The Insane Thing About the Rally for Sanity

This column criticizes the Rally for Sanity. I don’t intend it to attack my many beloved friends who had a great afternoon in D.C. blowing off steam and embracing humor and catharsis at the rally or the goodhearted celebrities and musicians who participated. Saturday afternoon’s onstage lineup was entertaining, and the signs that creative rally-goers made were even more clever and fun. Kudos to the sloganeers, the creatively-costumed, the subversive or just merry bands of friends who went down to D.C with purpose or purposelessness. And particular kudos to the folks who brought pro-tax messages to the rally–I loved it and have never seen anything like it before.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with meeting the insanity of the Tea Party with irony, a tradition that began organically last spring when progressive infiltrators began showing up at Tea Party rallies with jest-filled signs.

And yet a major problem remains. The Rally for Sanity’s organizers and the mainstream coverage of politics that they were explicitly critiquing actually have a lot in common. They are both exemplars of the same overarching flaw in our so-called progressive and intellectual class. It’s a problem of timidity in the name of politeness and a confusion of equivocation with objectivity. It’s the mistake of being scared to engage with and sift through ideas because one side’s ideas might prove to be right, and so instead reducing political debates to those about “tone” and “message.”

Everyone on both sides needs to calm down, this flawed outlook implies. Really? Who on our side is threatening to bomb clinics? Who on our side is calling each other baby-killers? Who on our side is pressing for xenophobic immigration laws that would separate families and strand young children?  

But no, we all need to calm down. So the extreme right-wing will keep spouting violent rhetoric and accusing us of being godless un-Americans while well-intentioned people like Stewart and our President himself will ask “why we can’t just get along?” claiming that those of us (often those of us with wombs) who genuinely find the political moment threatening are overreacting. And so they will address their rational plea to an in-the-tank audience that already wants harmony, an audience that can be as uncomfortable with heated rhetoric from its own side as it is from the opposition. Obama and Stewart could say “let’s be friends” and “you’re a total d-bag” to Glenn Beck supporters, and the ensuing response would probably have the exact same level of disdain and outrage because they’re not really listening.

So yes, the rally’s wry nonpolitical “we’re above all that” tone made me deeply sad, even as I chuckled at signs pointing out their own limitations: “My political beliefs cannot fit on a sign.” I was sad because instead of mocking the Tea Party for hating gays and women, for believing lies that our president is a terrorist and a Muslim, and for (in angry confusion) supporting with votes the same billionaires and corporations who have robbed them of jobs and financial security, the rally mostly mocked the Tea Parties for, well, rallying. And that’s distressing because the one quality of this hate-spewing movement that we progressives should be emulating is their ability to show up en masse and get angry and focused on their political goals.

The masses gathering at rallies is, in fact, a crucial part of the process of change. Look at the effect that hundreds of thousands of Obama rallies had on his core constituents during the last elections–we were fired up and ready to go, right? Sure, rallies can feel futile at times. But the Tea Partiers remember what we knew two years ago. A rally itself won’t get a victory in policy. But it will get media attention and send attendees back home fueled up and eager to get organized online and in local political groups–and by donating money. And that is how agendas get passed. Our opponents’ anger is going to send them to the polls on Tuesday, while Stewart and his ilk’s “moderate” frustration with that anger is going to send people home from this weekend rally psyched and energized… to go where, exactly?

Not to the polls, not to canvass, not to phone-bank, apparently. Because Jon Stewart refused to even politicize the afternoon’s discourse to the level of “please vote on Tuesday” or “google ‘get out the vote efforts’ so you can be part of this political process.” Or the benign “think about what issues matter most to you personally, and then find someone who can help get those issues out in the open and support him or her.”

Stewart was probably utterly scared of being painted as a liberal counterpart to Glenn Beck this weekend. He begged the media (which unsurprisingly has completely failed at covering the rally in an un-bewildered way) not to paint him as scornful of the Tea Party or Beck’s followers. And he’s right. He wasn’t really targeting them in particular; he was just spoofing all people who care a lot. He has chosen to take on irrational people for their passion and their involvement, not for their irrational beliefs. And in doing so he’s fallen into a trap laid by the very same mainstream media he so despises, doing the same dance away from the term “liberal” as they do by following their creed: avoid analyzing the issues and just analyze their presentation.

