Jon Stewart Rally: Just an Exercise in Gen X Self-Indulgence?
Editor's note: For a different take, check out Adele Stan's piece arguing that the Rally for Sanity was a repudiation of Tea Party madness.
Maybe what’s happening in America today will seem funny to some other culture in some future time -- how it happened that in the depths of America’s decline, Liberals, the great opposition to everything mean and ruthless in this culture, couldn’t muster up a get-together for anything better than a mock-in. Led by a clown.
I confess, I couldn’t hack it. I came to the rally -- saw those two pastry chefs from the Mythbusters show get all the Liberal Elites to hold a post-modern human wave, an ironic human wave allowing all the self-conscious Liberal Elites to play like Real America, while salvaging their vanity because it was all ironic and post-modern… And to make sure that everyone knew they were not really human-waving but rather meta-human-waving, the Mythbusters duo deconstructed the human wave. And all the Liberal Elites smiled and laughed knowingly, because all 150,000 were in on the biggest inside-joke wankathon in American history. And that was it for me -- I was outta there.
A century-old ideological movement, Liberalism: once devoted to impossible causes like ending racism and inequality, empowering the powerless, fighting against militarism, and all that silly hippie shit -- now it’s been reduced to besting the other side at one-liners…and to the Liberals’ credit, they’re clearly on top. Sure there are a lot of problems out there, a lot of pressing needs -- but the main thing is, the Liberals don’t look nearly as stupid as the other guys do. And if you don’t know how important that is to this generation, then you won’t understand what’s so wrong and so deeply depressing about the Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity.
That’s what makes this rally so depressing and grotesque: It’s an anti-rally, a kind of mass concession speech without the speech -- some kind of sick funeral party for Liberalism, in which Liberals are led, at last, by a clown. Not a figurative clown, but by a clown -- and Liberals are sure that this somehow makes them smarter and less lame -- and indeed, they are less lame, because they are not taking themselves too seriously, which is something they’re very, very proud of. All great political struggles and ideological advances, all great human rights achievements were won by clown-led crowds of people who don’t take themselves too seriously, duh! That’s why they’re following a clown like Stewart, whose entire political program comes down to this: not being stupid, the way the other guys are stupid -- or when being stupid, only stupid in a self-consciously stupid way, which is to say, not stupid. That’s it, that’s all this is about: Not to protest wars or oligarchical theft or declining health care or crushing debt or a corrupt political system or imperial decay -- nope, the only thing that motivates Liberals to gather in the their thousands is the chance to celebrate their own lack of stupidity! Woo-hoo!
It’s the final humiliating undoing of Enlightenment Idealism that made Liberalism possible -- imagine if Jefferson, Diderot, Montesquieu, Madison et al reduced the entire Enlightenment’s struggle against the old feudal order to “I’m against the monarchy because the monarchy’s stupid…but then again, Rousseau makes a fool of himself with his Romanticism, and Tom Paine is so serious with his ‘Rights of Man’, the Revolutionaries are just as crazy as the Monarchists, so rather than join either side and risk opening myself to mockery, I’m just going to stand back and laugh at them all and say, ‘Really? Independence? Everyone is created equal and has the right to pursue happiness? Really, TJ? You sure you want to say that about Bluebeard? Really?” [LAUGH TRACK]…
It’s not Stewart’s or Colbert’s fault, let’s be clear on that -- they’re the only ones doing their job here. They’re the only ones fighting this battle, and the only way they’re surviving is by elaborately pretending they’re not really fighting anyone’s battle over anything, they’re just having a laugh -- it’s the same rationale that jesters used in medieval times, and Stewart and Colbert play the same role as the jesters did then…and we’re also playing our role as powerless peasants reduced to self-mockery and snickering at our Masters behind their backs. It’s not their fault that Liberalism today has as its highest priority not looking stupid -- and that its premiere rally is framed in such a way that everyone who came to this rally is somehow indemnified from looking foolish precisely because it’s not really a political rally, it’s more like a mockery of a political rally -- in a self-consciously smart sort of way. And the Daily Show Democrats who gathered celebrated themselves for this amazing achievement: that they didn’t make fools of themselves standing for something that some other guys could then use to mock them. That’s the biggest sin of the other side, the Tea Partiers especially, at least as the Daily Show fans see it: they look silly, and worse, they’re not shamed into suicide from looking silly, the way Liberals would be shamed into OD’ing on Ambien if they opened themselves up to that sort of mockery.
It was this same lack of ironic self-awareness (or rather, this absence of any sort of mockery-avoidance technology) that led my generation to pillory the hippies and progressives -- that’s why we were South Park Republicans before we were Daily Show Democrats: because back then, standing for liberal values meant something, and that made you look lame. Only now, when Liberal ideals have vanished into mythology and all they stand for is “not as crazy or stupid as Republicans” is it safe to camp out with the Democrats. They put nothing on the line ideologically, which perfectly jibes with this generation’s highest value. And that makes it perfectly safe to go to something like a large political rally like Stewart’s -- you side with a hollow movement stripped of ideology or purpose, and then you gather to celebrate your own hollowness at a rally whose one promise is “You won’t open yourself up to mockery if you attend this rally” and whose goal is to show how not-stupid “we” are compared to the mockable activists on both the right and the left -- the Beckites and the Code Pinkers.
I’ve come to the conclusion that this has been the Great Dream of my generation: to position ourselves in such a way that we’re beyond mockery. To not look stupid. That’s the biggest crime of all -- looking stupid. That’s why they’ve turned Stewart into a demigod, because he knows how to make the other guys look really stupid, and if you’re on the same team as Stewart, you’re on the safe side of the mockery, rather than dangerously vulnerable to mockery.