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The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear as It Unfolded

October 30, 2010

Live from The New Moderate’s headquarters in PhiladelphiaI’m watching the heavily hyped Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert rally in Washington, DC — from the comfort of my den. (I hate large crowds, and besides, all the morning trains to Washington were sold out.)

The eminent comedian-pundits, beloved by legions of white urban left-leaning (but safely establishment) yuppies, have promised us a celebration of sanity in American politics. Let’s see if they deliver.

12 noon: The rally begins and the Roots take the stage. I saw the Roots when Obama staged his own rally in Philadelphia. They’re proud and loud.

12:32 p.m. — Good grief: half an hour of music and shouting by the Roots, with no end in sight. This is supposed to be a political rally, is it not? Where’s the beef?

12:40 — The Roots are done. Praise the Lord and start the actual rally.

12:43 — Now the Mythbusters, two professional cut-ups from San Francisco, are encouraging the audience to make a stadium-style “wave,” which ripples from the bandstand at the Capitol end of the Mall all the way back to the Washington Monument. Pretty impressive crowd. (If anyone dropped a bomb on this crowd, Starbucks would be out of business.) Now they just made a second wave. OK, we get the idea.

12:54 — Now they’ve told the crowd to jump in unison… creating a “groundswell,” get it?

12:56 — Jon Stewart, the man himself, takes the stage. He welcomes the crowd and basks in the adulation. He probably never dreamed he’d be a culture hero when he was growing up in Edison, New Jersey.

12:58 — Here comes the National Anthem. As is customary at public events, the song becomes a kind of soul ballad, with about three times the number of syllables as the composer originally intended.

1:00 — Jon Stewart addresses the crowd. “A perfect demographic sampling of the American people,” he calls it. “73 percent white, 14 percent black, and the rest of you ‘other,'” as he estimates it. Then, just to be sure, he asks a reporter on the field to quiz a few attendees about their racial/ethnic/gender composition. The first person identifies himself as half white, half Mexican. The second is a young white female. The third tells us she’s from Taiwan. Yep, we’re diverse, all right. Blacks? Oh, remember the Roots?

1:05 — A shirtless Stephen Colbert, ironic mastermind of the “fear” portion of the rally, appears on the big screen from his underground fear bunker beneath the stage. Now he surfaces, Chilean miner-style, in a narrow cage-elevator. He pretends to release a swarm of “bees” that can smell fear.

1:12 — Stewart introduces Father Guido Sarducci, the whimsically befuddled Italian priest from the glory days of “Saturday Night Live.” I confess I would have paid to see him in person. He asks God for a sign to let us know which is the “right” religion. He rattles off a number of faiths: Methodist, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, all other Christians, Judaism and Islam (“You don’t eat pork, they don’t eat pork,” he reasons… “let’s build on that.”)… Buddhism, Rastafarianism, etc., etc. God doesn’t provide a sign, but the good priest thanks Him anyway.

1:20 — Colbert introduces “the most reasonable-seeming man in America,” actor Sam Waterston, to read a poem that he (Colbert) has prepared for the occasion: “Can You Be Sure?” — an earnest meditation on all that worries us (e.g., getting trapped in a full Port-a-Potty).

1:25 — Stewart presents the Muslim singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, who says “Peace” (the way they used to say it at Woodstock) and sings “The Peace Train.” Colbert interrupts him in mid-song, protesting that he will NOT get on that train. Good grief, that’s not Ozzy Osbourne climbing onto the stage, is it? Indeed it is. Dueling songs: The Peace Train vs. the satanic chords of Black Sabbath. [A friend has since informed me that the song was “Crazy Train.”] Is there any hope for a compromise? Yes! The O’Jays mount the platform and sing “The Love Train.” (Stewart assures Colbert that love can also bring STDs and heartbreak, which convinces the pseudo-conservative hatemonger.)

1:37 — Stewart presents a “highlights” reel of insane moments in contemporary American culture, featuring — well, only two highlights (including the flight attendant who memorably flipped out and exited the plane). Too bad; I was looking forward to this part of the show.

1:40 — A couple of brief and really pointless “people in the crowd” interviews.

1:43 — Stewart presents the first “Medal of Reasonableness” award to Armando Galarraga, the young pitcher who was famously robbed of a perfect game by an umpire’s bad call and displayed memorably good sportsmanship in the aftermath. Not to be outdone, Colbert awards the first “Medal of Fear” to media giants CBS, NBC, AP and NPR — all of which prohibited their employees from attending the rally.

1:47 — More music: Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples, both unknown to me but undoubtedly appreciated by the Jon Stewart demographic.

1:52 — The second Medal of Reasonableness is awarded to Velma Hart, the African American woman who challenged President Obama passionately but politely at a town hall meeting. The second Medal of Fear goes to Anderson Cooper’s “tight black t-shirt” — because we know that whenever we see the CNN journalist wearing it, we’re suffering from a major natural disaster.

1:55 — A spoof commercial from P.K. Winsome, who hawks spurious rally souvenirs. Example: the utilitarian Port-a-Poncho, designed for people at rallies without sufficient toilet facilities. Just hide a bottle under the roomy outerwear and go for it. As Winsome says, “it puts the ‘P’ back in poncho.”

