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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The government needs more on airports than just Chris Grayling's hunch

This disastrous plan to expand Heathrow will fail, vows Tom Brake. 

I ought to stop being surprised by Theresa May’s decision making. After all, in her short time as Prime Minister she has made a series of terrible decisions. First, we had Chief Buffoon, Boris Johnson appointed as Foreign Secretary to represent the United Kingdom around the world. Then May, announced full steam ahead with the most extreme version of Brexit, causing mass economic uncertainty before we’ve even begun negotiations with the EU. And now we have the announcement that expansion of Heathrow Airport, in the form of a third runway, will go ahead: a colossally expensive, environmentally disastrous, and ill-advised decision.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, I asked Transport Secretary Chris Grayling why the government is “disregarding widespread hostility and bulldozing through a third runway, which will inflict crippling noise, significant climate change effects, health-damaging air pollution and catastrophic congestion on a million Londoners.” His response was nothing more than “because we don’t believe it’s going to do those things.”

I find this astonishing. It appears that the government is proceeding with a multi-billion pound project with Grayling’s beliefs as evidence. Why does the government believe that a country of our size should focus on one major airport in an already overcrowded South East? Germany has multiple major airports, Spain three, the French, Italians, and Japanese have at least two. And I find it astonishing that the government is paying such little heed to our legal and moral environmental obligations.

One of my first acts as an MP nineteen years ago was to set out the Liberal Democrat opposition to the expansion of Heathrow or any airport in southeast England. The United Kingdom has a huge imbalance between the London and the South East, and the rest of the country. This imbalance is a serious issue which our government must get to work remedying. Unfortunately, the expansion of Heathrow does just the opposite - it further concentrates government spending and private investment on this overcrowded corner of the country.

Transport for London estimates that to make the necessary upgrades to transport links around Heathrow will be £10-£20 billion pounds. Heathrow airport is reportedly willing to pay only £1billion of those costs. Without upgrades to the Tube and rail links, the impact on London’s already clogged roads will be substantial. Any diversion of investment from improving TfL’s wider network to lines serving Heathrow would be catastrophic for the capital. And it will not be welcomed by Londoners who already face a daily ordeal of crowded tubes and traffic-delayed buses. In the unlikely event that the government agrees to fund this shortfall, this would be salt in the wound for the South-West, the North, and other parts of the country already deprived of funding for improved rail and road links.

Increased congestion in the capital will not only raise the collective blood pressure of Londoners, but will have severe detrimental effects on our already dire levels of air pollution. During each of the last ten years, air pollution levels have been breached at multiple sites around Heathrow. While a large proportion of this air pollution is caused by surface transport serving Heathrow, a third more planes arriving and departing adds yet more particulates to the air. Even without expansion, it is imperative that we work out how to clean this toxic air. Barrelling ahead without doing so is irresponsible, doing nothing but harm our planet and shorten the lives of those living in west London.

We need an innovative, forward-looking strategy. We need to make transferring to a train to Cardiff after a flight from Dubai as straightforward and simple as transferring to another flight is now. We need to invest in better rail links so travelling by train to the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh is quicker than flying. Expanding Heathrow means missing our climate change targets is a certainty; it makes life a misery for those who live around the airport and it diverts precious Government spending from other more worthy projects.

The Prime Minister would be wise to heed her own advice to the 2008 government and “recognise widespread hostility to Heathrow expansion.” The decision to build a third runway at Heathrow is the wrong one and if she refuses to U-turn she will soon discover the true extent of the opposition to these plans.

Tom Brake is the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton & Wallington.