article and photograph by Geoff Olson
On Oct 29, just a few days prior to the mid-term elections, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart hosted the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington DC. Although the “fake news” anchors disavowed any partisan purpose, the event at the National Mall was obviously structured as a progressive, comic response to the Tea Party’s vocal gatherings on the right.
When I heard of the Seattle Rally to Restore Sanity, an independently organized offshoot of the Washington, DC event, I was off and running. I drew up a sign of a tea-sipping beaver, with the caption “Canadians for Sanity” and drove south down the I-5.
On a drizzly Saturday morning at Westlake Centre, a string of comics and musicians kept the mood light for a crowd of over 2,000, with the MC leading the crowd in the Hokey Pokey as they waited on the big-screen feed of Stewart/Colbert’s gig from the capital. The sea of signs in downtown Seattle ranged from courteous (“Wage Civility”) to comic (“Step Away From the Tea”) to quotable (“Legalize Science”) to cosmic (“Be Nice, the World Ends in 2012 Anyway”) to incomprehensible (“I shaved my balls for THIS?”). My Canadian beaver placard was a big hit with the Yanks.
Over at the National Mall, the entertainment was sharp and colourful. Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) performed Peace Train and was interrupted halfway through by Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train. The two settled on a duet of Love Train. The Daily Show host got in some nice shots against US news media, calling it a “ 24 hour conflictinator” out to terrify the republic with scare stories of everything from underwear bombers to bird flu.
A backyard party for progressives
My optimistic self was pleasantly surprised that Stewart and Colbert’s rally reportedly sparked 1,160 mini-rallies by expat Americans, in 84 countries around the world. According to estimates from aerial shots, the rally at the National Mall was at least twice the size of the Tea Party’s “Rally for Honour,” hosted several months earlier in the same spot by the blubbering, bloviating Glenn Beck. Who could complain, given such a turnout? As one online commentator said, “Fussing at Stewart for not using his “political power” is like complaining that Martin Sheen didn’t turn out to be as good as a president as you thought he’d be.”
But my pessimist self was already stirring by the time I returned home. I recalled a lone figure standing out on the margins of the Seattle rally, wearing a ghoulish mask and holding up a mock-up newspaper with the words “OBEY” across the top. The masked man’s anti-corporate message didn’t quite fit in with the soft-focus, jokey memes floating above the smiling faces at Westlake Centre.
I thought back to another scene from Seattle a decade earlier when this masked figure would have fit right in. In late November 1999, the streets were packed, from the downtown core to the stadium, with tens of thousands of people, many in colourful garb, joined in song and solidarity. The carnivalesque, but uncompromising, atmosphere of the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” led to a surprise victory when activists surrounding the convention centre shut down the World Trade Organization through nonviolent resistance. The worldwide attention altered the complexion of several trade meetings thereafter. For a brief time, it seemed that people – that is, engaged citizens from outside the political or business world – could put their shoulder to the wheel of history and actually move it.
This rally in Seattle, like its big brother in DC, had a different spirit. Critics say it seemed more like an anti-protest – a meta-event for irony-minded slacktivists. While that’s probably too harsh an estimate, I heard no references at either rally, serious or otherwise, to BP’s oil spill in the Gulf, Wall Street corruption, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq or the desperation facing millions of Americans who are a paycheque away from homelessness. What I saw was a crowd of progressives having a big backyard party and passing around a Zinfandel-stained petition for more policy discussion. There were plenty of belly laughs, but no fire in the belly.
Watching the results of the US midterm elections a few days later, with a wave of Tea Party candidates shifting the US political spectrum that much further to the right, I began to understand some of the online criticism of the Washington gig, including The World Socialist web site’s headline: “Stewart/Colbert Rally preaches compromise and complacency. Many of those participating were drawn from relatively insulated layers of the middle class for whom the rally’s central theme – that there is not much to be angry about –resonated, at least to some extent.” Obama’s Democrats are continuing the pro-corporate and pro-war policies of the previous Republican administration, yet “the basic theme of the event was the need for a political consensus between the two parties in Washington and their allies in the media.”
Comic Bill Maher disputed Stewart’s notion that the left is just as much to blame for the level of discourse in the US as the right. He rejected his colleague’s “false equivelance” of MSNBC populist firebrand Keith Olbermann to Glenn Beck. “Keith Olbermann is right when he says he’s not the equivalent of Glenn Beck. One reports facts; the other one is very close to playing with his poop,” said Maher.
