Jon Stewart, Barack Obama and the Rally to Restore Sanity

Is tomorrow’s gathering going to be lefty, liberal, centrist or none of the above?

So, are you excited/intrigued/inspired/annoyed/amazed/delete-where-applicable at the prospect of the US comedian Jon Stewart's much-awaited Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall in Washington, DC tomorrow?

It is going to be a unique, if weird event, and even fans and supporters of Stewart – and I count myself in their number; watching The Daily Show on More 4 is one of the highlights of my evening! – are slightly confused about its exact purpose and aim.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer noted:

It started seemingly in fun, as a satirical poke at Fox News pundit Glenn Beck, whose Restoring Honor rally near the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August drew from 87,000 to 1,600,000 people, depending on how wacked-out your estimate was.

But many locals who plan to go to Washington Saturday – in carpools, chartered buses, packed trains – aren't laughing. Asked why they're going, they're dead serious.

"Because the political scene has become truly insane," Karen Kaplan of Ambler wrote in an email.

Allan Lundy, 63, a research consultant in Wyncote, said, "The political discourse has been so nasty and negative that there has to be a countervailing current that's more moderate and more reasonable."

When did this rally cross over from clowning to protest? Can you have a joke if for thousands it's no laughing matter? Will real protests break out at a faux event?

This week, the president of the United States and commander-in-chief, Barack Hussein Obama himself, decided to join the build-up to the rally (and the subsequent midterm elections on 2 November) by appearing as a guest on The Daily Show. The episode was screened last night on More 4 and it is worth a watch.

According to the Washington Post, nearly three million people watched Stewart's interview with the US president – the Comedy Central late-night show's third-biggest audience ever. ("The two bigger episodes?" asked the Post. "Both back in '08 – when Stewart interviewed presidential candidate Obama (3.58 million viewers) and, separately, when he interviewed the future first lady Michelle Obama (2.92 million)." I guess it's an understatement to say the first family are, ahem, popular with Daily Show viewers!)

Still, Stewart could teach the "professionals" a trick or two about interviewing politicians and asking tricky questions. Here's the Philadelphia Inquirer's take:

Welcoming but tough, Stewart lobbed cannonballs, not softballs: "You ran with such, if I may, audacity, yet legislatively it has felt timid at times," which drew a sharp comeback from Obama. Stewart painted Democrats as the tomcatting lover-man in a blues song: "Democrats this year seem to be running on 'Please, baby, one more chance'."

Obama told him "Not true" at least once, and said, "Jon, I love your show," before knocking down a question. Never mind the oddity of a president going on cable TV six days before a midterm election; it was a fascinating tightrope walk for Stewart, who has been attacked (loving every moment) by conservatives for favouring the left and by lefties for not favouring the left enough.

Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast website wrote, "I think Stewart passed the initial exam," but wondered whether any rally could live up to this much hype.

In recent days, there have been some interesting pieces published by liberals and lefties about the Daily Show and the Rally to Restore Sanity. Has Stewart bitten off more than he can chew? Can an avowedly liberal comedian and TV show host really take a stand in the "middle" between the "extremes" of left and right, and does he risk losing credibility with his core audience/supporters if he does so?

Here's the liberal Michael Tomasky, of the Guardian, who happens to be a long-time Obama supporter:

But potential danger lurks here, because Stewart is trying to pitch his event to an audience that I don't think is really his. From the time he announced the rally in mid-September, Stewart has pegged it as being aimed at the sensible, busy Americans who simply want a non-ideological sanity to prevail in Washington. He spoke of the "seventy to eighty percenters" – the people in the great middle – who eschew both extremes. The night of the announcement he mocked both the right-wing Tea Party movement and the liberal anti-war group Code Pink, whose members interrupt congressional hearings with various boisterous antics while dressed like drag-queen versions of Jackie Onassis. Playing off a phrase known instantly in America and dating back to Louis Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March, Stewart wants a "Million Moderate March". To get his viewers into the intended spirit he offered some samples of the sort of placards he'd like to see at his rally. In this age, when Tea Partiers march carrying placards of Obama wearing a keffiyeh or sporting a Hitler moustache, people know they should pay particular attention to placards; Stewart suggested that an emblematic one for his event would read: "I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler."

