American liberals’ Rally to Share an Inside Joke

In place of political vision, Saturday’s Jon Stewart-inspired Washington gathering offered cheap shots at Republicans.

Helen Searls

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Topics Politics

The large size of Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ on the National Mall in Washington was a surprise to many. What should have been more shocking was how so many people could be gathered together for so little political purpose.

In the lead up to the event, organisers had low-balled predictions. Permits filed before the rally by Comedy Central, the station that produces Stewart’s satirical show, said that 60,000 people were expected to attend. Politicians and political commentators ridiculed the idea that a rally announced by a couple of late-night comedians, paid for by a TV station and focused on the idea of ‘taking it down a notch’ could inspire anyone to summon up enough energy to get off the couch, let alone make their way to the National Mall to gather together on for an entire afternoon.

But both the pundits and the organisers were wrong. On the day, people came in droves to the rally. The National Park Service refused to put out an estimate of the crowd size, but it was clear to anyone familiar to political gatherings in Washington that this was a big one. The city’s subway system was overwhelmed hours before the start time. Streets closures extended many blocks in all directions of the designated assembly point. The east end of the Mall was packed. Estimates of nearly a quarter of a million attendees were probably near the mark.


Saturday’s rally was surprisingly large

Wandering around the event, people volunteered a number of explanations as to why so many people were there. A few admitted they wanted to see the celebrities like Jon Stewart or Sheryl Crow. Others were looking for a bit of fun or were just curious as to what it would be like. Others were more earnest: expressing support for the motives behind the rally and applauding calls for reason, tolerance and sanity in politics today.

But despite the convictions of those on the Mall on Saturday, something else was at play here. This rally might have made sense were this a particularly crazy, intolerant or extreme moment in US politics. But political battles were a lot more intolerant and polarised in the past. Formerly, intolerance meant anti-communist witch-hunts, or Jim Crow laws. And polarisation led to civil war or a nation divided by conflicting opinion on Vietnam. In contrast, today we live in an America that has recently elected a black president. It is a place where gays and lesbians are about to be allowed to serve openly in the military. Disagreements exist, but they are nothing compared with the past.


A placard from Saturday’s
Rally to Restore Sanity

The truth is the perception that the US is gripped by intolerant forces that lack sanity or reason only makes sense from a liberal perspective. Many, if not most, people on the Mall understood the Rally to Restore Sanity was really not so much about sanity and reason in the abstract. Rather it was a specific counter to the likes of conservative TV personality Glenn Beck, the Fox News channel and the newly emerged Tea Party.

The self-righteous undercurrent to the day’s proceedings was palpable. When people held signs saying ‘Think’, ‘Read a Book’ or ‘I have a sign and it’s spelled correctly’, everyone knew what the signs meant. These were not aimed at third graders urging them to take their studies seriously. Rather this is the familiar insider way that liberals think and talk about their conservative opponents.


Puerile humour directed at
Fox News host Glenn Beck

Standing in the middle of it all, the entire event had the air of smug inside joke – and not a particularly funny one at that. The event was billed as an even-handed rejection of the extremes of the left and the right, but nearly everyone there knew that the only crazy people that mattered were of the conservative persuasion. To anyone observing the event with no prior knowledge of the liberal mindset, it would be near on impossible to make sense of the proceedings. It was incoherent, unfocused and served no political purpose. You had to get the joke to know that ‘Think’, ‘Read a Book’, ‘I have a sign and it’s spelled correctly’, ‘Africa is a country’, ‘There was only one Hitler’, ‘I masturbate and I vote (but not at the same time)’ and all references to witches were all poking fun at the same thing.

But perhaps the biggest joke of the all was the fact that a rally called in the name of tolerance and reason allowed so many to demonstrate just how intolerant and irrational the liberal mindset has become. The rally struck a chord with so many because conceitedly poking fun at the ignorance and stupidity of the right is all that excites liberals today. In the run-up to Tuesday’s congressional elections, there are no political causes to unite or inspire Democrats. There is nothing to stand up for. Democrats are as turned off from politics as everyone else in the country. But while the Tea Party folk try to make something vaguely political out of such disillusionment, many liberals seem to have given up. Inside jokes are all that remain.

Helen Searls is executive producer at Feature Story News in Washington, DC.

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Topics Politics