While on the National Mall yesterday at the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," I walked past an unamused man holding a sign with the message, "More Jobs, more money, more compassion." Standing behind him, about 20 feet away, was Darth Vader grabbing the ass of a pale looking zombie. I think The Village People were playing in the background. "What the hell is Stewart's rally all about?" I kept asking myself. Was I missing the point? Sure —some allowance must be made for the carnival-like atmosphere on the day before Halloween. Darth Vader, for instance, can be permitted to coexist with Hobbits but what was the political purpose of this event, which seemed to stir up so much interest among liberal-leaning thinkers in recent weeks?
"Are you going to the rally?" I must have been asked this question a dozen times in recent days. In each case, there seemed to be real relief and enthusiasm behind in the question, presumably because finally someone would be articulating an explanation against the worldview offered by vocal conservatives.
People have been hurting for some time now in this recession and there is a collective mood that despite their hard work and vigilance, they've lost their savings or perhaps they've been stamped as delinquent on their mortgage. These are people with real grievances, who often view themselves as hard working, patriotic Americans, and it was the Tea Party, who effectively articulated an explanation for their woes.
As Tea Party activists have it, what is needed to rectify this grave indignation visited upon the American people was not first and foremost a movement to compel greater regulation against the practice of predatory lending in the housing sector; nor is there a call to regulate the kind of financial innovation that contributed to the crises. Instead the problem was somehow a United States that had turned horribly socialist—communist even—by suggesting a policy of universal healthcare. Rather than a discussion which seriously evaluates the role big business ought to play in ensuring the health and well being of the people it employs, those most hurt by the recession are encouraged by the Tea Party to fix their cross hairs on "Illegal aliens," and while the reason for this is often unmentioned, the image we're left with is that of a sieve which leaks into the Great American Desert an undifferentiated horde of brown folks. They seek our jobs, and mooch our dwindling pot of resources, and despite this imposition, they can't even be bothered to learn English. This has been the message from the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh, and it was implicitly tied up with Beck's call to "restore honor" in late August of this year.
Colbert testifies before House Judiciary Committee on Immigration
For those who have been tracking the momentum of the Tea Party, this should all sound familiar, but I'll steal a page from Noam Chomsky and suggest that rather than smug ridicule aimed at Tea Party activists, critics should be asking why hasn't there been even a semblance of an opposition movement from the left?
When Colbert recently offered testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Immigration, I thought I detected the beginnings of an alternative to the usual story about that invading horde from our southern border. His prepared testimony was pure satire, which is always a relatively sophisticated critique masquerading as mere levity, but just in case there was any doubt that he was leveling a criticism, he offered the following in response to Representative Judy Chu's question about why he is interested in the issue of immigration:
"They are migrant workers who come here and do our work but don't have any rights as a result, and yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. And that's an interesting contradiction to me...and, you know, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, and these seem like the least of our brothers right now...migrant workers suffer and have no rights."
Colbert’s account of the immigrant stands in obvious relief to that offered by conservative pundits, and following his testimony came the meager signs of a momentum building toward something even more coherent. In response to Beck's "Rally to Restore Honor," came an announcement from Jon Stewart that there would be a similar "Rally to Restore Sanity," and Colbert joined in with his own "Rally to Keep Fear Alive." Both rallies were named with an eye toward satire, not merely intended to debase Beck's rally, but to draw attention to the way average folks are being manipulated by politicians and media personalities in general. Just like the call to restore honor, restoring sanity seemed clearly intended to poke fun at all vacuous political slogans that succeed in rallying support for political leaders and their movements without actually committing them to meaningful action. Who could disagree with honor? Who among us doesn't want more sanity?
So I was somewhat disappointed when I arrived to the Mall just before noon on the day of the rally and began hearing from people that the reason they were there was because they had a genuine interest in restoring sanity to America. What is meant by "insane" or what precisely "America" is doing that is so insane was largely left unarticulated, and when I pressed people to explain who the insane folk are, many pointed to conservative media personalities like Glenn Beck or Tea Party activists, commonly derided as Tea Baggers.