1:58 — Stewart and Colbert bicker over their choice of American flag outfits and proceed to sing about the greatness of America, with a few impishly funny lines about PC and gayness. Stewart will never, EVER get a recording contract. In fact, the two of them make such a godawful sound together that I feel obligated to delete this portion of the program from my brain’s internal memory files.

2:06 — More medals of reasonableness and fear. Mick Foley promises to enforce reason by kicking butt; Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg (not present) wins the fear medal for justifying our most paranoid suspicions about Big Brother. Someone-or-other (hey, it’s not easy to listen and write at the same time) nabs the final reasonableness medal for (don’t quote me on this) snatching a something-or-other from a Muslim-basher.

2:12 — Musical interlude featuring Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock. I grab a snack.

2:23 — Stewart delivers the keynote address: “What is reason?” Colbert insists on offering a counterpoint to every point Stewart intends to make; he wishes to be “empodiumed.” Colbert is funny enough, but his perpetual irony is starting to wear a little thin. Stewart: “Keeping you scared is exactly what they want.” Colbert: “Who is they? Your lack of proper nouns distresses me.” Stewart posits that most of our fears are like deadly korbamite: nonexistent.

“What about Muslims?” asks Colbert. Stewart dutifully points out that there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, only a few of whom have attacked us. Then he introduces Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a “good” Muslim admired even by Colbert, who expresses a wistful desire to “hang out” with the former basketball great.

How about robots then, Colbert wonders. Shouldn’t we fear them? Cute little R2D2 of “Star Wars” fame waddles onto the platform on behalf of “good robots.” Now Colbert’s giant doppelganger, the dreaded “Fearzilla,” arrives onstage — along with a reel of fearmongering TV news reports. Oh no! — fear seems to be gaining the upper hand over reason. Now the excerpts veer from illness, murder and accidents into politics.

Obnoxious pundits sound off from both the fashionable left and the much-maligned right. Dozens of fearmongering clips pummel us with extremism in all its sickening incarnations. THIS is the real deal: a perfect summary of the insane verbiage emanating from the fringes of our political spectrum. Stewart claims he can simply change the channel to avoid such nonsense. But alas, Colbert insists, TV remotes are crawling with unsavory microorganisms. Stewart is finished, he gloats.

Now (believe it or not) a British actor dressed as Peter Pan arrives onstage, imploring everyone to clap and chant for Jon Stewart. The uproar revives him, while Colbert starts to “melt,” doing his best screeching impression of the Wicked Witch of the West. Stewart (personifying reasonable liberal sanity) is triumphant; Colbert (the embodiment of fringe conservatism) is dead. 

All right, they should have offed a left-wing extremist, too — for the sake of balance — but who’s complaining?

2:47 — Stewart offers his concluding remarks. He’s earnest now, even statesmanlike. He hopes he offered a clarion call for action (or “action,” as ironists would view it). He observes pointedly that their intention wasn’t to mock religion or look down their noses at the heartland. “What exactly was this?,”  he asks about the rally. I’d like to know, too.

Stewart answers by making a stirring appeal to our common humanity. He begins to soar. “We live now in hard times, not end times. We can have animus and not be enemies… But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.”  He’s referring to the press, and particularly the posturing pundits of our extremist media outlets.

“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” Stewart quips in reference to the overheated rhetoric that currently dominates cable TV and talk radio. He notes (perceptively, I think) that we have to distinguish between actual bigots and fundamentally decent victims of PC, like Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez. Our inability to identify our real enemies “makes us less safe, not more.” The media have essentially offered us a bewildering array of funhouse mirror distortions — so how do we know when we’re looking at the true reflection?

Stewart grows more impassioned. (I start thinking of Charlie Chaplin’s eloquent valedictory speech in “The Great Dictator.”) He observes that our common humanity trumps our political and cultural differences: “The truth is we work together to get things done every damn day.”  The only places we don’t seem to work together, he notes, are the worlds of Washington, DC, and cable TV.

In the real world, by contrast, people cooperate… they do their jobs: “the little reasonable compromises we all make.” (Great phrase.) 

Now, on the big screen, we see a bird’s-eye view of cars moving past us at the entrance to a tunnel.  As Stewart tells it, the cars are filled with individuals of every conceivable philosophy — people whose beliefs are often in opposition to those of their neighbors. Yet on the road they cooperate: they yield, they merge, they move together through the tunnel. If we want to get out of the darkness and into the light, Stewart concludes, we have to work together… “even if the light at the end of the tunnel is… just New Jersey.”

2:55 — Stewart thanks the audience for its sanity, then invites a special guest onstage to sing “America the Beautiful”: octogenarian crooner Tony Bennett, whose once-silky voice, now grown a little raspy with age, has lost none of its power to stir the emotions. If anything, the fragility of the vessel renders the song all the more moving. Finally, the entire cast mounts the stage… selected singers break out in song… the rally is done.

