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Photo: Alicia Solsman

21st Century Situationists

Struggling to figure out what Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity was all about? Good.

By Josh Potter

It was a strange feeling. Heading uphill from the National Mall, the din of 215,000 people behind us, my friends and I walked silently. I’d stood with some of these folks across from riot cops, tear- gas-buffering bandanas around our mouths, at the height of the anti-corporate globalization movement. With others, I’d attended Burning Man, our epoch’s great more-defying social experiment and alternative to “default reality.” But I’d never been in a crowd this large before, nor one so, well, shruggingly matter-of-fact about its assembly. Back in the car, somebody finally said it, that they felt like we’d just participated in some generation-defining, culturally significant event. The trouble—or the beauty—was the fact nobody could say what that significance was.

To complicate things, my group didn’t really even make it to the “show.” The Metro was choked with rally-goers, so we joined the clouds of costumed pedestrians drifting through the D.C. streets, eventually finding their way past the White House and the silent no-nukes lady, who’s been camped out across Pennsylvania Avenue since 1981 in a comparatively quaint display of direct activism, and down toward the mall. Along with tens of thousands of late-arrivals, corralled to the periphery and into a strange sonic dead-zone, our hopes of actually entering the lawn and witnessing the “event” were quickly dashed. Somehow, in an era when every minute detail of reality is documented and made available for instantaneous viewing, and digital avenues allow for “participation” regardless of physical presence, that didn’t seem like such a big deal. But it did make us wonder why it was important to so many people to actually be there.

Content to watch it all on YouTube later, we wandered the sea of signs. In a glorious send-up of both Tea Party-co-opted populism and a prior left-wing inability to consolidate its grassroots message, Smurfs equated Gargamel to Hitler, the Joker proclaimed that “God Hates Bats,” and responsible barbers made their plea to “Shave the Whales.” Echoing the rally’s official line as a “million moderate march,” some held signs like “Subtlety Now,” “Change Takes Time,” and “Don’t Be a Douche.” Somewhat more politically direct were messages like “Ignorance is not a political position,” “Atlas Sucked,” “Legalize Gay Pot,” and “The only Beck I listen to has two turntables and a microphone.” A Muslim woman held a sign admitting she scared Juan Williams at the airport, and a man in colonial garb waved a Gadsden flag with the slogan “OMG! Snake! Help! Snake!”

Photo: Alicia Solsman

In Jon Stewart’s closing address, dubbed his “Moment of Sincerity,” the event’s most direct statement of purpose, he poked fun at “hipper, ironic cats,” who are inclined to put quotation marks around the event’s “clarion call” for “action,” yet everything “America’s Most Trusted Newsman” does features this self-conscious sarcasm and meta-analysis. In fact, it’s what he’s known for. Far from a repudiation of irony (better yet, “refudiation,” to echo one Palin-lampooning sign), Stewart’s “rally” was proof that satire and spectacle are some of the most potent tools we have in reframing political discourse by stepping outside its quotation marks. And that, beyond any specific political agenda, was the rally’s ultimate goal—a massive performance art piece meant to comment on the political conversation rather than participate in it, something members of the crowd were actually more adept at than the Daily Show cast itself.

Footage of the actual show proved a bit tiresome, a ham-fisted rendition of the mock-rivalry Stewart and Colbert play out every night, drained of winking subtlety for the sound bite-happy mass media that would eventually repackage the event. “It doesn’t matter what we said or did here today,” Stewart acknowledged. “It matters what was reported about what we said or did here today.” So, in a way, with humorously exaggerated attendance figures and absurdist stagecraft, the more vacuous the content was, the stronger and more disorienting the commentary became.

The event was widely cast as a response to Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor, which, of course, on many levels it was. But the excruciating conversation over whether or not the event was partisan largely misses the point. I believe the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear is best understood as a contemporary extension of the French Situationist movement of the ’60s, a mass inversion of rhetorical logic, meant to break the spectator’s passivity toward the spectacle and turn the obscuring force of mass media back on itself. Using pop cultural references and superficial Internet memes like the double-rainbow guy and “Hide ya kids, hide ya wife . . . ” in the context of a once-powerful political forum was an attempt to wipe the slate clean, to rise above the fruitless tit-for-tat schoolyard shouting match to which our political discourse has been reduced by the 24-hour news cycle and corporate spin-doctoring. Hence the paradoxical power of a Dadaist sign like “Intentionally Blank” or “Three Word Slogan.”

Don’t confuse these as statements of bourgeois contentedness or narcissistic disregard (as many on both the left and right have). The fact that so many people turned out in-the-flesh is proof that mobilization is still possible, but this event proved that control of the streets are no longer the stakes. It’s the terms of the conversation that are worth rallying over. And this is not to say that the message is without fault. Guy Debord would likely roll in his grave to hear a corporate celeb like Stewart compared to a Situationist. Stewart erects a faulty dichotomy when he lumps MSNBC in with Fox News, misses a prime opportunity to start an intelligent conversation about socialism when he accuses Marxism of “subverting the Constitution,” and remains limited in his ability to address the root economic cause of the media “perpetual-panic conflictinator,” while being contractually wed to it. But, ultimately, this event wasn’t about Stewart and nobody came expecting a revolution. The rally’s goals were perhaps overly modest, and with Republicans reclaiming the House on Tuesday, it’s hard to see how the conversation has been affected. But for a moment there, as rally-goers and newscasters alike struggled to divine significance, it felt like a quarter-million of us caught the conflictinator with its pants down.

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