What the Stewart rally means for Transition

Sarah Palin is so important that this look alike showed up at the Rally To Restore Sanity

Sarah Palin is so important in today's dumbed-down media that this look alike showed up at the Rally to Restore Sanity. Photo: Anwyn Cook.

Listening is a much needed virtue, says Transition movement co-founder Rob Hopkins. And, he says, it’s crucial to the effort to relocalize on which the Transition movement makes its case. That’s why the model of civility in Transition has a welcome ally in the recent Rally to Restore Sanity. Gathering to do anything begins first with being able to gather peacefully—to listen, to honor, to be present. And never more so than now.

That’s why all the media grousing about the rally makes little sense to me. The way I see it, gripes about the rally seem to be more about pundits’ expectations of what the rally would achieve than either Stewart’s ambitions, or, what a rally of this size and type could achieve in today’s cultural climate. And expectations, as both psychology and religion tell us, are the source of most of our disappointment.

Yet for a rally where allegedly nothing happened, it sure is being parsed a lot some two weeks after the event.

You say potato, I say potato

Safely, Fox and the Right mostly ignored the event, save Glenn Beck’s commentary that the comedy was atrocious, the music great, and the message on target. But instead of spending any time talking about the worth of that message, about the destructive force of the echo chamber media world of which he is a part, or pledging to change his own atrocious and corrosive behavior in response, instead Beck just kept hammering on about the comedy. Clearly, he was in no mood to take the media criticism seriously.

It was left to the Left then, to really tear the rally apart, in the form of standard bearers like Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann.

Maher, who lampooned the show as a “million meh march,” took Stewart to task for failing to offer a meaningful message—in fact for offering a wrong-headed message—and from that, for failing to galvanize attendees into some kind of post-rally movement whose sweeping tide would flow back into the communities of America ready to change our country, or at least to prove that the Left is a kinder, gentler, more intellectually correct people. And this because Maher’s show leaves his audience with action item take aways each night? Hardly.

Olbermann, who offered a much more invested analysis of the rally than did Beck, (with whom he fears he is being equated), nonetheless took it took far, overly defending himself against a perceived attack. Did Stewart say that Fox and MSNBC, and everyone in both media organizations were exactly the same all the time? No. But he did remark on the toxicity of the existing paradigm and its dangers to the republic.

Is he really so wrong?

Just because Fox started it, and is the big bully on the field, doesn’t mean that having brands on the right and the left is doing anything to help the nation. And therein lies the issue.

As Stewart explained to Rachel Maddow, “My problem is it’s become tribal.” And, as Marshall McLuhan presciently wrote in his seminal work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, the medium IS the message. Nowhere are those realities and those dangers more evident than in our pervasive, divisive, and distracting modes of mass communication.

Now I’m not advocating either the demise of MSNBC, arguing for its equivalence with Fox, nor calling for the Left to roll over in the face of a bullying, wide-reaching, distorting conservative media. Far from it. But I do think the media Left misses the point of the rally and what it was capable of achieving.

We came, we saw, we went home

Why did I and about 250,000 people (or more) go to see a couple of comedians on the National Mall for the “Rally to Restore Sanity?” An abiding answer seems to be, “just cuz,” though that, it would appear, is not good enough.

People packed in like sardines at the Rally to Restore Sanity. Photo: Anwyn Cook.

People packed in like sardines at the Rally to Restore Sanity. Photo: Anwyn Cook.

Moreover, critics ask, with such a sweep of people making the effort to be there, Why didn’t Stewart and Colbert seize the opportunity to make something more of it?

Of the 200,000-plus people who attended, a great many sported signs parodying political issues, self-mocking, and expressing a certain vague nothingness, funnily. In a country with manifold problems, steeped in layers of structural hyper-complexity, could we really have done more?

For years the ordinary American person has seen so many actions and developments strip our collective life of meaning—our national life that is—and we’ve been powerless to do anything about it. National elections in dispute; wars; corporations given increasing power; a perpetual political campaign polarizing us into the very tribes Stewart describes; banking, business, and finance scandals that are rewarded by hijacking the average schmoe’s taxes; industry bailouts; wealth exported from the middle class to the wealthiest individuals; business doing nothing to “create jobs” while still enjoying those Bush tax cuts; no seriousness in either politics or news to address the myriad problems in our nation concerning energy and its future consequences; a “managed economy” masquerading as a free market; and our children impoverished and parents challenged by corporate dominance of media and the ubiquity of electronic technology…and on and on I could go.

What has any given American been able to do about this political corruption, media saturation, rudderless direction, and challenging economy? America has no history of a general strike, leaving us to do little more than either individually and passively watch our tribes of choice, or, more widely, to deliver a decade long shared yawn in the face of our declining republic, and our waning empire.

