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The United States of Postmodern America

November 1, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

On Saturday, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show host Jon Stewart and comic foil Stephen Colbert presented their much-advertised Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Most of the three-hour event played out like an extended live version of Stewart’s late-night comedy news show, with silly banter between Stewart and Colbert and video clips of public figures (primarily cable media hosts) making apparently absurd statements. High-profile musicians did much of the heavy lifting, as The Roots opened the rally and served as the house band for the duration, rarely leaving the stage. Singer and keyboardist John Legend soon joined them, Yusuf (Cat Stevens), Ozzy Osborne, and the O’Jays led a train medley (Peace, Crazy, and Love, respectively), Kid Rock debuted a new song with vocal support from Sheryl Crow and (via video) T.I., and Mavis Staples sang a duet with Wilco leader Jeffy Tweedy. A capella group Four Troops opened with the National Anthem, and Tony Bennett closed with “America the Beautiful.” Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Sam Waterston, Tim Meadows (via video), and Don Novello (as Father Guido Sarducci), were among the other celebrity appearances at an event that CBS estimates 215,000 people attended. (For a general overview, Brian Montopoli’s article for CBSnews.com is the most accurate I’ve seen. C-SPAN also has full video coverage.)

For a number of reasons, probably including Stewart and Colbert’s left-of-center politics and the apparently responsive nature of this event to Glen Beck’s Restoring Honor rally, many on the Right criticized Saturday’s event. (Stewart took heat from the Left as well.) Finding a coherent basis for that criticism has proven difficult, however, and most sound a bit curmudgeonly (e.g., it was too crowded, so I went home) or overly politically hostile (e.g., you attendees are unable to enunciate your mission or goals).

The latter critical example and linked video from Reason Magazine are unintentional reminders that this was a comedy and entertainment festival, not a traditional political rally. At most, it was a parody of political rallies like Beck’s, but even then only in form and not in substance. We should not be surprised that members of the audience were confused about the rally’s political message or aims or had conflicting views when the host of the event, Stewart, and everyone who appeared on stage make no reference to voting, campaigns, elections, or political officials (at least that I remember– I watched the whole event, but my memory may be faulty). And how could they? Just as the negative reaction to the rally was skewed based on a misconception of the nature of the event, so too was much of the positive reaction. Post-rally online comments to the effect of “keep the momentum going and vote on Tuesday,” and “none of this matters if we don’t vote,” see e.g., here and here, are confusing when considered against the actual happenings onstage at the rally. To the extent that there was a message coming out of Saturday’s rally, how exactly that message would direct one vote is not obvious. Stewart’s critical targets were the media (the “twenty-four hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator”) and perhaps bad attitudes. Tuesday’s elections offer candidates who may or may not want to dismantle the federal bureaucracy, our military presence abroad, and the separation of church and state (at least according to their opponents), but none who lead with a platform of reorganizing news media, reorienting and elevating national public discourse, and encouraging respectful relations between people. We do not have a Sanity Party in the United States, and to objective watchers, Stewart’s view appears clear that no existing party can lay claim to that title.

There was a serious message on Saturday, though, and Stewart dropped the funny for twelve of the rally’s 180 minutes to deliver a traditional speech, which, while it may never be canonized alongside Rev. Martin Luther King‘s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” has the potential to be important as a matter of civic discourse. Stewart’s speech (video below, text here) presented a vision of a postmodern America in which people with self-defined identities carry on respectfully with others despite conflicts in ideology.

Look on the screen. This is where we are. This is who we are. [Points to the Jumbotron screen that shows traffic merging into a tunnel.] These cars—that’s a schoolteacher who probably thinks his taxes are too high. He’s going to work. There’s another car-a woman with two small kids who can’t really think about anything else right now. There’s another car, swinging, I don’t even know if you can see it—the lady’s in the NRA and she loves Oprah. There’s another car—an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car’s a Latino carpenter. Another car a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan. But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear—often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers.

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile long 30 foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved, by the way, by people who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by concession. You go. Then I’ll go. You go. Then I’ll go. You go then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Well, that’s okay—you go and then I’ll go.

