Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sanity: Restored?

Thanks to the magic of live internet streaming, I managed to catch the back half of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which was if nothing else an entertaining romp.  Voices emanating from the haunted electronic boxes we call the media have been suggesting for weeks that this rally might be deeply significant in some way.  Of course, "deeply significant" means, in the minds of the media, "having a substantial impact on the election next Tuesday."  The two dominant themes both seem to proceed from the left, and they are at odds: either the rally will re-excite the Democratic base and give the incumbent party one last shot at life, or the comedians will have idiotically drawn the most activist liberals away from the all-important business of bothering people in their homes on Halloween weekend (and without so much as a costume to justify it!).

Whatever happens on Tuesday, amidst all the gloating and hand-wringing, someone out there is going to assign a portion of responsibility to Jon Stewart and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Colbert.  This is silly, because we already know what's going to happen on Tuesday: Republicans are going to gain control of the House, Democrats will just barely hold on to the Senate, and the Tea Party will descend into new depths of delusion by claiming that they have a mandate to privatize everything, before realizing they've been suckered by the Republican leadership.  The voters' choices, I suspect, will not be strongly affected by having watched Stewart's reasonableness symbolically vanquish Colbert and his fear-mongering giant puppet.

What this rally really amounted to, as I saw it, was an attempt to make explicit before a huge audience what The Daily Show and The Colbert Report imply four nights every week: that our basic assumptions about how politics and the media work are deeply flawed.  Everybody knows there's bias in the media, but they assume it either boils down to a liberal or conservative one.  While these biases do exist, there's actually an overwhelming bias that overrides and subsumes them both.  There is a bias in the media that favors drama and abhors good sense, refusing to just tell the truth when a suitable lie can be found to contradict it.

So kudos to Jon Stewart for rejecting the narrative of conflict.  Kudos as well, for anticipating what his own detractors would say:

"But now I thought we might have a moment, however brief, for some sincerity.  If that’s OK.  I know there are boundaries for a comedian pundit talker guy, and I’m sure I’ll find out tomorrow how I have violated them."

There's an argument that's often made, to the effect that comedians, musicians, and other eminent men and women of our culture have no business speaking out about politics in an earnest and meaningful way.  We call them "entertainers," and we say that the moment they do anything controversial, they are no longer "entertaining."  Presumably, this delegitimizes the offender's very essence and allows us to ignore them and their messages with impunity.

Meanwhile, we openly tolerate, consume, and regurgitate the most hateful, childish, insincere, illogical, and disgraceful words from men and women who we have every right to expect should be earnest and truthful.  This is not a caste society, and speaking of politics is no special province of politicians.  If anything, the bulk of the members of the House of Representatives (and many members of the Senate as well) are egregiously less qualified to speak about public policy than Jon Stewart is.  This is to say nothing of the people who circulate through the media, preaching stuff and nonsense dressed as gospel, and treated seriously on the sole basis that no one in their right mind would ever pay to see them entertain.

Jon Stewart got up on stage, told some jokes, did some really bad* singing, and then he told us the truth.  That alone made the whole experience worthwhile.  The whole episode made reasonable people feel better about themselves, and even offered a little hope that the tide may turn again.  It didn't change the dynamics of the election in any measurable way, so the media should spare themselves the trouble of trying to figure out what that change might have been.  It was only a fine example of what a person with a conscience, an education, and a sense of humor can do to brighten our prospects.

* The bit was funny, but watching Jon reach for a string of high notes is like watching a fish breathe air.

Was our sanity restored?  America never really was a sane place.  But maybe, at least for the weekend, we can be a more positive country.

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