The Missing Middle

Today, a formidable crowd of well-dressed, sunglassed Americans attended the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert "Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear" on the Washington Mall. I watched it on C-SPAN. A sort of variety show-meets-stand-up-meets-political-rally, the (mostly) satirical event featured Stewart/Colbert tag team banter, live performances (from the likes of Cat Stevens, Ozzy Osbourne, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow and Tony Bennett), and the sort of hilarious video montages and comedy bits you'd find on an average episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

Stewart insisted that the event was non-partisan and merely a call for a more moderate, sensible political discourse. Reflecting his familiar brand of comedic/passionate/insightful media critique, Jon Stewart's refreshingly sincere (and well-crafted) 12-minute closing address rightfully lambasted the media for perpetuating extremism and make our polarized political stalemate even worse by taking sides and riling up partisan audiences:

"We live now in hard times. Not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country's 24-hour politico pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder. 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 sudden, unexpected, dangerous-flaming ant epidemic... If we amplify everything, we hear nothing... The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker."

Elsewhere in the speech, Stewart made the case that the majority of American people aren't nearly as extreme or partisan as the Glenn Becks and Rachel Maddows of the world might indicate. Rather, Stewart suggested, most Americans live their lives in moderate, bipartisan ways, working "across the aisle" even with those different from themselves. His "Rally to Restore Sanity" was supposedly geared toward this group--those fed up with extreme partisanship.

But how apolitical was this rally really? As great as Stewart's general points were, and as amusing as the comedy routine was, I have to wonder: Did tens of thousands of people really travel to D.C. because they were "Moderate and proud of it!!" Did they stand up for hours on the national mall on the eave of a major national election, taking part in a satirical alternative to Glenn Beck's political rally, because they wanted to be neutral and nonpartisan?

Writing for The Guardian, Michael Tomasky suggests that Stewart's inistance on his audience's neutral political status is a bit misleading:

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 someplace 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 toward that same notion of neutrality. But I doubt that's what will show up on Saturday, and that's what worries me.

Indeed, a closer look at Stewart's rally today indicates that, despite what Stewart and Colbert said or did on stage, the event was decidedly an event of and for the political left. Camera pans of the audience revealed that plenty of young students and LL Bean professionals proudly broke out their old Shepard Fairey Obama "Hope" t-shirts and paraphernalia for the occasion, holding up irreverentsigns saying things like "Support the Right to Arm Bears," "God Hates Snuggies," "Yes D.C., There Are Democrats in Texas," "BP Was Framed by the Liberal Media," and "Make Falafel Not War."

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee was openly organizing events in conjunction with the rally, and liberals like Arianna Huffington were fundingfree bus rides from New York to D.C. for the rally. The presence of people like Sheryl Crow (who stumped for Obama in 08, has called Tea Partiers "uneducated" and this summer released "Say What You Want," an anti-Sarah Palin song) and Mavis Staples (who played at the inaugurations of Presidents Clinton and Carter) further gave the event the feel of just another Democratic party rally.

As admirable as Stewart's ambitions are, and as much as I agree with his media criticisms, I have to wonder about the possibility of an enthusiastic middle. In this day and age,  is a sizable moderate population really even possible? In the Internet age, where there's a fanpage or Facebook group or blog community to reinforce any and all perspectives and further isolate ideas from one another (ironically, in a medium based on linkage), how realistic is it to expect that humanity is going to cultivate a more mature, nuanced, complexity-friendly discourse?

I don't want to sound defeatist. I just sometimes despair when I look around and find such a dearth of nuance and moderation—even, lamentably, in a rally purportedly all about moderation. Instead of rallying for more productive bipartisan dialogue, the rally-goers today seemed more interested in having a condescending laugh at the expense of "the unthinking masses" who apparently can do nothing other than believe everything they see on TV.  The rally-goers certainly seemed unified more by their belief that Tea Partiers are brainwashed buffoons than they did by their bipartistan belief that Keith Olberman and Bill O'Reilly are equally egregious in their political punditry.

Moderation and nuance are not easy. But in today's world, they will be revolutionary. I agree with Andrew Bird when he sings, in "Lull": I'm all for moderation but sometimes it seems / moderation itself can be a kind of extreme.

Indeed, in a world increasingly defined by an ambiance of divisiveness, moderation is kind of extreme. But moderation is not something we can merely pay lip service to, or hold up as a rallying cry, even as we deride the "fringe" populations as uneducated dolts or misguided zealots. The definition of moderation is not that we purge ourselves of passionate debate or dismiss any notion of ideological difference. Rather, it is that we seek to value understanding and disagreement within the context of charity. It means we must lay aside our irony and condescension for the sake of dialogue, even if it seems like the other side is unwilling to listen.