Stewart is describing postmodern thinker William Connolly‘s “bicameral orientation”: the notion that we should approach others with the simultaneous knowledge that we have our own, dearly held comprehensive worldviews and that everyone else has his or her own worldview, held just as dearly. The bicameral orientation thus directs individuals to “the engrained sense that you should exercise presumptive receptivity toward others when drawing that faith, creed, or philosophy into the public realm.” William E. Connolly, Pluralism 4 (Duke University Press 2005).

Postmodernism is only slightly easier to understand than nanotechnology, which means that even its proponents and closest students can be a bit nebulous in describing it. Stewart’s vision of America, as described in his speech on Saturday, nevertheless sounds squarely in postmodernism. He sees our country as pluralistic and cheers the times when people of possibly conflicting worldviews interact in a mutually respectful manner.

Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives.  Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do—often something that they do not want to do—but they do it–impossible things every day that are only made possible by the little reasonable compromises that we all make.

This, to Stewart, is sanity.

Finally, some considered it “sad,” or “a sign of the times” that it took a comedian like Stewart to bring attention to deficiencies in political discourse and behavior. He and Colbert, along with others like Chris Rock, have been presenting social commentary through comedy for years, not to mention Mark Russell before them, and the political cartoonists throughout the history of print media. If comedy is an art form, then comedians fit in well with the musicians, authors, poets, and visual artists who have utilized their craft to shine a light on or hold a mirror to society throughout human history. See, e.g., here, here, here, and here.

If you attended or otherwise took in or kept up with the rally, I welcome your reactions and alternative interpretations below.

The Roots – “The Seed (2.0),” Phrenology (2002)

Phish – “Sanity,” Junta (1988)

Categories: Current, Discourse, Music, Politics
  1. November 1, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    This is a really great summary of what went down on Saturday. I agree with a lot of what you say and I like that you point out that Colbert & Stewart have been presenting social commentary through comedy for a long time. I’m a journalism student and a common debate we have in my classes is whether or not those guys are “journalists” or if their shows can be classified as “news”. But no matter how people think this rally turned out or how they think it affects politics, I think it says a lot that over 200,000 people could gather together in that space and stay civil for three hours – so there’s got to be some hope for us yet!

    Thanks for checking out my blog while you wrote this. I’m actually blogging about this again (and focusing more on Stewart’s remarks on the media) for one of my classes… you can check it out at http://wvuncovered.wvu.edu/blog.

    • AD
      November 2, 2010 at 11:00 pm

      Thanks, Paige. One facet of postmodernism is a blurring (or even erasing) of traditional lines of distinction or categorization. I’m glad you, as a serious journalist, are taking up this discussion on your school blog, even if I think, as expressed above, that it is important to understanding this particular rally that it was a comedy and entertainment event, not a political event. This characterization doesn’t undermine the value of the civility of the gathering. (We are concerned when naturally competitive spectators at sporting events become overly hostile and violent, for example.)

      It looked like fun, and I’m glad to hear there was a worthwhile experience to be had there. Thanks for reading and reacting.

  2. jjm
    November 2, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    I’m interested in the metaphor of automobile traffic as an analogy for civility. It is a Whitmanesque analogy (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=178711). The road has always been a public sphere in which diversity gets negotiated, where people share in one anothers’ journeys, even when they don’t share the same destination.

    On the one hand, I appreciate the focus on process. In Stewart’s traffic jam, ideology doesn’t matter — form trumps content. Even to the extent that our automobiles become opportunities for free speech (via bumper stickers and brand loyalty), the rules of the road take priority. There is a grudging solidarity in cooperating to mutual advantage.

    On the other hand, Stewart’s vision of traffic cooperation is a romantic oversimplification of a more complex set of social behaviors. The road is a space for competition, an experience of jockeying and frustration, as often as it is a space of cooperation. What about road rage? What do SUVs symbolize? And what about alternative forms of transportation? Where are the pedestrians in this polis?

