What Was the Real Message from Jon Stewart's Rally? The Message from Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity

Posted by Emily Badger

Jon Stewart Rally
Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity Saturday must have reminded the 215,000 attendees of a lesson they learned 18 months ago at Barack Obama's inauguration: The bigger the crowd, the harder it is to have any idea what's going on.

This was, for most of the afternoon, a costume-and-sign party in the park, where thousands of people who couldn't glimpse a jumbotron and could barely hear the speakers could at least gawk at and revel in each other. We never set eyes on Jon Stewart, but we saw the gingerbread man, and a walking banana, and a horse's head on a grown man's body. An amateur documentarian interviewed a teenage boy about how he doesn't like Fox News 'cause they talk too much about Hitler. 

A U.S. Park Service police officer slipped open the tinted window of a security tower high above the crowd and started snapping photos with a telephoto lens. When he finally finds someone to translate that suspicious sign in Arabic, he'll discover that it says: "I have friends who are Arabic, Iranian and Israeli."

People turn out for an event like this more for the sense of belonging than the scene on the stage, but the big question of the say—was this a political rally? a joke? a party—still begged an answer.

"So, here we are..." Stewart said, and the crowd silenced. "I think we might have a moment, however brief, for some sincerity, if that's OK. I know there are boundaries for a comedian-pundit-talker-guy, and I'm sure I'll find out tomorrow how I have violated them." What followed was less a political speech than a sermon, a plea even more disarming than Stephen Colbert's curious Congressional testimony defending migrant workers. It's uncomfortable to watch comedians break character. But when funny people suddenly grow serious, the effect is somehow more powerful than what we get from even old hands at this rally business, like Obama himself.

"I'm really happy you're here, even if none of us are really quite sure why we're here," Stewart said. "So, uh, what exactly was this? ... I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions." Then he went on to knock off just about every criticism leveled at the event. "This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or to look down our noses at the Heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear—they are, and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times."

Here was the crux of the whole thing, a message that wasn't particularly novel but sounded so coming from a career comedian pacing with the U.S. Capitol at his back: We're not as messed up of a country as our media mirror reflects us to be, and we should take heart in that. 

"If the picture of us were true," Stewart said, "our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with marxists actively subverting our Constitution, or racists and homophobes who see no one's humanity but their own?" Then he pulled out the trump card, that one word that halts us in our tracks whenever it comes from an authority figure.

"We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. But the truth is we do, we work together to get things done every damn day." Just, you know, not in Washington or on cable TV.

It's nice to be told that we're already more or less sane, that most of us are generally well-meaning and thoughtful, and in fact, we could have probably skipped everything that preceded this for Stewart's 13-minute sermon on sanity. 

But now what? He gave no marching orders. He didn't tell us to go vote, or to stop watching the fun-house mirrors of cable TV, or to go make a new friend with a tea party patriot. His highest expectation, he said in closing, was only that people would show up—not that they'd take any action afterward. Maybe that's where he draws a line that lets him go back to his day job on Monday.

He'll be waiting, I'm sure, to see what the fun house says about his rally for sanity, so that he can make fun of those distortions, too. And it'll be interesting to see how they react. Nothing changes much when you preach to the choir. But if Fox and Friends, and Keith Olbermann, can commend any sanity in what was otherwise a soundly inoffensive afternoon, that might be a good start.