The first irony of the major outlets’ prohibiting their employees from attending this weekend’s Stewart/Colbert rally is that their effort to preserve impartiality was, in fact, an admission of bias. Unless I missed the memo, no such edicts preceded Glenn Beck’s event in August, probably because it never occurred to anyone that legions of reporters would want to take part in a conservative faithapalooza on the spot where Martin Luther King once stood.
The New York Times went to great lengths to draw the event as “a Democratic rally without a Democratic politician,” but that wasn’t the rally I saw. Indeed, the second irony of the ban on journalist participation is that Stewart’s fake rally was truly apolitical, even anti-political. (This is in contrast to Beck, who presented an indisputably political rally keynoted by a politician, Sarah Palin, while straight-up lying that the event was “not about politics.”) The only specified target of the performers’ ire was cable news, and everyone already knows radio and print journalists don’t think anything on television can be called journalism. It was left-leaning only in its satirical disdain for right-wing hyperbole. This irony may be a political critique, but its overall effect is to promote a juvenile political disengagement.
While it may be heartening to progressives that Stewart’s turnout walloped Beck’s, they should be deeply concerned about the event’s message to the people the movement must rely on to advance the causes it cares about. By relentlessly parodying the divisive tone of political debate without offering an alternative model for politicking, the event’s net effect is to make walking away from the political process seem like a rational decision. Or, even worse, a principled one.
In the middle of the rally, Stewart introduced the musician Kid Rock by saying he was going to debut a new song that uniquely embodied the spirit of the day. Here’s the chorus:
I hear screaming on the left, yelling on the right,
I’m sitting in the middle trying to live my life.
Because I can’t stop the war, shelter homeless, feed the poor.
I can’t walk on water, can’t save your sons and daughters.
I can’t change the world and make things better.
But the least that I can do is care.
Thank you, Kid Rock, for giving us an anthem to self-congratulatory disengagement. A reasonable person finds both the right and left equally irrelevant and the problems of the world so big that he cannot affect them. A reasonable person does not “try to walk on water,” but it’s OK to sit on our couches as long as we feel bad about how much stuff sucks.
“Call us Generation I. I for irony, iPhones, and the Internet,” wrote Alexandra Petri for The Washington Post. “We know what happens to people who take themselves seriously. They become bent and broken with care and develop arterial plaques. Sometimes they’re elected to political office . The rally exists in a parallel universe in which millennials are politically active.”
Frustration with divisive politics and distaste for the drudgery that is the bulk of political work are perfectly legitimate. But creating a “parallel universe” where satire is a stand-in for engagement is the political equivalent of Never-Never Land for citizens who won’t grow up. Stewart may be right that a reasonable person should be fed up with over-the-top political rhetoric, but they can do a lot more than “care.” The only way to change the tone of the political process—and the pundit operations that serves as its midwife—is to prove that an alternative model works. That means it’s not enough to feel bad or laugh, though it’s understandable to need a break from politics to recharge. If you want things to be different, though, you have to get involved in the process and, yes, choose sides.