    • AD
      November 2, 2010 at 11:40 pm

      Stewart has taken some criticism for the automobile traffic metaphor, but I think it fits right within what he’s trying to do for the reasons you describe, both in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Postmodernists like visuals and metaphors as indirect ways of defining and describing central principles or concepts, so Stewart’s use of this video-based metaphor was unsurprising.

      I am glad you identified the “grudging solidarity in cooperating,” because the postmodern view prizes the tension inherent in the bicameral orientation. I’m fuzzy on this, but there is some beneficial energy that flows to society from this tension, which postmodernists seek to maintain.

      Finally, I agree that the metaphor is oversimplified, something that often seems to be the case with the metaphors, visualizations, and other models so common to postmodern exposition. I’ll defend it against your broader questioning by saying that it is just a tool to illustrate one particular, hypothetical set of interactions, one imagined public arena. But I do find that these metaphors and examples often fail to ask harder questions, acknowledge deeper realities, or consider more broad-sweeping contingencies. They can fail to acknowledge that there may be times when a society is in need of ordering structure, or times to grant one’s own worldview more authority than one grants to others, and I think some of the perceived romanticism flows from an initial assumption that people’s worldviews (i.e., religions) aren’t really that valid and authoritative.

      Substantively, though, hard to pick something more American than automobile traffic. Thanks for your comment.

  3. mb
    November 3, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Iris Young articulates the “fact of pluralism” within western democracies as citizens who are “thrown” into situations that are beyond their control, alongside people with whom they would not choose to share situations with. Problems arise out of the thrownness – hence democracy as inherently a “problem-solving” mechanism. The solution is found in deliberation – the coming together of “worldviews”. In talking through our different “worldviews” with each other, we enlarge our own horizons, taking on the perspectives of others and therefore revolutionizing our own “worldviews” (from Young’s Inclusion and Democracy).

    But of course, empirically, we know that this is not the case. Cass Sunstein both points out the problem – that given a diverse group of deliberators, we will seek out those who most closely resemble us and deliberate amongst ourselves, radicalizing our position, or, if no one resembles us, evolve on our own into a more extreme version of ourselves – and the solution: incompletely-theorized agreements.

    This is where the road “metaphor” comes in. I don’t think that the traffic jam example works to demonstrate how we approach each other with this recognition of deeply-entrenched worldviews and make it work as if we somehow exude recognition, toleration and respect in virtue of the approach or process itself. Rather, the traffic jam example points out that we only make it into the tunnel when we remain safely within our cars, sharing no more of ourselves than our bumper stickers, and whatever the little symbol on our car (if we manage to afford one) might say about our economic status. An incompletely theorized agreement is one where we can agree to an outcome on as long as we refrain from providing reasons for that agreement (eg. an atheist and a Jehovah’s Witness might agree not to have prayer in school, but not because they both dismiss the value of prayer. If asked, the atheist might disavow prayer, but the JW could want to ensure that the only prayer her child is exposed to is the right kind. Best solution, given religious diversity? No prayer. But if we start talking about it, we’re bound to lose sight of the fact that what we’re looking for is the solution to the problem, not the complex articulation of it). So it’s not the case that we share the “journey” and not the “destination”, at least not in Stewart’s metaphor. We share the destination: we all want to get through the tunnel, and if we have to ignore each others’ offensive bumper stickers to do so, so be it.

    Form trumps content because that’s the only way to get things done. And if things really are as desperate as everyone says they are, then who cares whether the metaphor itself gets incompletely theorized? Theorists only interpret the world – the point is to change it (at least that’s Marx’s point. It’s unclear to me whether Jon Stewart actually has a point. It’s further unclear whether that even matters). I wouldn’t want to accuse AD of calling for more order and authority, but I’ll gladly interpret his above hesitations about metaphors as support for my own calls.

  4. AD
    November 15, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    A few days ago, Jon Stewart used Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC program as a platform to explain the rally and his views of news media, politics, and the state of public national discourse. Video available at http://ccinsider.comedycentral.com/2010/11/12/jon-stewart-on-the-rachel-maddow-show.

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