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Jewish Journal

Competence

by Rob Eshman

September 28, 2010 | 7:10 pm

As a rule, I’m not the rallying type.

I didn’t even go to a single homecoming in high school or college. Wherever I see crowds of people, I see black-and-white pictures of cross burnings, Klan rallies and the Nuremberg parade grounds. Call me paranoid, but history shows that, most of the time, little good comes from too many like-minded people standing around.

But this Oct. 30, I’m very tempted to break my rule.

That’s when Jon Stewart is holding his Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of people are expected to attend.

“Think of our event as Woodstock,” reads the rally Web site, rallytorestoresanity.com, “but with the nudity and drugs replaced by respectful disagreement.”

I was watching “The Daily Show” on Sept. 16 when Stewart announced the rally. At first, the idea of a gathering of sensible, non-riled-up Americans seemed like a punch line to a riff about the recent Rally to Restore America hosted by Fox News personality Glenn Beck that featured Sarah Palin and several thousand Tea Party true believers.

Like most viewers, I assumed Stewart’s idea was shtick. But he went on to sound strident and impassioned. Sensible, if difficult, approaches exist to the most dire issues Americans face, Stewart said, and the majority of Americans can agree on common-sense approaches.

Then he cut to a montage of clips showing Americans on both ends of the political spectrum screaming down politicians, hijacking news shows, waving placards that showed either President Barack Obama as Hitler or former President George W. Bush as Hitler.

“Obama is Hitler. Bush is Hitler,” Stewart said. “What’s the matter, people? You don’t know what a Stalin mustache looks like?

“We have seen these folks, the loud folks, dominate our national conversation on our most important issues,” Stewart said. “Why don’t we hear from the 70 to 80 percenters? Well, most likely, because you have s—- to do.”

Stewart wants those of us who care, but don’t carry on enough to provoke the 24-hour cable news monster, to show up in Washington for what he is calling “The Million Moderate March.” Our job, he said, is to take back the national debate from the 20 percent on the extremes and from the cable news shows that depend on them to provide reality-show-level drama and pundit fodder.

Stewart has for a long time spoken to that 80 percent, though he has denied actually leading us. His primary job, after all, is to entertain. And like all great American satirists, from Will Rogers to Howard Stern, he can’t help sounding more sensible than the people he mocks.

And these days, sounding sensible is an act of rare political courage.

“I think of myself as a comedian who has the pleasure of writing jokes about things that I actually care about. And that’s really it,” Stewart once told an interviewer. “You know, if I really wanted to enact social change ... I have great respect for people who are in the front lines and the trenches of trying to enact social change. I am far lazier than that.”

It turns out that within the self-described lazy satirist is a truly angry Howard Beale who just can’t take it anymore.

Perhaps it took the promise, then disappointment, of a new Democratic administration, or the rise of the Tea Party, or the crossing over from chatterers to newsmakers of far less talented and more dangerous media personalities like Beck that finally got Stewart out from in front of the brick wall and into the crowd.

Whatever convinced him to step up and step out, sign me up.

Stewart said that, at his rally, don’t expect placards with poorly drawn Hitler, or even Stalin, mustaches. He offered a sample of the signs he’ll supply to the crowd: “I Disagree With You, but I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Hitler,” “Take It Down a Notch for America” and “Competence.”

Oh, competence. Stewart belongs to a dwindling number of commentators who spend time analyzing options, measuring arguments, sifting through opposing facts and, in many cases, doing actual reporting. Invariably, their writing rewards competence over ideological purity. Think Thomas Friedman, Matthew Miller, Paul Krugman, James Fallows, Jeffrey Goldberg, Nicholas Kristof. You may not always agree with their conclusions, but they rarely, if ever, substitute bluster for actual facts.

If it strikes you that all except two of these columnists (Fallows and Kristof) are Jewish, I don’t think that’s a coincidence, either.

A couple of elections ago, in the midst of one of those perennial debates over whether Jews were turning to the Republican party, Cal State Fullerton professor Raphael Sonenshein made the point that what neither party realizes about Jews is that, above all, Jewish voters reward fairness and competence.

For most Jews, the argument is not over big government or small government, but effective government. History, culture or genetics have bent us toward pragmatism wedded to compassion, mixed in with a sense of humor.

And that, I think, is a good working definition of sanity — and an idea worth rallying around.

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