The conflict arises in the fact that this sober and earnest middle is not really Stewart's audience. Stewart's core audience is news-junkie liberals. As is Colbert's. It's people like National Public Radio host Terry Gross, who, in a recent live dialogue at Manhattan's venerable 92nd Street Y, thanked Stewart for being the last thing she sees at night, which permits her to "go to bed with a sense that there is sanity some place in the world". It's young urbanites and students. It's the out-of-place blue fish swimming the waters of the vast, red, Middle American sea. The moderate married couple with a child or two who are too busy for politics – his ideal marcher – are for the most part probably also too busy for Stewart.

This points up one problem with the Stewart approach that liberals don't talk about much, which is his occasional and to me very awkward attempt to make Republicans laugh, too. I used to watch the show more devotedly in the Bush years, and I thought I began to notice that Monday nights (The Daily Show runs Monday to Thursday) were make-fun-of-Democrats nights. His audience tried gamely to laugh at routines about John Kerry, but they wanted Dick Cheney jokes. Stewart evidently felt (and still feels) the need to have something vaguely resembling balance. Well, it's a noble impulse. But it always felt to me like he was straining for a neutrality that wasn't there in his heart. He seems to be pitching the rally towards that same notion of neutrality. But I doubt that's what will show up on Saturday, and that's what worries me.

Writing over at HuffPo, the lefty Medea Benjamin, of the anti-war Code Pink, takes a much harder line on Stewart and his rally:

Stewart is courting people who do not want to open their window and yell, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more!" As he says on the Rally for Sanity website, he's looking for the people who've been "too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs)".

So let's get this straight: people who were so horrified when the US invaded Iraq that they joined millions of others to protest are not sane? We shouldn't speak out against Wall Street bankers whose greed led to millions of Americans losing their jobs and homes? It's irrational to be angry when you see the Gulf of Mexico covered in oil because BP cut corners on safety? Don't get upset when the Supreme Court rules that corporations are people and can pour unlimited funds into our elections?

Stewart often roasts the warmakers and corporate fat cats on his show, but he seems to think that his viewers should be content to take out their frustrations with a good belly laugh.

When Jon Stewart announced the Rally to Restore Sanity, he included CODEPINK among the "loud folks" getting in the way of civil discourse. He also equated progressives calling George Bush a war criminal with right-wingers calling Obama Hitler.

. . . But it's too bad that Jon Stewart, the liberal comedian, is putting anti-war activists, Tea Partiers and black bloc anarchists in the same bag. And it's sad that he's telling his audience – many of whom are young, progressive thinkers – that activism is crazy.

An anonymous assistant on The Daily Show's blog chastised CODEPINK on line. "Dipping hands in fake blood or screaming over everyone just makes you look crazy and then the rest of the country ignores you." He said that we should, instead, focus on solutions.

CODEPINK has been proposing solutions since the day we started. We risked our lives meeting with UN weapons inspectors in Iraq right before the US invaded to see if war could be avoided. We have repeatedly travelled to Afghanistan to push for reconciliation. For the past eight years we have been posing solutions about how to deal with terrorism, how to extricate ourselves from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how to make us safer at home. Whether under Bush or Obama, our voices of sanity have been drowned out by a war machine that makes billions selling weapons and hiring mercenaries.

Meanwhile, we've witnessed the agony of mothers who have lost their sons in these senseless wars, the unspeakable suffering of our friends in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lavish spending on war while our schools and hospitals are gutted.

It was because of this insanity that we began to interrupt the war criminals during their public appearances, shouting – yes, shouting – for an end to the madness. It was because of this insanity that we put fake blood on our hands to represent the hundreds of thousands of innocents who died as result of their lies. In our post-9/11 24/7 news cycle, we learned that the more audacious and outrageous the action, the more likely we were to get our anti-war message into the national conversation.

. . . Jon Stewart says he wants to restore sanity to Washington; so do we. We'll see you out on the mall, Jon.

I have to say that I can't help but sympathise with Benjamin: it is nonsensical and offensive for liberals/centrists/Serious People/etc to equate – in the name of "balance"! – lefty peaceniks who protest against pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with Tea Partiers who turn up at town-hall meetings with placards equating health-care reform with the Nazi Holocaust and describing Obama as a "communist" and a "secret Muslim".

Still, should be a very interesting and perhaps even historic gathering of folk on the Mall tomorrow. Starts at noon. Tune in . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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