The United States of Postmodern America
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)