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Jon Stewart’s Civility Fetishism

Today Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert head to the National Mall in Washington, DC to host the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear." If we are to believe Facebook, they'll be joined by more than 200,000 of their closest friends. More than 800 satellite rallies are planned in 65 countries around the world.

While I admire the comedic duo for their persistent and principled criticism of our dysfunctional political climate and believe this mass mobilization is a terrific idea, Stewart's "call to reasonableness" is hamstrung by a fundamental flaw. In concocting a "Million Moderate March" Stewart has clumsily conflated volume with content, style with substance. In doing so, the fake news enthusiast risks trading in his sharp scalpel of critique for a clunky cudgel of false equivalence.

Stewart and Colbert have used humor to engage a whole generation in politics. Their ratings on Comedy Central are on par with Fox's Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, and they're attracting younger audiences than any other news source. In a recent poll, 46% of respondents had heard about their rally, nearly as many as the 56% who had heard of the House Republicans' "Pledge for America."

Yet in the run-up to the Rally to Restore Sanity, Stewart's ever-growing audience has been dished up a hefty dose of civility fetishism. While many are tired of the obnoxious and the obstreperous dominating the political news cycle, the ‘truthiness' of the matter is that the villains of history have all too often cloaked their iniquity in civility, convincing us the inequality du jour is simply the new normal. In fact, it has taken quite a bit of civil-and uncivil-disobedience to undo the damage unleashed by the zealous civilizers of the past.


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In his original call to action, Stewart lumped together the Tea Party Movement with 9-11 Truthers and anti-war groups like Code Pink. Later Stewart dubbed Belgian protesters demonstrating against state austerity measures "lunatics" on par with Tea Party activists who screech from the screen, "The only good communist is a dead communist." But by equating high-pitched tone with extremist politics, he plunks an unreasonable correlation at the center of his plea for reason. This logic touts the tone and tactics of the messenger in order to discount the message. Apparently, if you sport a suit and advocate unequivocally unreasonable practices like waterboarding, but do so in a friendly, down-home way using "your indoor voice," you may well escape Stewart's incisive wit. However, should you dip your hands in fake blood and attend a congressional hearing in order to make the completely reasonable argument that foreign wars are wasting precious lives and squandering scarce funds, you can expect to have the comedian slot you in the nutjob category.

Actually, there are quite reasonable reasons why protesters have become louder and more creative with their tactics. Over the last few decades, the slow, cold institutionalization of protest has dulled the knife-edge of dissent. Obtaining permits to exercise one's First Amendment rights have become par for the protest course. Mass mobilizations on the National Mall have fallen into the humdrum rut of gathering, rallying, marching, and scattering. Meanwhile, the wheels of democracy have been greased by an ever-increasing flow of special-interest cash, proliferating the perception that our elected leaders have become pawns to their donors. In order to get attention from these leaders-as well as from the mass media-activists have been forced to amp up their volume and their innovation. After all, if it isn't new it isn't news. All this has led to the high-decibel activism Stewart and his supporters have come to loathe.

Don't get me wrong. Today's rally is a welcome retort to the recent "Rally to Restore Honor" at the Lincoln Memorial. Stewart could use the event-which may well outdraw the Beck-Palin-Palooza-to offer a finer-grained analysis of which of "the loudest voices" are truly marring politics in the US. And the timing of the rally-a mere three days before the election-is impeccable. The key is what happens in the aftermath. Will the rally get the largely liberal audience pumped up to vote? Will the event coax self-proclaimed sanity restorers to rally for a day only to hop back onto the treadmill of everyday life? Or will it give people a taste of what it's like to take the streets for something they believe in, thereby opening a path for future political activity? If people walk away from the rally disappointed, seeing it as a rudderless stunt better suited for the television studio, will holding the event actually demobilize dissent?

One thing is for sure. Stewart and Colbert have the wits and the star-power to put together an entertaining escapade. This twenty-first century dynamic duo has a knack for slicing through the fog of dreary political predictability. If anyone can pull this off, they can.

Jules Boykoff

Jules Boykoff

Jules Boykoff is professor and chair of the Government and Politics Department at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. He is the author of "The Suppression of Dissent: How the State and Mass Media Squelch US American Social Movements" (2006), "Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States" (2007) and, "Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics" (2016). Boykoff is a former professional soccer player who represented the US Olympic Team in international competition.

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