My optimistic self resonated with the light hearted tone of the rally. But my pessimist self was still skeptical. Do the times really call for polite offers of reasoned dialogue from Blue State progressives when furious, Fox-fed Red Staters aren’t even interested in facts?
Big guns and blind alleys
Hope has two beautiful daughters, said St. Augustine. Their names are anger and courage: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. It’s one of those ironies of history, already forgotten, that much of the Tea Party scene began as grassroots activism protesting Wall Street corruption, endless war and outsourced, offshore labour. In other words, the activists were addressing the real sources of their discontent. The tune changed when Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Network and right wing “rage radio” got in front of the parade and led the movement down a blind alley with ghost stories about gay marriage, the illegal immigrant menace and a Kenyan-born, Muslim-Leninist president. Wealthy benefactors like the billionaire Koch brothers ensured the money kept flowing into faux-grassroot groups like Americans for Prosperity, ensuring the movement kept focusing on the wrong targets. The Tea Party is now the well-funded tool of corporate elite, which already has at its disposal a host of well-funded think tanks, an overbuilt US defense establishment, a craven mainstream media and a rubberstamping US Supreme Court.
The Tea party has big guns behind it. But what armaments do the American left have? A handful of underfunded squirt guns like the ACLU, some low-circulation magazines like The Nation and Harper’s and clever ironists like Colbert and Stewart. “We’re not running for anything,” Stewart told reporters in his post-Rally press conference. “We do television shows for people that like them. And we hope people continue to like them so Comedy Central can continue to sell beer to young people.”
Like most self-deprecating remarks, this statement reveals as much as it conceals. Comedy Central’s parent company, Viacom, is a giant conglomerate with no interest in overly confrontational commentary. Stewart is clever and witty and his comic routines often nail the absurdities of the military-industrial entertainment complex. But he certainly learned his limit in April of 2009, after an episode of The Daily Show in which he described Harry Truman as a “war criminal” for ordering the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the next evening’s episode, Stewart didn’t apologize for the statement. Actually, he grovelled for forgiveness. He was obviously reciting the scripture from the suits: war criminals come from other lands, never the homeland.
The mere fact that many Americans now look to a stand-up comic for reliable information is a measure of how much the US news industry has failed its audience. As for the Rally itself, certainly, there are reasons for the non-confrontational atmosphere. At best, serious protestors across the Anglo-American world are utterly ignored, as they were in the millions during the nation-wide anti-war protests in the Bush years. At worst, they are harassed, corralled and arrested en masse, as they were at the 2004 trade summit in Miami and the 2009 G20 meeting in Toronto, the scene of the biggest mass arrests in Canadian history.
So the tepid Stewart/Colbert rally can be read as: a) dangerous appeasement with the far right; b) one of the few remaining avenues to bring people together who have no common cause with fear-friendly, right-wing extremists; c) a harbinger of a new kind of people power; d) all of the above.
The Liberal betrayal and yesterday’s reality
Thirty years ago, president Ronald Reagan began a fire sale of the American republic through “supply-side economics,” a euphemism for corporate tax cuts, deregulation and downsizing. Bill Clinton, possibly the greatest betrayer of the republic’s working class, piled even more public assets and services on to the bonfire, adding trade-deal kerosene. By the nineties, neoconservative radicals had control of the White House and the grey eminence of the US tax-cutting movement, Grover Norquist, used the imagery of baby killing to describe his mission: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
The Glass-Steagall Act served as a post-Depression firewall between investment banks and commercial banks. By legislating it out of existence, Bill Clinton handed out Zippo lighters to the pyromaniacs on Wall Street. The liberal wing of the mainstream media offered little intellectual resistance as the flames rose in the Bush years, with the elite’s hired guns playing Ponzi schemes on the backs of homeowners.
Does the liberal class actually have some responsibility for the rise of the Tea Party movement? In an article for Truthdig.com, former NYT war correspondent Chris Hedges argues for the prosecution:
“The lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, which looks set to make sweeping gains in the midterm elections, is the direct result of a collapse of liberalism. It is the product of bankrupt liberal institutions, including the press, the church, universities, labour unions, the arts and the Democratic Party. The legitimate rage being expressed by disenfranchised workers toward the college-educated liberal elite, who abetted or did nothing to halt the corporate assault on the poor and the working class of the last 30 years, is not misplaced. The liberal class is guilty. The liberal class, which continues to speak in the prim and obsolete language of policies and issues, refused to act. It failed to defend traditional liberal values during the long night of corporate assault in exchange for its position of privilege and comfort in the corporate state. The virulent right-wing backlash we now experience is an expression of the liberal class’ flagrant betrayal of the citizenry.”
