposition of Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam playing Peace Train, followed by Ozzy Ozborne singing Crazy Train, followed by the O’Jays singing Love Train was a lot of fun. I half expected either GirlTalk to show up and start mixing, or the Coors Light Train to come through.
And we did see some funny signs and neat costumes. And the cute Indian girls next to us shared their box of donuts.
In fact, there were some pretty impressive costumes.
We all still have Zoidberg!
But amongst the signs and posters and costumes and such, Jon Stewart had some criticisms of the media and Stephen Colbert played his character. There was some commentary about the state of the nation and media when Stewart handed out his medals for acting reasonably, and Colbert handed his for fear (One of Colbert’s was an award to media entities that wouldn’t let its members come to the rally. Because no one was there to accept it, he gave it to a little girl. She was adorable).
But a continuing theme throughout the rally was one mocking and rebutting anti-Muslim sentiments. It was not obvious, nor explicitly stated. But it was there. Whether is was the applause when Father Guido Sarducci came to Islam in his list of religions, or when Kareem Abdul Jabbar showed up to teach Stephen an important lesson about judging groups by an actions of a few members, or when Yusuf Islam came out on stage to sing, there was a continuous thread of non-threatening Muslims at the rally. In fact, right next to where I was standing was an obviously Muslim family. And several of the signs at the rally were along the theme of: “Where are the moderate Muslims? Holding this sign!”
It was a good thing.
Of course, in a crowd of more than 200,000, it is difficult to ascertain just how much of the population there was Muslims, but there definitely seemed to be a concerted movement of “We Are Normal Muslims, Please Stop Being Scared of Us.”
But beyond the pro-moderate Muslims, the message that Jon Stewart attempted to send with the message is that political debates should not be fought in numbers or name calling, but actual arguments and fact-based debates. He tried to express this in his final speech. But besides getting Keith Olbermann to change his format, I do not think it will have a direct effect. Stewart got lucky once when he took people by surprise with his earnestness and honesty. But Fox News is not Crossfire. Nevertheless, I think that Stewart will get his desired result in some form, though not as a direct result of his appeal.
The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was attended by around 215,000 people.
This rally came after, and in a mocking reaction to, Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor, which attracted around 87,000 people.
In a Democratic system, the authority to govern is derived from popular support. If one side can get more people to support it, then it will be assumed correct.
What Jon Stewart has done is raise the bar. At the beginning of his rally he joked about how the success of events like his are judged entirely by size.
Mr. JON STEWART (Host, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”): I think you know that the success or failure of a rally is judged by only two criteria; the intellectual coherence of the content and its correlation to the engagement -I’m just kidding. It’s color and size. We all know it’s color and size.
And while he would prefer that such events be judged otherwise, size and content are an easy solution. However, with his massive turnout Stewart has created an instant rebuttal. Whenever anyone holds a general rally to their cause, such as the tea party events over the past year or so, now the instant response can be: “But did you have more than 200,000 people? Because two comedians were able to get more than 200,000 to show up for their non-cause. Certainly if your cause has public support, you could at least match some basic cable comedians.”
Of course, this could be a bad thing as well. What applies to Tea Parties and Beck could also apply to unions and the NAACP. Perhaps this rally will cast a cloud over legitimate Democratic or liberal efforts to create a rallying call.
But at least with populism out, it does force people to find other avenues to support their causes, and Stewart’s ideal of reasonable argument is an alternative. Then again, we have had name-calling and partisan politics in the U.S. since Federalist v. Anti-Federalists. And Stewart seems to think that a 24-hour media could act as a proper check, but as Fox has shown, there are way better ways to make money.
There is also the concern that such an elimination of populist outlets, or at least reducing their power, is anti-democratic (small d). If the number of people supporting a cause is not a proper measure of the support it should be given in our society, then what is?
The answer, probably, is representation in government. Our system is established to filter the argle bargle of mob mentality into the high Senate, the low House, the protected Judiciary, and the electorally collegiate Executive. No matter how many people you can gather into a single place, that does not make policy. It is what our Constitution says, and it is the end message of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear: 200,000 people? That’s fine. Now get them to convince people to vote, or sway their representatives, or propose policy. Stewart doesn’t really intend to do much of that, besides shame people. And he already does that way better on his show, demonstrating the political and media FAILs of the day. But what policy can Tea Baggers propose? Perhaps repealing the 17th amendment, or privatizing something or other. But as Republicans have demonstrated during this election cycle, they don’t really know where they are going to cut in order to balance the budget.
And as we go into the next Congress, people will start to realize just what Stewart and Colbert’s rally has demonstrated. Gathering a bunch of people doesn’t make policy. It makes a gathering of a bunch of people. And it was a gathering that was fun for the people at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, and probably will be seen as a letdown for the Tea Party once they realize that everything hasn’t changed.