The satire—that sophisticated critique of power—seemed to have been lost on many of those who attended. Instead it looked to be a big party among people who wanted to celebrate their healthy senses of humor and reasonableness. One guy's sign read, "My wife thinks I'm walking the Appalachian Trail," and just beyond it, another called to, "Stop Illegal Immigration," by keeping "Canadian geese from entering our country." But while so many attendees were patting themselves on the backs for the irony of creating a political sign without an overt political message, or for merely deriding the concerns many Tea Party activists have about whether illegal immigration will lead to ever more dwindling wages and delinquent mortgages, a few people showed up with signs and the audacity to ask the government for something. Such attendees were relatively scarce though, and the man I mentioned earlier, who asked for "more jobs, more money, [and] more compassion," stood on the outskirts of the rally, near the Archives-Navy Memorial Metro station. He seemed to be contemplating a trip home just as the rally seemed to be heating up.
So what was the rally actually about? "What exactly was this?" Jon Stewart didn't know and didn't want to "control" what people thought the rally was. He began his closing remarks by explaining his intentions for it and telling us flatly that it wasn't intended as an effort to ridicule people of faith or activism. By striking a more serious tone, I wondered if he was seeking to provide some substance and coherence and attempting to make the rally something more than mere spectacle or an overzealous party where attendees habitually wink at each other in mutual assurance that they know crazy when they see it.
A few minutes later, just after a random crack about burning ants, Stewart at last specified what he believed to be real sanity, which he insisted most of us already had and was something in opposition to the hyperbole currently raging throughout the American media. Against the disingenuous politicos that saturate cable news, what is needed is the ability to make reasonable distinction, and he added, "the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more."
"Excellent!" I thought. "Let's do something now!" Let's name political candidates who routinely render the terms 'Muslim' and 'terrorist' indistinct. Or perhaps Stewart will address the issue of unauthorized immigration because it is an issue often championed by conservatives and referenced in the rally's signage. Perhaps he'll hammer out at least the beginnings of an alternate narrative about how immigrants have been scapegoated as the ultimate cause for lost jobs and declining wages. Instead, Stewart offered a traffic analogy. We're reasonable folks, he seemed to say, because we routinely yield the right of way, so the mass of us can succeed in commuting to and from our jobs? Concession by concession, we all get along far better than what is typically depicted in the media.
I couldn't help but feel profoundly disappointed. Conservatives, least of all Glenn Beck and Tea Party activists, continue to articulate explanations that endeavor to account for the hurt people feel in this recession. They formulate powerful narratives about invasion from a foreign "Other." They draw from a rich pool of persistent stereotypes, which have remained lodged in the collective imagination of Americans far longer than most people realize. These articulators of the conservative worldview offer tangible scapegoats in the form of Muslims, immigrants, and socialists, and from their tangible narratives are prescriptions for tangible action. What is needed, they argue, is a sort of enclave society and one which demands vigilance against people dressed in Muslim garb. An ever taller, ever deeper fence must be constructed on our southern border. We must curtail socialist efforts by big government to redistribute resources to the less deserving "least of our brothers." It is a tightly woven narrative, but one that so often defies statistical facts. It especially defies textured understandings that refuse to uncritically trade in stereotypes, and it nearly always defies a political-economic perspective, such as that offered only last Thursday by Laura Sullivan, an NPR journalist who broke the story about how private prison companies who would benefit enormously from a growing population of detained immigrants actually had a role in drafting the Arizona bill that would ensure the growth of that population—Senate Bill 1070.
If, as Stewart claims, we're all still sane and capable of achieving (something) "every damn day" despite being immersed in a sensationalistic news environment, and all that is needed is persistent sanity, then there really is nothing to be done other than an occasional affirmation about remaining sane and possibly practicing patience during rush hour traffic. At its core, Stuart's message and those who claimed to be there to restore sanity seems to be about keeping faith in America and being patient with each other, and that's fine as far as it goes; however, without a competing explanation of why times are difficult and a proposal to do something about it, the rally sends a disturbing message of ambivalence, albeit a kind-hearted one. The rally, whatever Stewart wants to claim now, was responding to Beck's rally to restore honor, but rather than responding to Beck or even facilitating a space from which others could respond to Beck, we got Ozzy Osbourne and traffic analogies.