Personally, I’d love to have seen us counteract the Beck event with a rally to protect women’s right to choose or to advocate for gay marriage or to plead for peace or to do all three and legalize marijuana too, despite the fact that such rallies don’t change minds in Washington. Because it would have reminded us that specific issues matter, whether they’re being whispered or shouted about. No matter how much I love things that are “meta” and ironic and laugh-inducing–I’m a pop culture blogger after all–a rally to make fun of rallies is just not my cup of Tea.

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  • scottistoxic

    This rally was about smug self-satisfaction at not being “extreme”–at the cost of ignoring or minimizing some very defining truths about the USA right now. Two (yes, TWO) ongoing wars, a full-on attack on reproductive rights with a violent leading edge, an attack on immigrants worthy of the name “fascist”…shall I go on?


    I’m not sure when it happened, but liberals seem to have given up on wanting to change the world and make it better. That’s an extraordinarily dangerous situation when we’re faced with an angry white movement of people intent on making things worse.


    It’s time to stop worrying what people are going to call us, and get busy understanding the truth, and acting on that basis to turn things around.

  • truthseeker

    We need to learn to differentiate between opinion and conviction.  An opinion is merely a preference in a continuum of options.  A conviction is rooted in the conscience and cannot be changed without changing that which essentially defines the person.  In a pluralistic culture, an opinion should not be given the same passion as the weight of a conviction.  


  • shewho

    but every person I spoke with there is extremely activist, and informed. I was part of a team of six Democratic canvassers in my Delaware neighborhood Sunday, and we ran into two other teams, while we were out there.


    The people I knew going to the Rally are all activists, and the people I met and talked to there were, too, and from all over. They took half a day off (mostly due to the fact they couldn’t live tweet because the cell service tanked) to say, “We have concerns, but we’re not insane.”


    I’ve been politically active a long time. Rage doesn’t get it done. Rage is like a sugar high. The left may not be picturesquely enraged, but they’re working.


    Stewart may make fun of passion, but most of the people there couldn’t even hear him. We were there with our own issues…and okay with that.

  • sarah-seltzer

    As I said, I wasn’t criticizing the individuals who went, many of whom did seem really involved and thoughtful, but rather what the rally says about the left as a movement and the message it sends out to the wider population. And I did talk to some attendees who said they wished it had been more political, so clearly there was a broad swath of opinions and vantage points on Saturday!

  • positivemitch

    …and so does Barack Obama. And that is why, no matter how well-intentioned these guys are, you can’t expect too much out of them. The minute John Stewart gets off his monologue and does something broader, he’s got to tone it down himself.


    Most of the top “liberals” out there have had a tough time stepping to the left. That’s why we’ve forgotten how right you are that “progressives should be emulating… [the Tea Partiers’] ability to show up en masse and get angry and focused on their political goals.” The antiwar protests in 2003 were a good example – they didn’t stop the war, but they did lay the political groundwork for an opposition that led to Obama’s election in 2008 – which was also full or rallies.


    If you see this as being a conventional rally, it falls short. It says “don’t be too passionate.” I suppose I’m not disappointed myself because I’ve seen it from the beginning as a comedic exercise with a more subtle message: stop the jaw-jaw for a sec and listen. It’s just too bad that Stewart is hamstrung in his own place in the rightward-shifting political climate to feel he can elaborate better on that the way he would have in 2006, for example. But such is the walk of a comedian.

  • rachel-larris

    I guess he would say you/we/the pro-choice activist community overblown the threats of extremists. It’s hard times, not “end times” for clinic operators and those that work in them. (Then again Jon Stewart is extremely uncomfortable talking about abortion. I think because there is no safe “middle” ground and even if reasonable people can disagree, someone’s way is going to prevail).

    I will say that the amount of time that Fred Phelps is referenced I think is often unfair because the Phelps cult does not resemble even other far-right protesters. They are a class of themselves — publicity seeking. I almost wish there were less “God Hate __” joke signs because it gives the Phelps clan too much credit. They’re nobodies. Only representing themselves.