So… did Jon Stewart, that yuppie idol, that shining exemplar of self-congratulatory urban-hip edginess and orthodox establishment liberalism, succeed in restoring “sanity” to the American political scene? I have to give him credit for trying. If much of the three-hour rally seemed silly, inconsequential or merely facetious, Stewart’s concluding remarks salvaged it and drove home the essential point of the occasion: we might have different views, but we don’t have to wring each other’s necks because of those differences. In the end, we’re all just trying to make it through that tunnel. Sane thoughts from a comic sage and (can we hope?) a born-again moderate.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Marilyn Washington permalink
    October 30, 2010 5:39 pm

    I am glad I watched the ralley to restore sanity/fear. Already there are postings on fb and I will be interested to see how it is portrayed in the coming days. I can’t disagree with Rick’s sort of blow by blow description. It was good as always. I am disappointed that there weren’t more comments throughout the ralley like the ones Jon made at the end. Some of the ralley did seems silly. I wonder if it will have an discernable effect on people that can be seen and measured.Guess time will tell.

    • October 31, 2010 12:26 pm

      Marilyn: They did waste an awful lot of time. Too much of the rally was a kind of self-celebration: all those smart, hip Jon Stewart fans congratulating themselves for being smart and hip. I wish they had included a few more speakers who actually had something to say. But yes, I liked Stewart’s closing speech.

  2. Kathy Martin permalink
    October 30, 2010 6:22 pm

    The only thing missing was mentioning that Ozzy was singing “Crazy Train” to counter “Peace Train” which I found pretty funny. And then of course concluding that bit with “Love Train.”
    I didn’t see the first hour of it, but saw the rest and thought John’s comments at the end were excellent. Rick, I give you credit for watching & taking notes at the same time. lol

    • October 31, 2010 12:27 pm

      Kathy: It was fun to “live blog” — but it ain’t easy. Thanks for the info on the Ozzy Osbourne song — I never would have known, and it makes sense. (I incorporated it into the blog post.)

  3. October 30, 2010 11:20 pm

    Nice summary, but from my perspective Stewart’s bromides are whistling in the dark.

    • October 31, 2010 12:22 pm

      True, Rob: No amount of open-mindedness or goodwill can conceal the fact that our government is being run by influential lobbies. But it’s a start.

  4. October 31, 2010 12:15 pm

    Meh. I watched. I found it…I dunno. Puerile.

    The two political factions have differing and contradictory ideas about where we should be going and what we should be doing. We could be nicer about it, I guess, but that won’t help matters much.

    To extend his tunnel analogy — if we can’t agree which direction the traffic should be moving in the tunnel, all the civility in the world won’t prevent a wreck.

    • October 31, 2010 12:30 pm

      S. Weasel: “Puerile” is a suitable description for 90% of the rally. I like your variation on Jon Stewart’s train analogy… said like a true cynical realist (my kind of people!).

  5. John Bono permalink
    October 31, 2010 12:24 pm

    It was a most Ironic rally. I have to say, the most ironic part was not the Colbert/Stewart Ironapalooza, but the ironic singer of “Peace Train” being the same guy that shills for HAMAS and wants to kill Salman Rushdie. Lots of irony there. Not sure how much was intentional, though.

    • October 31, 2010 12:34 pm

      John: You know, I was wondering why they announced only the first name of the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens. It wouldn’t be because his adopted last name is ISLAM, would it? (I only discovered this factoid after the event.) Yeah, nice touch of irony — a man who honors the fatwa against Rushdie singing about peace.

  6. nrb permalink
    October 31, 2010 5:19 pm

    The crowd was 95% white….

    so I look forward to the mainstream media commenting on the lack of diversity, asking black attendees if they were scared, and the naacp condemning comedy central as racist.

  7. October 31, 2010 5:56 pm

    I want to see the Mall after the event. Clean, no garbage? Or was it a garbage heap?

  8. November 1, 2010 10:03 am

    Sucks, don’t it?

    Calling it like it is, I mean. We moderates are such party-pooping ass-hats. Heh.

    I don’t doubt Stewart/Colbert’s sincerity concerning inclusion and “togetherness.” I think they really do want a meeting of the minds. However, we the people are not blind. Those two, and everyone else up on stage, were all liberal leftists. As Mr. Bayan and other comments pointed out, that crowd was about as diverse as a KKK rally. How many openly conservative people did we actually see there? And indeed, how many minorities?

    But let’s not forget ourselves. They’re comedians. Entertainers. That so many (today’s youth under 30, let’s face it) put so much faith in them as journalistic–and even worse, ideological–pinnacles isn’t the point. They SHOULDN’T. Years ago, Stewart himself once made light of the startling statistic of youths using his show as an “actual” news source. “STOP IT!” he told them. It seems he’s forgotten this. I understand why. No one can honestly take Glenn Beck anymore seriously than Stewart or his cohorts. And yet…they DO. The current arena is nothing less than disturbing.

    I only watched the highlights on the news. Righties had their rally first, lefties followed. Though a few of them might truly have intended, neither was an effective attempt at moderating politics or the government. Tribalism is alive and well, my friends.

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