That wasn't a rally. It was an inside joke for 200,000 people.
Not that I'm complaining, exactly, about Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert's Oct. 30 "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear."
I was on one of eight buses chartered to Washington, D.C., by veteran TV/radio personality Lynn Cullen (who hosts a daily webcast on City Paper's website.) My busmates included a young activist with the Anti-Defamation League; a minister who touched off a religious crisis by marrying two women; and a progressive local attorney. And it felt good to be together, jammed in the Metro with a crowd that -- unlike government-hating Tea Partiers who'd come for Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally in August -- felt no cognitive dissonance while riding public transit.
Clearly, they weren't expecting us all: The rally's sound system was totally inadequate. But so what? You don't go to events like this to hear a message, so much as to be one. As Stewart himself concluded, "Your presence was what I wanted."
And the crowd was at least a bit less white than Tea Party events I've attended: There were a lot more Muslims, for starters. It was also far more diverse in terms of age and outlook, ranging from hippie to hipster, from signs that were earnest (one called for "historically accurate textbooks") to those that mocked the very idea of holding signs. ("Down with slogans," one slogan asserted.) There were some genuine lefties there: Exiting the Smithsonian Metro stop, we were greeted with a clutch of activists explaining "Obama is not a Communist; we are; and you should be one too." But no one seemed all that interested.
In fact, the Stewart and Beck rallies had a lot in common. Both avoided explicit partisanship, even if (and partly because) 90 percent of their crowds would vote in lockstep Nov. 2. So both used code words guaranteed to flatter their audiences instead: Conservatives see liberals as heretics who hate their country, so Beck's rally spoke of America's goodness and the virtue of religion. Liberals suspect Tea Partiers of being dangerous morons, so Stewart and Colbert offered talk of America's goodness and the virtue of reason.
And both were united in disdain for, and obsession with, their own media coverage. On the bus ride back that evening, we read aloud from a Daily Beast online dispatch. Media writer Howard Kurtz told us that Arianna Huffington, who'd spent $250,000 busing people to D.C. for the event, "beamed as she watched the proceedings. 'It's going perfectly,' she said ... 'No one could say it's political.'"
That's right: Arianna Huffington spent a quarter-million bucks so people could not make a political statement. Even in this season of runaway political advertising, that's pretty conspicuous consumption. We're facing years of inaction on global climate change, war in Afghanistan, a still-reeling economy ... and we're worried about looking political?
I don't want to minimize this thing. It's crazy that entertainers like Beck and Stewart command so much attention. But when your empire is in the bread-and-circus phase, it's no surprise when clowns take center stage. And at least Stewart -- and his fans -- know he's a joker.
Besides, if this had been an environmental rally or an antiwar march, would anyone have cared?
Noam Chomsky came to Pittsburgh two days after the rally, to be honored by the Thomas Merton Center. None of the local media covered his speech, though two Post-Gazette writers were there. At a gathering before the ceremony, I asked Chomsky what he thought of Stewart's rally. He admitted he hadn't paid much attention. "The coverage treated it like a kind of joke," he said. "But that's normal." He noted that Tea Party events customarily drew much more coverage than progressive gatherings like Detroit's US Social Forum. (Never heard of it? Exactly.)
That's why, for all his rally's media critiques, Stewart played by the rules: Keep it light. Offer celebs but no long speeches. You can't blame him: He's damned if he does, but ignored if he doesn't.
On the bus ride back to Pittsburgh, though, we passed through counties whose households were going to vote for Pat Toomey and Tom Corbett the following Tuesday. And in the gathering darkness, I wondered what we'd proved. Yes, we can furnish TV visuals too. But that's a long way from being heard. Or from having anything to say.