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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder