10.29.10

Sanity Is Overrated

At The Daily Show host's rally, fans of his moderate-left orthodoxy will celebrate their cool selves and scold the "insane" extremes. Tunku Varadarajan hopes it'll be consolation enough when they’re trounced at the polls.

Thousands gathered in Washington, D.C., on Saturday for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity, featuring a novel blend of politics and entertainment. "What exactly was this?" Stewart asked near the end of the show. "This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith. Or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland...we can have animus and not be enemies." Tunku Varadarajan says he hope it'll be consolation when they're trounced on Tuesday.

A righteous fleet of buses, organized by Arianna Huffington, will hurtle from New York to Washington on Saturday, its seats filled with sapient metropolitans—compos mentis to a man—bearing Stonyfield Farms yogurt goodie-bags on their laps and progressive hope in their hearts. Their destination: Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" at the capital's Mall.

Stewart isn't the first comedian to play at public politics in this increasingly outré election season. Glenn Beck did it before, although the abstract noun he chose to foist on the nation was "honor." This was a reliably—and transparently—conservative bit of posturing, one that had much of the media convulsed in outrage over Beck's choice of date: August 28, the day on which Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream Speech," was forever sullied by Beck's squatting on that hallowed square of calendar.

By contrast, Stewart, a more incisive man, has turned his restorative attentions to "sanity," a seemingly neutral concept—one that, on its face, it's hard to scoff at or oppose. And yet no one is fooled. He is not advocating for centrism, or rooting for a tie at a soccer match. That would be boring, and Stewart, whatever faults you may think he has (hubris, for one, or relentless partisanship), is never boring, except, perhaps, when interviewing President Obama. (Then, his edge was dulled deliberately so as not to outrage the hyper-liberal faithful, and his best stab at irreverence in the face of authority was to refer to the president as "dude.")

For all their iconoclasm, Stewart and his sidekick-in-sanity, Stephen Colbert, calculate to honor mainstream liberal pieties. Daily, Stewart shores up caustically the conventional wisdom of a moderate-left orthodoxy, scolding what are perceived to be the extremes, almost invariably of the right, in a fiesta of self-congratulation.

I look forward to Stewart saying on November 3, on his show, that the Democrats lost in large numbers because "America is insane."

Stewart's overt message is that those who embrace his Daily Show orthodoxy are part of a tribe that transcends the idiocies of our age, a tribe that is lucid, cool, and discerning—in a word, "sane." Joy Behar is, by this token, sane. Most Republicans, by definition, are not. As for Americans who espouse the Tea Party in any way: Why, they're overwrought, moonstruck psychos; in a word, insane.

Jon Stewart: Is there method in his "sanity"? His world comprises the sane "Us" vs. the insane "Them." As a rally, his is as obviously political as Beck's. And why should it not be? Liberals have as much right to parade publicly in the Mall, bearing hyperbolical placards, as do conservatives. Much of the mainstream media has recognized the rally's political nature and prohibited its staff from taking part. As The Washington Post told its staff in a memo: "Events like those organized by Glenn Beck or involving Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are political, and therefore Post newsroom employees may not participate."

All of this, of course, could give rise to a novel explanation on November 3, after the results of the elections are in. I look forward to Stewart saying, on his show, that the Democrats lost in large numbers because "America is insane." And then he, and others like him, can take elegant consolation in their sanity.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)