Jon Stewart’s ‘Sanity’ Rally an Attack on Activism

By Jonathan Miller and Radhika Miller of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Comedian Calls for Unity and Cooperation

Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart

On Oct. 30, popular television comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted on the National Mall their much touted “Rally to Restore Sanity/March to Keep Fear Alive.” The event was a satire of political rallies from the perspective of Stewart’s liberal newscaster persona and Colbert’s parody of a right-wing TV pundit.

The joint event was called in reaction to a very busy year in Washington, D.C., that has seen large demonstrations by both the left and right wings. Stewart wanted a “Rally to Restore Sanity”; Colbert, in his role as foil, immediately answered with the “March to Keep Fear Alive,” which did not exist except as a comedic stunt.

According to the rally website: “Ours is a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs)—not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority. We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard. …”

Stewart thus threw all political rallies and activism into one category, equating the Tea Party and Glenn Beck with the “One Nation” rally that was spearheaded by labor and civil rights groups.

Unlike most political events, the “Rally to Restore Sanity” was mostly musical acts—featuring the Roots, Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock, Yusuf Islam, Ozzy Osbourne and the O’Jays—punctuated with some short comedic bits by the headliners and a closing address by Stewart. 

Party for Socialism and Liberation members distributed flyers and sold newspapers in the crowd, which was estimated at around 150,000 people, a respectable but not overwhelming turnout in comparison to other events on the Mall, especially considering the mainstream media promotion of the event.

Attendees seemed eager to see a show by their television heroes, and echoed the overall sentiment for “sanity” and “fear” with cleverly worded signs, like “What Do We Want? Moderation! When Do We Want It? In a Reasonable Time Frame!” and “Political reality is an oxymoron,” among other even less serious efforts. One woman summed up the entire event when speaking to her child: “It’s not really a political thing. It’s just a big party.”

Unity and Cooperation with Whom?

Stewart, in his closing remarks, called for “unity” and “cooperation,” likening people in the United States to cars stuck in traffic that can only move forward by making concessions to other drivers.

In doing so, he equated the left and the right as equally “insane.” The message was, if it were not for so much “extremism,” we might get things done. It was an echo of the usual ruling-class nonsense about “reaching across the aisle” and not “playing politics.”

There are several problems with this view. It is possible that Stewart’s message is based in a mistaken, though sincere notion that the problems of the United States can in fact be solved through moderation and civil discourse. The question that must be asked is: Who is the “we” to whom Stewart refers? Saying that “we” must all cooperate sounds good and sensible, but it ignores the very real class divisions that exist.

Making fun of the Democrats and Republicans for not cooperating ignores the fact that there is more unity than division between the two capitalist parties who are united in their interest in defending the system. At the same time, calling for unity presupposes that there is a commonality of interest among workers and capitalists and that all we have to do is talk things over calmly and each side give a little and then we will all be happy.

Objectively, the Rally To Restore Sanity was an attempt to laugh away legitimate grievances among progressives and to defuse the growing anger at the failures of the Obama administration to bring about real change by making fun of extreme right-wing elements such as the Tea Party and equating Tea Party extremism with progressive activism.

Stewart’s call was for unity and rational discourse. However, such a call at a time when working people are under relentless, savage attack by the capitalist ruling class can only serve that same ruling class. The capitalists are not interested in unity. They are interested in quelling resistance to their plans. Rationally, they act in their own interests, sometimes by unleashing the forces of racism and fascism, other times through more moderate and democratic methods. Workers cannot unify with such people, nor have a civil discourse about social change with them.

Political change is only possible through struggle. The civil rights movement was not victorious because politicians put partisanship aside—African Americans defeated Jim Crow through decades of deliberate, passionate struggle. Workers only gained minimum wages, benefits and the eight-hour day by mobilizing in the streets, not through hoping capitalist politicians would put their differences aside for the benefit of the country.  In each case, the grassroots struggle posed a significant threat to the power of the ruling class and the ruling class compromised—bent a little—in order not to be broken by the power of the masses.

To return to the traffic analogy, well-intentioned workers may be calmly waiting for their opportunity to reach the front of the line, but capitalists in Sherman tanks are rumbling up the shoulder and crashing through the median, paying no mind to anyone else in their attempts to get ahead. If a worker were to assert her right of way and try to block the tank, the capitalist would crush her; if a few workers cooperate, the capitalists will coordinate their tank attacks. All the workers in all their cars, though, can stop the tanks by working together.


Posted on November 5, 2010, in State Repression and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Jon Stewart’s ‘Sanity’ Rally an Attack on Activism.

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