Monday, November 1, 2010

Sanity/Fear from this Blog's Perspective

Thanks to our friend Erin scoring Special Guest passes at work, yours truly and my wife had a pretty sweet vantage point for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Saturday. From our spot we could not only see the stage pretty well, but more importantly hear the performances -- which seemed to be a pretty big problem given the "Louder" chants from the back.
Any attempt to digest what it all meant on Saturday must first acknowledge that for all but the last 15 minutes of the rally, the point was to put on a performance in the style of Colbert and Stewart's TV shows. The two ping-ponged their sanity/fear schtick's back and forth pretty effectively. Some of the musical content was questionable -- someone I had dinner with last night complained perfectly that they managed to make Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples boring, and then there was the Kid Rock piano ballad (!?!) -- but all-in-all it was pretty fun. Prince of Petworth has some cool pix of the crowd to check out.

What struck me about Stewart's speech at the end was how old-school progressive it was. Instead of partisan noise and hype, he argued, if citizens could only hear reasonable and impartial reporting on critical issues from the media then they would be able to foster the kind of informed decision making that democracy needs. Whereas the people really needed information from mass media, all they really get was a filter that manipulated them. Remove the filter, and the people's innate reasonableness would prevail more often than their raw emotional reactions. Fundamentally, that's what the humor on the Daily Show is all about -- ridiculing the filter. The show doesn't so much lean left as assert over and over, "they are fucking with you -- don't let them get away with it." And that's more or less what Stewart said Saturday.

And it's a message progressives like Mary Parker Follett and even John Dewey were asserting a century ago. Remove the interference from partisan handlers, yellow journalists, and ideologues of all stripe and democracy will function on its own accord. Follett and other reformers thought that nonpartisan, broadly representative forums for face-to-face debate on the civic level were the solution. Dewey believed in the saintly powers of experts to dispense the information the people needed in their deliberations before heading to the polls. Dewey was unique for believing this even after most progressives who had invested faith in the sanity of the American public had experienced the profound disappointment of World War I, when fear had overwhelmingly prevailed. Even after the war, the desire to keep fear alive, whether expressed through the Red Scare repression of radicals and unions, restrictive immigration legislation, lynchings, or the rise of a more mainstream version of the Ku Klux Klan, swamped the forces of sanity. A conservative sense of "normalcy" replaced Wilsonian Progressivism. On Election Day eve, this sounds vaguely familiar, no?

I don't mean to call Stewart naive here, because I fundamentally agree with his criticism of cable news. But for generations democracy has struggled with the sad fact that people would rather hear what they already believe parroted back to them than be presented with impartial reporting of policy debate. Fox and MSNBC are what they are because there's money in it. There's money in what the Daily Show does, too, especially through Stewart's often brilliant interviews of his incredibly-high-brow guests, but only through the hook of comedy.

Saturday demonstrated that mobilizing the sane is possible. But it's difficult, especially when fear can be conducted so masterfully by those whose interests are served by it. A hundred years ago, most progressives responded by taking their marbles and going home from the political game. It looks like the same thing's happening tomorrow, despite Stewart's best efforts.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if this same message will be repeated a century from now?

    Somehow we find a way to muddle through, though the coverage of the news has grown much more irritating over the past 15 years of my life, at least.