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Jon Stewart's Rally Repudiates Tea Party Madness

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Editor's note: For a different take, check out Mark Ames' piece, which argues that the "Rally to Restore Sanity" merely served as a means for liberals to demonstrate that they are smarter than the Tea Partiers.

The aerial photos are in, settling any dispute between who was the best draw of protesters to the National Mall, Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart. The Comedy Central host won hands down over the Fox News Channel host, bringing hundreds of thousands -- most of whom likely identify as liberal -- to the nation's capital for his Rally to Restore Sanity, which, in its naming, at least, was a repudiation of Beck's Restoring Honor rally, held at the opposite end of the Mall two months ago.

But those who hoped to hear from Stewart and his colleague, Stephen Colbert, an outright condemnation of the Tea Party movement, at whom his call for "sanity" appeared to be aimed, were destined for disappointment. Stewart instead took aim at Congress the television news media -- particularly cable talk shows in both the liberal and conservative camps. At times, Stewart strained, in a presumed attempt at balance, to present a pox-on-both-their houses argument.

"There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats but those are titles that must be earned," Stewart told the multitudes in his closing remarks. (Video at the end of this piece.)  "You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Partiers, or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rick Sanchez, is an insult, not only to those people but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate -- just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more."

In other words, to describe Tea Partiers as racist is an insult to members of the Aryan Nation or the Christian Identity movement -- which is another way of saying that freewheeling accusations of fascism or racism denigrate the brutal experience of those who suffered lynchings and mass extermination.

And Stewart's inclusion of Rick Sanchez  (the former CNN host who was fired after calling Stewart, who is Jewish, a bigot and expressing resentment at the prevalence of Jews in the broadcast media) appeared to be a double-edged attempt to critique how commonplace accusations of bigotry have become, while modeling the sort of gracious behavior he wishes to see in the national political dialogue.

Yet racial resentment -- if not outright racism -- is a real sentiment among many Tea Partiers. An April New York Times/CBS News poll found that 52 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters surveyed agreed with the statement (PDF) that "too much has been made of the problems facing black people," compared with 28 percent of the general population. And Tea Party Express, one of the highest-profile Tea Party groups, had to fire its spokesperson, Mark Williams, when he published a very racist satirical screed targeting NAACP Chairman Ben Jealous.

A Net Plus?photo © 2010 A.M. Stan for AlterNet

Though many in the crowd were there to counter the Tea Party madness with their saneness, they seemed undaunted by Stewart's refusal to directly call out the Tea Party. For most, it seemed, the point was having a reason to come together, to present themselves as "real Americans" to a news media that has too often seemed to accept the Tea Party narrative that its members represent the sentiments of the regular people of flyover country. And in that, they succeeded.

Some progressives, like Code Pink's Medea Benjamin, have complained about Stewart's call to both left and right to cool down the rhetoric, particularly when he equated right-wing depictions of Obama as Hitler with left-wing depictions of George W. Bush as a war criminal. Bush, did, for example, prosecute an illegal war that killed tens of thousands of innocents.

Others saw the event as a net plus.  At a post-rally discussion at Busboys and Poets -- a restaurant and gathering place for D.C. progressives -- Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica's Democracy Now!, and green jobs guru Van Jones, who was pushed from his White House post thanks to a smear campaign conducted via Fox News, both signaled their approval.

Goodman noted Stewart's focus on the media as the problem. "I think the people there today," she said, "they're the ones who represent mainstream America -- not the media that claims to be mainstream."

Jones applauded "what just took place on the Mall,"  saying that Stewart and Colbert had "done a significant service to the country" by showing that the majority of Americans "do not act like, think like these shrill maniacs that we see on television." But he implored the audience to "keep the conversation going."

"Because if we stop the conversation with what just happened on the Mall, we will effectively address the style of politics and the tone of politics, but the substance of politics has yet to be addressed. It's not just that we need to be nicer, that we need to be more civil; we have folks who don't have jobs -- 8 million people in this country."

A Feel-Good Day

It was a lovely, feel-good day for most who turned out for the big show. The weather was perfect and everybody behaved quite nicely, just as they had been asked to by their favorite television personality.

How vast was it? Well, when I finally made it onto the Mall, the crowd was so densely packed that it was literally impossible to move, and it was impossible to see the stage or a jumbotron. And still they came. It must have taken me 40 minutes just to find my way off of the Mall, and thousands were still pouring into the area.

The feeling was cheerful, the signs were often funny. Two people held their own versions of the Gadsden flag -- you known the yellow, Revolutionary War flag with the coiled snake: One read "DON'T YELL AT ME"; the other: "DON'T STOMP ON MY HEAD." Another read, "WE'RE TRYING TO HAVE A CIVILIZATION HERE." This one was pretty good: "God Hates Ideologues (or is at least totally unimpressed by them)."

Milling with a throng along Constitution Avenue, a young man who appeared to be of South Asian descent held a sign high above his head that read, "Hug a Muslim" -- and before my eyes, a veritable hug-fest began, with total strangers, men and women, walking up to the guy and hugging him.

My personal favorite was, "JESUS SAYS RELAX." Not everybody was in a conciliatory mood, though. One sign read, "Teabaggers Leave a Bad Taste in My Mouth."

Jill Burkindine of Kansas, her sister Jane Ray of Texas, and Janes son, Jake Ray of New York City.

Jill Burkindine of Kansas, her sister Jane Ray of Texas, and Jane's son, Jake Ray of New York City.