It’s tempting to completely dismiss Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear as nothing but a giant Halloween parade, having as much relevance to promoting civil debate as a giant Halloween parade.
Looking at the roster of musical and comedy acts, part of me wants to dub it “The Daily Show/Colbert Report Live 3-Hour Shark-Jumping Variety Show Special”.
But, entertainment aside, my biggest problem with it was that the message about civility in political discourse was weak.
There was, in my opinion, one point at which the rally focused effectively on promoting the cause of civil discourse and debate, and denouncing name-calling and derisive caricatures. But I wish that part had gone further and been applied more rigorously.
The point of the rally I have in mind was the montage played leading up to Jon Stewart’s speech toward the end of the rally, the one showing various politicians and pundits engaging in name-calling and derisive caricatures: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Alan Grayson, Keith Olbermann, and others.
This was the best, most on-point part of the rally: naming the names of the name-callers.
Stewart’s speech itself was OK. His use of footage of cars merging peacefully as they entered the Lincoln Tunnel was a good illustration of how people often compromise and cooperate, and of how we are in some ways instinctively good. (Though, you could argue the contrary: driving, particularly in and around New York City, often brings out the worst in people.)
And Stewart was right to point out that much of the name-calling we endure in politics is over-blown and phony: people in politics routinely work with one another, even though they’ve derisively caricatured one another as being the embodiment of evil, greed, racism, and godless communism.
(A great example of this is Glenn Beck, who recently insisted that he doesn’t consider progressives to be enemies, and then went on to call them every name in the book.)
But Stewart’s criticism didn’t go far enough. He left a lot of prominent name-callers out. In particular, he left the presidents alone. And our presidents — Obama, Bush, Clinton, Reagan, and others — have contributed mightily to demonizing their opponents and to poisoning our political discourse.
Case in point: If the Stewart/Colbert rally failed or jumped the shark at any one point, it did so the previous Wednesday, when President Barack Obama appeared on The Daily Show.
Obama was proclaimed as a great bipartisan uniter for his 2004 Keynote Address to the Democratic Convention, in which he declared there’s no Red States or Blue States, there’s no liberal America or conservative America, there’s only the United States of America. But he also has a long history of calling Republicans names.
After being elected to the Senate, Obama took to calling Republicans names, calling them Social Darwinists who don’t care about helping poor people. And nobody seemed to notice the contrast when Obama remained silent as Alan Grayson (D-FL) said that the Republican health care plan was: “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.”
Obama’s demonizing of Republicans continues to this day with his highly dubious claim that the financial crisis and recession are solely the fault of Republicans, and not due at all to Democrats.
But, when President Obama sat right in front of him to talk politics, Stewart never challenged him on any of that. Stewart never challenged Obama’s hypocrisy in calling for civil debate and criticizing Republican incivility on the one hand, while on the other hand engaging in and condoning incivility himself.
(President Bush behaved the same way, saying that he wanted to “change the tone” of politics in Washington, but then calling Democrats names and staying silent as other Republicans did the same. And, again, not much was made of this hypocrisy.)
Of course, if Obama had had any indication that Stewart was going to challenge him on this, he’d have never shown up on The Daily Show to begin with.
But that’s what we need: even-handed, comprehensive civility. Not just criticizing incivility when one party does it, but criticizing anyone and everyone who does it, regardless of position or party affiliation. And if that scares certain people off of appearing on some forums, good. If they aren’t willing to face up to their own name-calling, then they should be deprived of an audience.
The nation deserves a president, a media, and a civility rally that will go after all offenders, not just some.
The Rally to Restore Sanity fell short of that goal.