Packing the National Mall with almost a quarter-million people in hopes of restoring sanity might sound perfectly sane, but the crowd assembled for Saturday’s rally led by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert was nothing short of organized, comedic mayhem. By 8 a.m., Metro train cars had trouble closing. People were scaling trees and light posts to glimpse the stage, and the AT&T network was so overloaded by participants that iPhone use was all but impossible for some.
Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally in early August attracted roughly 87,000 people. Numbers projected by the same firm put the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear at over 215,000 attendees. Marketed as a moderate march, the day’s events attracted people from all walks of life, spanning the political spectrum. Spectators included everyone from working parents to D.C.-area students and thousands of tourists who traveled miles to attend the event.
As someone who often labels herself as “too apolitical” for Washington, I found the rally to be an interesting mix of satire and showmanship. While I certainly agree that shouting matches, political gridlock and petty partisanship aren’t getting us very far, I can’t help but question how signs proclaiming “Fear the Amish” and “My taxes aren’t as high as I am!” do the country much good either. Funny, yes. Cornerstones to a new America, probably not. I’m not a political science expert, but even I know that those picketers probably didn’t do much to significantly change the nature of our nation’s political discourse.
Critics called it tedious; for those who hadn’t seen Stewart’s or Colbert’s popular TV shows, it might have been funny, but for loyal fans, it was a had-been-done routine. Others claimed the speeches weren’t significant, but rather the number of people who came out in support was more telling. The question remains, however, as to what all these people were out in support of. The message of the rally was, not surprisingly, overshadowed by the wit and humor our generation seems to love.
The problem, perhaps, is this: Though humor can lighten the mood and provoke a smile, it often becomes a defense mechanism. In the case of Stewart and Colbert, their satirical personas, albeit wildly popular, come into direct conflict with their political motives. The two comedians do little to differentiate their television characters from their real beliefs, a problem many had with Colbert when he appeared before Congress in October.
Is it ever really possible for celebrities to espouse political theory that’s taken seriously? While it’s relatively commonplace for politicians to become instant-stars (contemporary political figures grace the pages of US Weekly or People Magazine frequently), the opposite move from celebrity to pundit goes against the current of the celebrity culture.
How far can satire and performance go? We can’t live our lives in character, and sometimes the state of affairs is no laughing matter. As a society and maturing generation, we’ve chosen satire, irony and backhanded wit as our weapon of choice. But humor, unfortunately, is a double-edged sword. When you’re always cracking a joke, it’s hard to know when you’re being serious.
In Stewart’s final speech, the actual message the rally promoted became clearer. “Sanity” is good and “fear” is bad, but the idea of decency was finally brought to light: We’re all in this together so we might as well stop sensationalizing everything and everyone. A noble and timely message, but it’s hard to reconcile how such an outrageous event can call the kettle black when the rally itself was a TV spectacle and carefully calculated performance.
Give a man a mask, and he’ll say anything. Give a generation a reason to write funny slogans, and they’ll gather. Give a comedian a microphone and a stage and he’ll use it. It’s a balancing act that needs adjustments. The media might be guilty of overreacting, but firing back constant satire and tongue-in-cheek humor is just as strong a reaction. Hiding behind laugh tracks doesn’t ensure sanity.
Hillary Oneslager is a freshman in the College.