Sir, You Have Fooled Me Twice
People following me on Twitter and Flickr could undoubtedly tell that cell phone networks were not working very well at the Mall yesterday—my group was unable to make calls or use the Web at all, with only very spotty text service. Making matters worse, my phone, trooper that it is, kept trying to upload a handful photos to Flickr through its nonexistent data connection until the battery was completely run-down about halfway through the afternoon. So my plan to document what was happening was completely hamstrung by technology, for which I apologize. The Huffington Post has photos you’ve probably already seen.
My group managed to make it about five blocks into the throng from the Smithsonian to 7th Street before we realized that (1) we still couldn’t hear or see anything (2) we were never getting any closer than this. So we peeled off into the side streets, wandered through the bizarre but sort of wonderful street festival happening adjacent to the Mall, and finally went to go get lunch.
When we got back to Shankar’s apartment that night we watched vide of the rally on C-SPAN.org, prompting the tweet you may have seen last night: “Having watched the rally I nearly attended on C-SPAN, I can confirm it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. What was that supposed to be?” I stand by this assessment, which has gone woefully underremarked in commentary on the event: aggressively and at times painfully unfunny, Jon Stewart convinced a quarter of a million people to come to Washington for the single worst live comedy performance I’ve ever seen. Colbert managed to get in a few laughs here and there, but this was bad, and even the performers seemed to know it.
That essentially no one on the Internet was talking about the rally even a few hours after it happened demonstrates how badly this all went off, though Stewart tries to put on a good face:
“We’re proud of ourselves. We’re proud of the show we did,” Stewart told reporters at a press conference after the rally. “For us, the success of it was the execution of the idea and the intention.”
Putting the entertainment angle aside, the end of a rally was, as you know if you’ve seen it, a too-long if fairly heartfelt plea for civility and compromise in the public sphere, smartly targeted at the recipients of that incivility rather than its perpetrators and fetishizing form over content, as Pharyngula writes:
So I’m at a loss about what we’re supposed to do in the world according to Jon Stewart. Hey, all you people working for gay and lesbian equality, all you women asking for equal pay, all you workers trying to unionize, all you peaceniks trying to end the war in Afghanistan, all you nurses and doctors and clinic workers trying to maintain reproductive freedom and keep women alive, all you teachers trying to teach science and history without censorship, all you citizens trying to build a rational health care policy, all you scientists and doctors who want our country to progress in medical research, all you damned secularists who want to keep religion out of our schools and government, hey, hey, HEY, you! Tone it down. Quit making such a fuss. You’re too loud. Shush. You’re as crazy as the teabaggers if you think your principles are worth fighting for.
Civility in our day-to-day lives is good, but completely irrelevant to the political sphere where struggle is actually happening; Matt Yglesias of all people debunked Jon Stewart’s thesis weeks in advance when he wrote that the reason legislators can’t “put aside their differences” and “agree to disagree” in the way that spouses, co-workers, and drivers at the Lincoln Tunnel can is because they understand their political disagreements have actual consequences for control of government. A view of politics like the one Stewart espouses reduces politics to a mere question of taste, about as important as Coke vs. Pepsi—a conversation starter, maybe, but certainly nothing worth fighting over.
As with other spectacular failures of this sort—and it was, I think, a pretty spectacular failure, given the use to which the media spotlight and huge numbers of attendees were put—it’s useful to think about what the people who attended this rally were after and what they got.
From my place in the crowd it seemed to me that what many people in the crowd wanted was recognition that they too are a collective, that they too constitute a “movement,” that there are other people in the country who think like they do and want what they want and that all such people might get together and work to make things happen. They’re people who believe alternatives to what exists are possible and necessary, and want someone to show them where to go to start to get it. But Stewart’s supposed call for civility and “reasonableness” is completely orthogonal to that drive, if not actively destructive of it—and the Rally to Restore Sanity a basically pointless, poorly executed exercise in self-promotion that is already completely forgotten.
It’s as if the entire Obama campaign and presidency happened again, only in miniature, in the span of a single afternoon.
These crowds are still waiting for some leaders.
I’m glad I came to DC this weekend because I was able to see friends I haven’t seen in too long (with many others I unfortunately wasn’t able to meet up with this time, sorry guys)—but the Daily Show Rally for Daily Show Ratings was as muddled and empty as I feared it would be. Too bad! Of course I saw it coming—but there’s more pleasure, sometimes, in being wrong.