Thursday, November 04, 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity: A meta-political landmark. I hope.

Happy political Halloween! Instead of spending a day working on a costume or watching artsy horror movies from the 60's and 70's, I went to the Rally to Restore Sanity. It was a last-minute decision, made on the fly because I knew it would be a cultural landmark, and I saw the opportunity. At least, I hope it will be seen as a cultural landmark. It was a little microcosm of liberalism, in all its beauty and its vulnerability.

I didn't see all the mad performance pieces at the front; I couldn't hear Yusef or Ozzy or Rahzel. I didn't catch the keynote until I got to a video after-the-fact. You may think that this gave me a narrower insight into the dynamic of the event, but au contraire! It gave me a better one! Because, no matter how diplomatic John and Stephen tried to be, the tenor of the rally would be set by the attendees. If they had been Black Bloc and revolutionary insurrectionists, or even straight-edge punks chanting slogans, the politics would have been pretty one-sided, no matter how the speeches themselves were handled. By wandering among the signs and participants, I got a feeling for the mood of the crowd and the tone of the event as a whole, rather than for the specific performances, which (being affiliated with a major media network) are obviously going to be sanitized.

What I found was pretty impressive: the rally as a whole -- both the on-stage rhetoric and the expressions of the crowd -- were strikingly on-message. Leftist solidarity and socialist advocacy were generally absent, and almost all the signs were meta-political, targeting the language and media of politics, rather than the divisive issues that make up its content. The fears of people like Timothy Noah at Slate, who felt the event automatically had a strong liberal bias that made its message of moderation disingenuous, were pretty much unfounded. And the massive crowd was universally calm, cordial, well-behaved, good-humored, and easy to get along with, even in stressful positions (like shut out of a full metro car, even when they'd been waiting for hours to get downtown).

Now, here's where I'm coming from. I'm a guy who indulges the unhealthy habit of reading highly partisan blog posts from time to time (on both sides of the aisle) and then reading the comments to each of them, wherein the tantrums of the few trolling attention-whores tend to drown out any useful dialogue going on. I get this feeling from the mainstream outlets themselves, too, at least in the past year or so: that participating in the democratic discourse is always a losing proposition, because any argument is automatically hyper-politicized, linked with dozens of bad (usually irrelevant) arguments, and invalidated by proxy. Every attempt to participate is turned into a shouting match, and thus, expressing any political position whatsoever is enabling trolls and reactionaries, and is therefore self-defeating.

So this rally was genuinely refreshing. John and Stephen (and Yusef and Ozzie and the guy next to me with a big "Use Your Inside Voice" sign) had a cohesive message, contrary to some of the nay-saying that's gone on since the rally... and it's a cohesive message I can get behind: discourse needs to be civil. In so many words, we were trying to say, "We respect, and expect, maturity and restraint from our political media, and we will reward it." And there were a lot of people saying that. And it's actually one of the first large-scale, mass-media sentiments I can get behind, because it outflanks the hyper-politicized culture-war rhetoric. Stewart and Colbert stepped back, took the whole situation into account, and fashioned a message that responds to it at a higher level than mere partisanship. It's a little more complex, and it's far more gratifying.

Of course, with the palpable relief comes the fear that many of us leftists (and also tons of moderates) probably still have, especially after yesterday's election: the fear that this whole thing will be overlooked, because it's not sensational enough to be interesting. Unfortunately, no matter how high-level the thinking is, Stewart and Colbert are still subject to the media conditions that created this shitty situation in the first place.

Fenzel from Overthinking It puts it rather nicely:
The rally isn’t going to solve Stewart’s problem with the press — it’s not even going to come close to solving the problem. The economic fundamentals are too heavily stacked against it. The profit motive for media organizations to keep going the way things are dwarfs what they can make just producing news. They can make a lot more money — for their own books, for their own pockets, and through various complex business relationships — selling de facto editorial control of news outlets to private companies (that will turn profits by influencing government policy) than they can make selling time to the Pine-Sol lady and the Scooter Store.
So while I can call this event a "landmark," it won't even be a footnote if it doesn't have some effect on the material conditions that govern these things. And it will be hard, especially if you follow a Marxist framework, like Fenzel seems to... it won't have much effect on the economics of the situation.

But here's where my hopes for the rally come in.

First, it's important to note that shows of solidarity have a powerful effect, if they can resonate with the media. The Tea Party has proven this -- their power isn't in their spending or their economic force, but rather in their visibility, and their ability to reframe the political environment. This rally was indeed a response to the Tea Party (a common theme on the signs), and it makes reframing the discursive environment its explicit business. The exposure from this rally may give everybody -- not just leftists or teenagers -- an essential tool that they didn't have before: a new sensitivity to media sensationalism, which might have been affecting them for a long time without their even knowing it. Maybe, because of this rally, a new crop of people will be able to roll their eyes and change the channel when someone accuses a university professor of "hating America," or a Christian teenager of being a mindless conservative drone.

I especially hope Stewart and Colbert reinforce the younger generation's resistance to outrage and sensationalism, because they're both the most vulnerable to bad discourse, and the its most powerful potential foe. They need to build up a media immune system, and if their influence works out right, Stewart and Colbert could act as vaccines against the festering media conglomerates.

Also, as a progressive, I have some hopes (didn't mean to give away my political persuasion, but there you have it). I think the conservative perspective is currently dominating the media environment because it's created a foundation of outrage and reactionary rhetoric, and this has served its message very well. This is one very important reason for the partisan shift in yesterday's elections. Though the rally came to late to have any effect on the elections, I hope they can do something new: provide a parallel foundation for the leftist platform to be consolidated and articulated. If a discursive framework of moderation, diplomacy, and constructive, hopeful, humorous, self-aware dialogue can be laid, then the progressives may stand a chance of forming a cohesive platform, based on our core values: compassion, economic and social equality, and market capitalism supported by universal social programs providing for basic civil rights (both negative and positive, outlined in documents like the Bill of Rights and the UDHR).

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