America is about putting together things that are not supposed to go together. Korean tacos, for instance. (Which, really, you should try.) Or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and R2D2. Or irony and sincerity.
Which is to say, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert put together a very American show on the National Mall today with the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, in front of a crowd of [insert estimate that flatters your worldview here] people. It was a mishmash, and sometimes felt too long. (The first hour or so, with a Roots / John Legend jam leading into the Mythbusters[?!], seemed like stalling for time.) It was sometimes flat, awkwardly paced and tentative in making its arguments.
But in the end, as Jon Stewart closed the rally out with a funny but sincere speech, it was also passionate, pointed and—I say this without air quotes—honestly moving.
“I know there are boundaries for a comedian/pundit/talker guy,” Stewart began his address, “and I’m sure I’ll find out tomorrow how I have violated them.” Indeed, much of the rally was ringed with as much pre-emptive defense as a medieval castle. (Earlier in the rally, for instance: “It doesn’t matter what we say or do today. It matters what is reported about what we say or do today”; there were also pre-inoculating references to the apparently pretty white demographics of the crowd.)
This was maybe a natural reaction for a rally that had come heavily pre-criticized: it would be too serious, it would be too political, it would not be serious or political enough. But thematically, what the rally delivered, as should have surprised no one, was pretty much what Stewart and Colbert have delivered on their shows for years.
For one thing: a show heavy on media criticism. Among the most devastating sections of the rally were a series of “fear montages” Colbert played during a mock-debate with Stewart, showing the role of cable news in particular in whipping up the state of alarm and antagonism that the rally was reacting against. (The cable networks, by the way, were dipping in and out of coverage of the rally through the afternoon.) Don’t be surprised to see some defensive media responses to the critiques over the next few days.
Stewart also promised a show that was not politically partisan, and the rally kept to that, sometimes to the point of cautiousness. One running segment, for instance, involved Stewart and Colbert awarding dueling medals for Reasonableness and Fear. In one, Stewart honored Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga for forgiving the umpire who blew his perfect-game call–a heartwarming story, yes, but not exactly a triumph over partisan divisions.
On the other hand, a musical illustration of the Stewart-Colbert debate–in which Yusef’s (Cat Stevens’) performance of “Peace Train” competed with Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” a fight resolved with a compromise on The O’Jays’ “Love Train”–was so bizarre and oddly sweet that it worked. (I can only hope some YouTuber is working on a mash-up.) [Update: By the way, yes, I recall the controversy over Yusef Islam supposedly endorsing the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and his denial that that was his position. And I will leave adjudicating that to other posts and other bloggers.]
One problem that much of the rally seemed to work against was the dissonance of combining Colbert’s Keep Fear Alive with Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. This kind of stage fight works well in the last few minutes of a Daily Show, and it sometimes worked on stage, as in a winsome (but off-key) duet about whether liberals or conservatives are more “American.” (“Every day on my calendar is the 4th of July / If you cut me open I bleed apple pie” vs. “You can tax all my cash to help out a stranger / But I’ll sue city hall if they put up a manger.”) But at other times, switching between the two points of view tripped the narrative momentum of the sometimes-earnest, sometimes-sardonic event.
Which may be why the high point of the rally came at the end, when Stewart took the stage alone to speak “What exactly was this?” he began, echoing more pre-criticisms of the rally’s aim, before spelling it out: it was, in fact, a rally about saying, and proving, that Americans who think differently can behave as if “we live in hard time, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.” (Likewise, he argued, a fraction of racist Tea Partiers does not make the Tea Party racist or a fraction of terrorist Muslims make Islam terrorist.)
The problem: “one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.” Again, the major target here was the media, or “the politico-pundit perpetual panic conflictinator,” which, Stewart said, instead of using its magnifying glass to bring problems into focus, was using it “to set ants on fire.”
But actual average people, he argued, “work together to get things done every damn day. The only place we don’t is here”—indicating Washington—”or on cable TV.” (Like a good politician, Stewart gave his audience a “them” to blame their problems on while assuring that they themselves, in the main, were good; but that fact doesn’t make his critique any less right.)
He summed up this theme with the mundane but sweet example of traffic merging into a tunnel: people are in a hurry, they’re running late, yet regardless of what’s on the bumper sticker of the car ahead of them, they take turns merging. Sometimes a jerk will cut in line, “but that individual is rare, and he is scorned and not hired as an analyst.”
Did a Comedy Central entertainer need set up a soapbox on the Mall to speechify this point? I think the question is: who else was going to? I suspect that for some, this was a Howard Beale shark-jumping moment: Stewart was being self-serious, was preaching, was stepping outside his place. And yes, there were some dangerously politician-like bits and cadences in the speech. (“Through the darkness and back into the light”? Really?) To me, though, it recalled the Jon Stewart who returned to the air after 9/11, joking about being another media figure giving a lugubrious speech while also sincerely explaining why “I grieve but I don’t despair.”
No, an ugly midterm campaign and a lot of nasty fights on cable news are not the equivalent of a terror attack. But this was an earned moment that used humor and self-deprecation in the service of a serious message–one that ultimately was about the [insert crowd estimate from your favored pundit here] people willing to flood the Mall before an election to hear a political speech about not going nuts over political differences. (Among the prominent signs: I Might Disagree With You But I’m Pretty Sure Neither of Us Is Going to Hell.”)
In that sense, the most apt act on stage may have come neither from Stewart nor Colbert, but from Jacob Isom, the guy who became a minor celebrity earlier this year for yanking a Koran from a would-be Koran burner. As a gag, Colbert yanked Isom’s Reasonability medal away from him. But when Isom got it back, he told the audience, “Thank you”—and tossed it into the crowd.
In the same spirit, Stewart told his audience, “Sanity has always been in the eye of the beholder. But to see you here today, and the kind of people you are, has restored mine.”
Then Tony Bennett sang “America the Beautiful,” the crowd chanted “USA! USA!,” Kareem, R2D2 and others joined together on stage, and the crowd started to disperse. Let’s hope they merge generously on the way home.