October 13, 2010
Waiting for Sanityman: Can Jon Stewart save America?
The fate of our country won’t be decided by a politician. It will be determined by a comedian.
Not long before Jon Stewart announced his Rally to Restore Sanity, he told a New York magazine writer why he and his crew on “The Daily Show” would never do something like that. “We’re not activists,” he said. “Maybe the nice thing about being a comedian is never having full belief in yourself to know the answer. So you can say all this stuff, but underneath, you’re going, ‘But of course, I’m f—-ing idiotic.’ It’s why we don’t lead a lot of marches.”
Stewart’s about-face is a risky move. Though something like 100,000 people quickly posted on the rally’s Facebook page that they’d come, that’s not the same thing as actually showing up on the National Mall on Oct. 30. The Web site Politico, a bellwether of Beltway groupthink, oblivious of saying exactly the kind of thing that Stewart loves to singe, predicted that the “media narrative” about Stewart’s rally would depend on whether he musters a bigger crowd on the National Mall than Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally did.
But more than bragging rights about followers are at stake. Liberal-leaning Salon.com asked, “Have Stephen Colbert”—convener of a dueling March to Keep Fear Alive—“and Jon Stewart crossed the line?” Warning that “at a certain point even sarcasm jumps the shark,” the writer—who “would eat a bowl of broken glass just to touch the hem of Stewart or Colbert’s pants”—nevertheless cautioned that “it’s tough to tread in the muck of parody and not wind up bearing an uncanny resemblance to the things we despise,” and that unless the rally motivates a Democratic get-out-the-vote effort, it will be “a Comedy Central-fueled ego trip.”
What made Stewart change his mind? Clever promotion for “Earth (The Book),” as Politico says “skeptics” will assume? I don’t think so. Stewart’s new book would likely have topped The New York Times best-seller list without it. Count me as one of those glass-eaters, too, but I suspect he set aside his fear of being “f—-ing idiotic” because there’s a bit of a rivalry going on between two Jon Stewarts, and one of them—Sanityman—was feeling his oats.
That Jon Stewart sounds a lot like the Obama who became a rock star by calling for an end to all the shouting and divisiveness: “We are not red states and blue states; we are the United States of America.” This is the Stewart whose “call to reasonableness” maintains that our country’s problems “have real, if imperfect, solutions that I believe 70 to 80 percent of our population could agree to try and could ultimately live with.” What keeps those solutions out of reach is that the 70 to 80 percenters “have s—t to do,” and lead normal lives, which means that, “unfortunately, the conversation and process is actually controlled by the other 15 to 20 percent.”
|Read more about Jon Stewart here.|
When he announced the rally, to illustrate the 15-to-20-percenters, he rolled a montage of big mouths—Chris Matthews, Sean Hannity, Alan Grayson, Newt Gingrich, Tea Party shouters and lots more. Tucked in among them, for only a couple of seconds toward the end, was Jon Stewart himself, backed up by a gospel choir, excerpted from a segment in which he told Bernie Goldberg and his Fox News colleagues, “Go f—- yourselves.” Including his own cameo was his way of giving a sly shout-out to the other Jon Stewart, the take-no-prisoners host of “The Daily Show.” That Stewart—Jugular Jon—is the one who hammered Senator John “I-never-considered-myself-a-maverick” McCain for selling his soul, but it was Sanityman who asked Meghan McCain to give her dad a scented mash note making up.
Jugular Jon—the one I have a man crush on—isn’t a knee-jerk partisan. He’s plenty rough on Obama and Democrats when he thinks they deserve it, which is surprisingly often. Nor does he inhabit a bubble. He goes out of his way to invite the Mike Huckabees and Dick Armeys onto his show, the better to wipe the floor with them in person.
Now I’m all for civil discourse and the search for common ground. Sanityman is right: The noisy outliers in our nation make such terrific ratings bait, and politicians and bullies are so thoroughly reliant on wedge issues that polarize us, that when most people look in the media mirror, they don’t see themselves. So it’s great that reasonableness will get a few hours on the Mall, with Colbert’s blowhard to spice up the picnic.
But I’ll be bummed if Sanityman succeeds in throwing a wet blanket on Jugular Jon’s fire. I’m not convinced that what we need now is Bipartisan Barack 2.0, and it appears that neither, thank goodness, is the president. I don’t know if it’s too late, but I’m glad the Obama who got played over and over again by his nihilistic opposition seems to be finding his voice again on the campaign trail.
I don’t think there’s an 80 percent consensus on anything in this country, unless it’s stated so abstractly that you can carve it in marble. Sure, we all agree on fiscal responsibility, but today there’s a divide, not confined to a bellicose fringe, on whether our progressive tax system actually amounts to redistributionist crypto-socialism. Everyone wants a clean environment and energy independence, but toss the idea of a stiff tax on gas into a sanity rally, or raise the prospect of tougher regulation, and the mellow would quickly curdle. These may seem to be differences about means, not ends, but they’re really differences in our underlying beliefs about markets and governments, freedom and responsibility, me and we.