It would take the sharp satire of Aristophanes, Voltaire, or Jonathan Swift to accurately describe the political landscape in America these days.
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can’t do it. And their Rally (with a capital R!) in Washington last Saturday was arguably the most infantile and useless event since the Children’s Crusade. Happily, less calamitous.
Originally, the two comedians were going to hold separate rallies: Stewart announced his would be to “restore sanity”, Colbert said his would be to “keep fear alive”. Somewhere along the line, they merged, and the resulting slogan was inscrutable: Restore Sanity and/Ã³r Fear.
Nevertheless, the hyped-up publicity drew a few hundred thousand people to Washington. (Were they gearing up for Halloween? Many of them wore bizarre costumes.) They came from all over the country, were mostly young, and one can assume they could afford the trip — they probably were not homeless, jobless citizens. They came to see their media idols, stomp to some loud music, and lose themselves in a wildly cheering mob.
“Bread and circuses” — but there were no breadcrumbs, just some crummy jokes. And an appeal for everyone to be kind and “give way….like when you’re driving a car”.
There have been times in our history when marching on Washington was a serious business: The pitiful throngs of the Great Depression, the idealistic champions of civil rights, the angry protesters of the Vietnam War. But these days, thousands will march to the capitol (not on the capitol) just to hear an evangelical tirade or to applaud some wisecracking entertainers.
And our entertainers, too, have changed. They have become prime-time pundits and philosophers. Can you imagine (are you old enough to remember them?) Fred Allen and Jack Benny of radio days babbling about politics over the air? Can you picture Sid Cesar and Milton Berle of the early television age engaging in political repartee? Even our most caustic stand-up comics, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, did not set themselves up as political gurus.
Most of all, remember Bob Hope, a great humorist and humanitarian who, during World War Two, traveled overseas to entertain our troops. (Okay, Stewart flew to Baghdad last year with his 30-member production crew to tape a show, which was as much for his audience at home as for the troops.)
Nor can I imagine anything like this crazy Rally happening anywhere else in the world — only in America, only for Americans. I watched it live, in Paris, on a big screen in a Scottish bar. The event was organized by the Young Democrats Abroad, and the place was packed with jubilant expatriates. Even three thousand miles away, the excitement of the afternoon caught on.
But what’s exciting or funny about an economic recession, rampant unemployment, homelessness, and poverty? Marie-Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.” Stewart and Colbert said, “Send in the clowns.” In times like these, that is neither clever nor comic nor constructive.
And perhaps it was that inappropriate nonchalance that toppled the election three days later.