  • saltyc

    (Then again Jon Stewart is extremely uncomfortable talking about abortion. I think because there is no safe “middle” ground and even if reasonable people can disagree, someone’s way is going to prevail).

    Exactly why the dude has never impressed me, over-rated IMHO.  I have seen him throwing the abortion issue to the Right, saying they have a point there, and not even taking a breath before saying it’s different with other, much more important, social issues that he does defend vociferously.

    He’s a very talented comedian, but come on.

    The whole reason we have lost so much ground is that “liberals” in the public eye are too weak-kneed to take this on.

  • truthseeker

    Beck agree on some significant points.  For instance, they both believe we need to watch out for genuine racists, unlike people like Juan Williams.  Why, I ask you, would those at the rally on Saturday, poke fun at those people that Glenn awarded for taking up his 40 day challenge?  Are those who are convicted in their souls that homosexuality and abortion are wrong truly hateful in their hearts? 

  • forced-birth-rape

    “Are those who are convicted in their souls that homosexuality and abortion are wrong truly hateful in their hearts?”

    ~ Yes! I grew up with them, they are hateful! They keep most of their hate in the closet, they are more hateful then people know. ~

  • prochoiceferret

    For instance, they both believe we need to watch out for genuine racists, unlike people like Juan Williams.


    Correct. The fake racists will perpetuate prejudice against minorities, and hold up their end of systemic racism, just like real ones. But they won’t have any idea what to do with a pitchfork and noose!


    Are those who are convicted in their souls that homosexuality and abortion are wrong truly hateful in their hearts?


    Of course not! Bigotry ceases to be bigotry if you really, truly believe in it. That’s why we respect the beliefs of all the people in history who were convicted in their souls that Blacks and/or Jews were animals.

  • edward-craig

    No, we should point out the insanity from a safe distance.

    We don’t need to go insane in reaction.

  • kirkaiya

    Due to being unable to go in person (I’m originally from Maryland, so I wish I was there), I watched the rally streamed live on the web.  Reading your article, I sympathize with your position – and the dearth of actual progressive and liberal rallies to push back against the very real threats to hard-won rights that many right-wing politicians pose.


    But…. I can’t help feeling you’re putting responsibility – blame even – on Jon Stewart, when his role in our society is, and has been, as a political satirist.  His job, so to speak, is to point out the hypocrisy of people in power.  Is he, personally, more liberal than conservative?  Clearly, he is.   Are the tea-partiers and their candidates easier to mock and satirize due to being bigger hypocrites than most of those on the left?   Yes again.  Does that mean that a professional satirist, whose mission in life is mocking hypocrites and stupidity by those who govern us (and to make us laugh) has some obligation to take up a fight that would destroy his very ability to act as a trusted source for millions of younger Americans?  I don’t agree that this is true.


    His message, as I saw it, wasn’t that people should be passionate, or that there aren’t threats (he explicity said that there are), but that we needn’t (and shouldn’t) dehumanize people who disagree with our views.  They are not literally out to kill us all, despite the rhetoric that we hear.


    Finally – I would say this:  the people who are serious about staging political rallies should get out there and organize one.  Stewart’s career is as a stand-up comedian (I saw him at the Hancock Center in 2001, much funnier than his show even), and satirist.  He’s an entertainer.  The responsibility to organize en masse against the conservative minority lies with the liberals and their grassroots groups, not with Jon Stewart.

  • saltyc

    Exactly,  people listening to him are consuming an entertainment product. He’s a clown, but one that doesn’t take risks. But the problem with Jon isn’t that other people aren’t rallying, it’s what he is saying and It’s distraction, diversion, a pretend rally. The article nails the problem with his taking up a crusade with an empty program.

  • truthseeker

    Who is suing the government to remove crosses from cemeteries? Who has filed lawsuits to remove ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegience? Who’s trying to tell doctors and nurses and pharmacists that they have to participate in medical procedures that violate their religious conscience? Who’s banning Bibles from schools?