And that, in a nutshell, is why the Tea Party constituency is so angry. They certainly have the wrong answers, but they have a visceral understanding they’ve been screwed over by the managerial class – the top 20 percent that acts as a buffer zone of apologists for the top two percent.
So what does this sorry state of affairs have to do with us, shivering in the northern fringes of empire? Plenty. Here, too, social services have been in decline since the eighties and wages in real dollars have been in decline, even as corporate profits and compensation have skyrocketed. The dismantling of the Canadian welfare state kicked off 30 years ago by Brian Mulroney, who joined Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the Anglo-American program of public sector rollback. Not all the betrayals were from the right. Some of the most extreme cuts in the Canadian social safety net came under the watch of Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, a former shipping magnate.
The US has its A and B team of corporate capitalism, in the form of Republicans and Democrats. We have it in the form of the federal Conservatives and Liberals. The current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is ideologically joined at the hip with the Christian conservative US right wing. His ‘theoconservatives’ are itching at a majority so they can remake the nation in their image.
So why on Earth would any government want to follow the US example, which now has the greatest income disparities since the robber barons’ Gilded Age? (According to economist Michael Hudson, two percent of the population now receives an estimated three quarters of the returns to wealth in the form of interest, dividends, rent and capital gains). Hedge fund managers have made out like bandits, while millions of middle class workers have lost their jobs, their homes and their savings. Millions more are waiting their turn. Adult children have moved back home, if they have a home to move back to. Local and state taxes are on the rise. Teachers, police and firefighters have been laid off. Bridges and roads are decaying, pipelines are breaking down, schools are crumbling and public libraries are being shuttered up. (Several weeks ago in rural Tennessee, firefighters let a home burn to the ground because the homeowner hadn’t paid a $75 fee.)
Wall Street’s trillion-dollar Ponzi schemes metastasized into the global credit crisis, and in response, governments in North America and Europe have reached into their treasuries to set things right. They have signed off on new austerity programs that offer no comfort to the afflicted and they certainly did nothing to afflict the comfortable – the very architects of the financial crisis. We’re talking about a global-scale heist, the greatest transfer of wealth in human history. The people of Greece have experienced the effects of it firsthand and the people of Britain are up next. And even though Canadian banks didn’t participate in some of the worst excesses of Wall Street, all bets are off if Harper gets his majority.
The mainstream media give only a partial picture of these downward trends. “Watching mainstream TV is like living in yesterday’s reality; nothing is really about where we are heading as a species, as a nation, as a people or as individuals. It’s not really ‘news’ at all; it’s yesterday’s vision of what is ‘real’,” notes Vancouver writer Monika Ullman in an email.
Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will
The Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci once said he was “a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” They may seem to be in opposition, but they are complementary modes for navigating a complicated world. One represents the spirit of action and the other, the willingness to look into the abyss.
The late historian Howard Zinn was never without the optimism of the will. “The Constitution gave no rights to working people; no right to work less than 12 hours a day, no right to a living wage, no right to safe working conditions. Workers had to organize, go on strike, defy the law, the courts, the police, create a great movement which won the eight-hour day and caused such commotion that Congress was forced to pass a minimum wage law, and Social Security and unemployment insurance… Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel and violate the law in order to uphold justice.”
Yet even as the times become more desperate, new ways of thinking and relating are on the rise. Half-abandoned wastelands like Detroit are rebuilding from the soil up, driven by the optimism of the will. There is a new vision emerging in the world, involving hundred-mile food networks, lending circles, alternate currencies and alternative media. (Check out transitionculture.org for working examples across the world.)
I had a good time at the Seattle Rally to Restore Sanity and I didn’t really expect anything more than that. There’s still something to be said for the binding force of humour and avoidance of the politics of hate. In Seattle, I was surrounded by thousands of high-spirited people who wanted nothing more than to restore their republic to its original, Jeffersonian ideals.
Unfortunately, that republic of checks and balances, held together by free thinking citizens, is a relic in dusty, high school history books. It’s a dream that died with John F. Kennedy. Yet the republic slumbers on, muttering political slogans and lines from late-night television. When enough people wake up and rub their eyes in the harsh light of noonday, perhaps the real restoration of sanity can begin.