Live from the ‘Sanity’ rally: A Rabbi spends Shabbat with Jon Stewart [PART TWO]

The day before the rally, journalist Will Bunch wrote this in the LA Times:

“The dynamic duo of Comedy Central seem to have a similar Woodstocky vibe in mind — with fun and music — but they are also entering uncharted territory by seeming to elevate ironic detachment to the level of a political manifesto. One danger is that a rally that doesn’t meet the sky-high expectations of 200,000 attendees could undercut the hard-won reputations of both Stewart and Colbert for using comedy to speak truth to power in a way that traditional journalism has failed to do over the last decade. But a bigger issue is treating the challenges of 2010 — from rising poverty to unending war in Afghanistan to global warming, which are every bit as serious as those confronted on the National Mall in 1894 or 1963 or 1969 — with little more than humor and intellectual distance.”

Bunch’s first concern– that the anticipated throngs would not show up (a fear ostensibly shared by Stephen Colbert, forcing him to hide out in a Fear Bunker hundreds of feet beneath the rally before it began)– was unfounded.  More people than expected showed up, myself among them (as I didn’t respond Yes to the Facebook event, I wasn’t counted among the 223,609 expected attendees).  The fear that the Stewart-Colbert duo’s reputation might be undercut by an underwhelming turnout couldn’t have been further from reality.

But the second question remained– now that you have us here, what are you going to do with us?  Is “humor and intellectual distance” the appropriate response, even from two self-described comedians/pundits/talker-guys, to the nation’s serious woes?

I talked this over with Rachel (in her last year of an American History PhD at University of Virginia) over coffee before we left. I said it would be a shame for Stewart not to use his significant political power to do something bold, to influence his audience to vote and vote wisely.  She thought for a moment and asked, “Do you really want Jon Stewart endorsing candidates?  Isn’t his entire power located precisely in his ability to walk and to mock both ends of the spectrum? To draw attention to the quality of our political discourse, but not participate in it?”

We let the question hang there– for me it would be answered later, in the final moments of the rally.

At first the rally did seem like just a live, musically-enhanced version of the Daily Show.  You can go to Comedy Central and see the minute-by-minute run-down of the three hour event, but suffice it to say that the first three quarters of it was indeed an entertaining blend of music (Cat Stephens/Yusef Islam’s Peace Train dueling Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train, with the compromise being the OJ’s singing Love Train; the Roots, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow and Tony Bennett), comedic skits and face-offs between Stewart, representing rationality, and Colbert, representing fear.

As entertaining as all that was, by 2:30 pm, I was hoping desperately that there would be something more, something substantial… something inspiring.  I wasn’t the only one.  I sensed from the crowd by that point almost a cognitive dissonance between our trust in Jon Stewart, and our fear that he may let us down today.  We’d come for more than just a live staging of the Daily Show.  We prayed he would preach to us. 

When, at quarter to three, Stewart said, “And now I thought we might have a moment, however brief, for some sincerity,” I, along with 300,000 other sane, reasonable folks on the Mall, held our breath.  The moment we had been waiting for: his sermon.

Stewart’s point, a point that he has been honing in on for years, is that the media has a responsibility to the public to inform us accurately of the realities of our world, and is failing miserably as it descends into shouting matches, stale talking points and fear-driven drivel.  And we buy it.  The media, he says, doesn’t create the problems it reports on, but it makes them a lot harder to fix.  In his own words, “The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

And then I got it.  He isn’t talking about politics.  He’s talking about how we talk about politics.  And in that way, taking a particular side on the current political debate would have compromised his basic point.  Because he’s not talking just about this election; he’s talking about an epidemic of bad journalism that plagues both the liberal and conservative media.  It’s FOX and it’s NBC, and it’s KTLA and it’s NPR, and it’s Rush Limbaugh and it’s Air America. Some commentators actually shout and cut people off, and some speak in a normal tone of voice but nonetheless insinuate fearful tidings and condescending opinions. I have no idea whom to trust, because I don’t know what qualifies anymore as real news and real commentary. It makes me not want to listen to news anymore, not want to talk politics, not want to talk problems nor solutions.

Me, and 300,000 people on the National Mall yesterday and thousands more in front of TV screens all around the country, have been longing to hear a message of encouragement to participate in the political conversation with patience, with trust, with reason.  Sanely.  Quietly.  With humor.  We approach most of our lives this way.  We talk rationally every day at work, with our friends and coworkers, we don’t let our differences get in the way when we order coffee, work on projects, or share the highways … why can’t we have the same measured approach when talking about our country’s most challenging issues? 

Truly, it’s a good question, Jon.  Thank you for reminding us to ask it.


Missed PART ONE of ‘Rabbi at the rally’? Click here

Rabbi Lizzi Jill Honeyrose Heydemann is the Revson Rabbinic Fellow at IKAR, a spiritual community in the westside of Los Angeles