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

The Beatles once sang, “You say you want a revolution, well, you know, we all want to change the world…” In fact, that’s pretty true. Whether it’s paid folks on TV or our friends at a cocktail party, everyone has a take on how to change the world. But the world has gotten too big, the tools too complex, and the pace too fast for any of us to keep up, much less change it. So we grouse, yawn, and laugh. Then we go to bed and do it all again the next day.

When Stewart and Colbert planned the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear they clearly named it in a somewhat tongue in cheek manner—does anyone “sane” really want to “Keep Fear Alive?”

They also planned for 60,000 people and got about four times that. As has been said before, most of us couldn’t even hear because the rally was many times its expected size. All most of us cared about at that point was having our numbers counted, to chuckle at each others’ signs, and to know that we weren’t alone in finding the entire apparatus of American political life a sham at best. From this were we supposed to concoct a spontaneously cogent response to our numbers—which were likely echoed across America by all those who couldn’t come—and turn it in to the clarion call for a new paradigm? In a 24/7 media echo-sphere that message would have gotten out how exactly? Or lasted how many minutes before being displaced by some Lindsay Lohan shenanigan or another? Or a tweet by Sarah Palin?

When I was a dance student at Virginia Commonwealth University we had to take a class called music for dancers. Our teacher, a devotee of John Cage, had a special fascination with the musical concept of juncture, or “the space between two sounds.” Just as this concept is often overlooked in music, it is certainly overlooked in today’s pervasive media world. The concept and experience of silence are both moribund today. If anything, to pause is to lose ground in the race to be king of the thought hill, if only for the twenty seconds it takes for someone to post in on your venue with the exact opposite of what you just said.

It’s clear that technology has far outstripped our human (individual) and social (cultural) ability to keep pace with it, offering simply another assault front against anything resembling sanity. While the political tone may have been just as partisan and rancorous at the founding of the union, or during the Civil War, there’s a big difference between a pamphlet or political cartoon arriving at your village by horse after six weeks, or a speech at a rail station that is here and gone, and your pocket twitching every six seconds from a new Tweet, a video update, a nightly show, compulsive blogging, a radio rant, or your friend’s text commenting on the whole thing.

That 200,000 plus people gathered with few expectations, to have a little fun, and then to go back to the only options they feel they have was remarkable not for what it lacked, but for what it revealed. First, that people are capable of meeting peacefully, an important dry run for when a likely far less pleasant cause to assemble happens after the economy crashes or we become a third world country in the face of our utterly insane national energy, economic, and agricultural policies. Secondly, that the echo chamber has destroyed the ability for anything like cream to rise to the top and stay there—it’s all but impossible to impact let alone influence long term our national conversation. And finally that if all we have left are some laughs, that’s a whole helluva lot better than crying, or anger.

If over two thirds of us couldn’t hear Stewart, it wouldn’t have mattered if he had had a greater message anyway, even for the TV audience. And, you have to admit, if he had, that’s what we’d be tearing apart instead. Our media world created the no-win situation Stewart was in. He would have been skewered if he had a more pointed message. And he was skewered for not having enough of one. (Or maybe he just hurt someone’s widdle feelings?)

Wage slaves unite, general strike!

In contrast, the Transition movement offers a quiet, boots on the ground alternative to the national stage, playing out in communities all over America and the world. Its message of hope, action, and intelligent preparation for a changing paradigm goes mostly unnoticed, and likely will, given the utter unseriousness of America. Towns, communities, and people are preparing for a decline by fashioning community responses to the energy, economic, and ecologic crises facing us today. These communities will be successful as long as national level politicians and media don’t make it any worse.

These kids looked like Eastern Europeans at a General Strike. Do any of them even know what that is? The media sure isn't teaching them. Photo: Anwyn Cook.

These kids looked like Eastern Europeans at a General Strike. Do any of them even know what that is? The media sure isn't teaching them. Photo: Anwyn Cook.

We really could use one of those velvet revolutions, and we could damn well benefit from a general strike*. But given the utter unlikelihood of either of these things, it doesn’t seem too surprising to me that most rallygoers, and Americans, just want to go about their business unnoticed while aiming a few cunning wisecracks at the insular and self-important top tier. And that’s a start—a far more likely one than that 300 million of us are going to achieve spontaneous mass enlightenment, pierce through the national media’s delusions, unify, lead the feckless leaders, and fundamentally turn the tide of conversation as Maher, Olbermann, and Maddow might have wished.

But in our well behaved way we do want change. All we really ask is that you folks with the levers of power and bullhorns of media don’t fuck it up for the rest of us first.

*I hope I don’t end up under investigation for saying so.

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