    In other words, who is forcing their point of view on whom?

  • prochoiceferret

    Who is suing the government to remove crosses from cemeteries?


    I don’t know. Who is suing the government about that, anyway?


    Who has filed lawsuits to remove ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegience?


    That would be Michael Newdow. Now, I have a question for you: Who obviously doesn’t know how to use Google?


    Who’s trying to tell doctors and nurses and pharmacists that they have to participate in medical procedures that violate their religious conscience?


    No one. In this country, you have the right not to do what your job requires. And your boss has the right to fire your ass for being lazy. Isn’t capitalism grand?


    Who’s banning Bibles from schools?


    No one. Students can take Bibles to schools, and can even hold Bible studies on school property. Teachers or other faculty of public schools, of course, cannot proselytize, from the Bible or any other holy book, because of that little thing called the First Amendment.


    In other words, who is forcing their point of view on whom?


    Right-wingers… and, perhaps, the Founding Fathers.

  • invalid-0

    I can’t stand the tea partiers because they are extremists. I actually agree with SOME of their viewpoints. I can’t stand all the BS coming from both the extreme right and the extreme left. The sanity rally was more than a commentary on the tea party. It was making fun of the media (all of it, not just Faux News) that has allowed the fringe groups of this nation to dictate the agenda. We need more rationality, more discussion, more thought, and more sanity. We don’t need more polarization and more ranting and raving from the lunatic fringe. If you don’t get that, it’s no wonder that you don’t get the sanity rally.

  • truthseeker

    First of all, who is Jon Stewart to call for a return to civility in public life?  Stewart may often be funny, but he’s also a plain thug with his propensity to use the “F-word” on people whose politics he doesn’t like.  The first thing he might have done to restore sanity would have been to apologize to Sarah Palin for directing that foul epithet at her on-camera, during the 2008 election campaign.  This kind of obscene insult in public is sheer thuggery and a descent into the barbarism from which Stewart’s weekend rally was supposedly rescuing us.  His call for a return to sanity is as convincing as Son of Sam’s appeal not to commit murder.

    During his 2008 election campaign for the presidency, then-candidate Barack Obama called for an end to the red state-blue state antagonisms in favor of the concept that we Americans are all members of “the United States.”  Yet it was President Obama who actually referred recently to opponents of immigration reform as “our enemies” in an interview with a Hispanic TV station.  “Enemies” is not even a term that he uses for the Iranian regime that is dedicated in its opposition to the U.S. and is helping America’s actual foes, the Taliban, in Afghanistan.

    Jon Stewart and ‘Generation I’ by David Aikman

  • forced-birth-rape

    Sarah Palin needs to apologize to every raped women and little girl in this country, and so does all the other pro-rape creeps who keeps telling use who have been raped how much they would love to force use to stay pregnant and then have another round of extreme vaginal pain courtesy of our rapist. Sarah Palin thinks rape is no big deal and so does every one who likes her.

  • arekushieru

    The f-word isn’t that big of a deal, TruthSeeker.  I don’t know why you would think it was.  Being called the ‘b-word’ is FAR more problematic because it targets a certain group of people.  Which you anti-choicers like to use to great effect.  Thanks.

    It is NOT an insult and is NOT a descent into barbarism.  Puhleaze, MANY of these words didn’t carry ANY negative connotation until we bastardized them.  Some words, like ‘bitch’, should never have been introduced into our lexicon because, as I said, they automatically targeted a certain segment of the population (whatEVER species you refer to), but other words, like ‘fuck’ only referred to an action.  How is THAT an insult, I would like to know….

    America’s ‘foes’ are Al-Qaida.  Americans waged war in Afghanistan illegally.   And, because the Taliban are not the ones Americans were seeking, there, they are not the Americans enemy.  But, Americans are the Taliban’s enemy. 

    It is very telling, though, that you never mentioned Saudi Arabia or Israel.  Perhaps you agree that these should not be the United States, et al other Americans’, enemies?  If so, evidence of hypocrisy and lack of sanity. 

    Which leads *me* to believe that Jon Stewart’s rally to restore sanity really WAS about doing just that.