On my way to the Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, I got a text from John Legend, who has been my friend since our college days. He told me he had decided at the last second to fly into to DC to perform with The Roots on the National Mall. So within a few minutes I was backstage with John and the rest of the performers.
As I stood beside the stage watching John and The Roots play Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” before a huge and relatively diverse crowd, it occurred to me that this was the first time in a long time I had witnessed a rally on the Mall that wasn’t filled with troglodytic racists and anti-abortion fanatics. The Sanity/Fear rally was calculated as the mirror opposite of the rallies I have grown accustomed to reporting on for the past six years: Blind rage and cultural despair was replaced with irony and high-minded humor, while the Tea Party was mocked not as a dangerous movement comprised of pathological bigots but as a stupid and uncool endeavor. One sign read: “Tea Parties Are For Little Girls and Imaginary Friends.”
Most of the performers had to watch the rally on a big screen TV in a tent that was set up behind the stage. I watched with them, except for the moments when Father Guido Sarducci stood in my way (his tattered cape was hard to see around). Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam, who now lives in Dubai, told me that he wanted his appearance at the rally to represent his return to the US since being denied entry to the country by the Bush administration for specious reasons. I talked to Tony Bennett about the influence of Yiddish Theater on Irving Berlin. “That guy knew what he was doing,” Bennett remarked. The crooner spent most of his time writing down song lyrics on a small pad of paper and quietly rehearsing them to himself. At one point, a security guard asked Kareem Abdul Jabbar to take a picture of him standing beside John Legend — a weird spectacle. When Jabbar excused himself as he nudged past me, I asked him if I was blocking his view (I wasn’t). Later, Ozzy Osbourne rushed in and out of the tent with glasses of water for himself and Sharon, while I talked to Jacob “Dude, you have no Quran” Isom about his theory on why God created gays.
As much as I enjoyed the uplifting rally, the backstage fun and clever street theater on the Mall, I was disturbed by John Stewart’s constant drawing of false equivalencies between the extremist Tea Party and mainstream liberals, which he employed again and again to supposedly reveal how the political debate has careened out of control. In Stewart’s presentation, open racist conspiracists like Glenn Beck, Pam Geller and the Fox News grotesque gallery of pundits were likened to center-left figures like Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz simply because they all broadcast their opinions at maximum volume and rely on emotional manipulation. It was like comparing the Klan to the Shriners because members of both groups wear funny costumes.
Similarly, during his earnest speech pleading for sanity, Stewart urged his audience to distinguish between “Tea Partiers” and “real racists,” while equating “radical Marxists actively subverting our Constitution” with “racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own.” Isn’t the Tea Party substantially consumed by racism and represented by candidates who oppose the Civil Rights Act? And how are “radical Marxists” (Stewart appeared to have borrowed the McCarthy-era trope from Glenn Beck) comparable to racists and homophobes?
Since Kevin Philips drew up the Southern Strategy to help re-elect Richard Nixon, the right has pushed a tightly organized campaign of cultural division that relied on coded appeals blaming radical Marxists and minorities for ruining the fortunes of “real Americans” while forcefully denying the conservative movement’s endemic bigotry. In his clumsy attempt to attack political polarization by blaming “both sides,” Stewart wound up falling into the far-right’s trap. Also, his metaphor about drivers of different socioeconomic backgrounds allowing each other into a single lane didn’t exactly match up with my experience trying to get home on a DC Metrobus. (I found decent reactions to Stewart’s “radical Marxist” canard here and here.
While I don’t agree with Chris Hedges that the Sanity rally was an empty diversion — there was enormous cultural significance just below the surface, like the visible presence of large groups of second generation Muslim immigrants — I think he’s right that any movement that looks to prime-time comedians for leadership is unlikely to foster any scintilla of progressive change and doesn’t understand the nature of the threat to democracy. I also thought that the “Can’t we all just get along” tone of the rally, a relic of the 2008 Obama campaign, sounded dissonant just days before the likely far-right takeover of the House. The right is determined to not only reverse whatever halting changes Obama has made but to delegitimize government itself. If anyone sincerely believes that ironic hipster-esque mockery and reasoned, NPR-style discussions are effective antidotes to the right-wing resurgence, the joke is on them.
By the way, I will be on Al Jazeera English tonight at 9:30 and 10:30 ET discussing midterm election returns with Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges, Michael Moynihan, and maybe a few others. You can watch it here.