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Jon Stewart's Rally Repudiates Tea Party Madness

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.

photo © 2010 A.M. Stan for AlterNet A similar sentiment appeared on the tee shirt of a nice lady from Texas: "f*ck tea" read the words printed on Jane Ray's shirt. She had traveled from the Lone Star state to meet up with her sister, Jill Burkindine, who lives in Kansas, and her son, Jake Ray, who lives in New York City. "I came because I'm concerned about the extremism, particularly on the right," said Burkindine." When pressed, she said she concurred with Stewart that the left had a problem, too. "People are too angry," she said. Her sister -- the one with the F-word tee shirt -- was less concerned about he left. "I'm a liberal," Ray said. "It's not a dirty word." "It is in Texas," her son piped up. An Anthropological Expedition
Fear-inspiring characters ride the golden dragon.

Fear-inspiring characters ride the dragon.

photo © 2010 A.M. Stan for AlterNet On a very long line at the nearest Starbuck's I struck up a conversation with four young women. "Are you here for the rally?" I asked. "Well, more for observation," replied one in a gold puffy vest. They were conservatives, two of whom work for conservative organizations, so they didn't want their names used. "But we all watch Jon Stewart and The Daily Show," said her friend. "I mean, it's entertaining." She said she had attended the Beck rally in August. Asked the difference between the two, she said that Beck's event was "more American." "It didn't have all the hate," she said. "What hate?" I asked.  Honestly, there just wasn't a whole lot of hatin' goin' on that I could see. Okay, well, there was Jane Ray's tee shirt and the sign about "Tea Baggers." "All of that stuff about fascism," she replied. I turns out she saw a sign that called somebody a fascist; she wasn't too clear on exactly what it said. But, basically, she said, she viewed today's rally as "entertainment." "I think it's more manipulative than that," a third woman said. "People think it's a joke, but there's a real agenda here." A liberal agenda, she meant. The three women and another of their friends posited that most of the people on the mall were Hill staffers. Unlike most of the people at the Beck rally, said the woman who told me she attended it, the people on the Mall today were "mostly local." But I didn't find that to be the case. In the course of five random interviews, one person was from the area. Nancy Nanion works for National Geographic, and sported a fabulous costume: she was dressed as an oil spill. She wore a dress made of scalloped black rubber, and she had painted black drips around her eyes. On her head, she wore a hat shaped like an oil tanker, which bore the name, DRILL BABY.
One of many who arrived in costume, Nancy Nanion dressed as an oil spill.

One of many who arrived in costume, Nancy Nanion dressed as an oil spill.

photo © 2010 A.M. Stan for AlterNet She was just one among hundreds who showed up in costumes, but hers was the best I saw. That's unless you want to count the giant float brought by a couple dozen people, who were identified by the Washington Post as  Burning Man aficionados. It was a big, gold dragon, shaped like a ship carrying a whole bunch of people dressed like Vikings, medieval swordsman, and other scary people from history. At least I think that's what they were supposed to be. The young Glenn Beck fan took note of the prevalence of "Legalize Pot" signs, and then the Burning Man float. "Did you see Puff the Magic Dragon?" she asked, with a roll of the eyes. Hits, Misses, and A Missed Opportunity In the stage show served up by Stewart and Colbert, the humor at times felt forced, especially in the deliberately odd pairings of performers: Mavis Staples with Jeff Tweedy, Ozzie Osbourne with Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens). The latter pairing was particularly odd, since neither man is known for his tolerance: Osbourne, while front-man for Black Sabbath, famously bit the head off a bird at a business meeting, and Islam made comments in 1989 that seemed to concur with the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, which called for the writer's execution. One segment featured a mock debate between Colbert and Stewart in which Colbert, in the guise of his right-wing talk-show host persona, extolled the value of fear. Much of the segment had a Sesame-Street quality to it, with Colbert explaining why we had to fear Muslims, for example, only to be answered by Stewart ushering Karim Abdul-Jabar onto the stage. A similar bit was done around robots, with Stewart using R2D2 this time as his foil. But amid all that came a devastating series of video montages that illustrated the fear-mongering of the news media, whether over terrorism or the "great danger" posed by wearing flip-flops.
Nothing to be afraid of.

Nothing to be afraid of.

photo © 2010 A.M. Stan for AlterNet The most searing montage was saved for last, one in which Glenn Beck was featured prominently -- calling the president a racist and progressivism a cancer -- but also MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews, all in snips in which they charged either Tea Partiers or, in Olbermann's case, Rush Limbaugh, with being racist. Alan Grayson's "Republicans want you to die, and die quickly" speech from the House floor, which he made during the debate over health-care reform legislation, was also featured. There was also a snip of Frank Schaefer, who has written for AlterNet, referring to the religious right as "a village idiot." Right-wing figures in the montage included, in addition to Beck, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity, as well as Ann Coulter. Fair? If you're judging by who started it, no. If you're judging by the veracity of the claims, mixed. (I think it's pretty safe to say the radio talk-show host who played a song parody called "Barack, the Magic Negro" is, if not racist himself, aiding and abetting racism.) But if you're judging by tone alone, then, point taken. Still, for all the service Stewart and Colbert provided to their country by bringing a multitude of well-behaved liberals to the Mall on Saturday, they passed up one giant, important opportunity. They could have asked their audience -- which reaches far beyond the mild-mannered mob on the Mall that assembled this weekend -- to simply vote. If they're right -- that most Americans just want a sane political discourse -- then they could have done an even greater service by urging all those sane Americans to get to the voting booths this Tuesday, and pull the lever for somebody who's not crazy. Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the name of Ozzie Osbourne's former band, and the species of animal whose head he bit off. H/t digby. For more of Adele Stan's photos of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, click here. Jon Stewart's closing remarks at the Rally to Restore Sanity.