Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jon Stewart's lessons in democracy

By Barry Johnson

Jon Stewart's The Rally to Restore Sanity has already begun to generate a ton of commentary, so I'm hesitant to add more to the pile, especially because Stewart's own ongoing critique of the media, especially his own medium, cable television, describes the condition of political discussion in the U.S. better than I can. And his practical solution makes for great comedy -- holding up the more idiotic formulations of our politicians and pundits to unrelenting ridicule.

The demands of his show make him a little less patient than I am, on the one hand, and, oddly perhaps, better grrounded on the other. He and his writers have to listen to a lot of nonsense in order to refine the best nuggets into comedy gold. They listen to stuff I dismiss instantly, without a thought. They deserve my thanks just for that, because those opinions need analysis, too, not to mention ridicule!

Back to the rally. I have embedded Stewart's closing comments below. The best part for me is toward the end, a great little discussion of the importance of tolerance to practical problem-solving, the kind of tolerance that has vanished from our politics, especially our election politics, built as they are on demonizing the opponent. (A transcription of those paragraphs follows the jump.)


Here's the transcription of that great concluding metaphor:
"(Stewart points to the large video of cars in traffic.) Look on the screen. This is where we are, this is who we are. These cars. That's a schoolteacher who probably think his taxes are too high, he's going to work. There's another car, a woman with two small kids, can't really think about anything else right now... A lady's in the NRA, loves Oprah. There's another car, an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car's a Latino carpenter; another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan.

But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief, and principles they hold dear -- often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers'. And yet, these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze, one by one, into a mile-long, 30-foot-wide tunnel, carved underneath a mighty river.

And they do it, concession by concession: you go, then I'll go. You go, then I'll go. You go, then I'll go. 'Oh my God--is that an NRA sticker on your car?' 'Is that an Obama sticker on your car?' It's okay -- you go, then I go."
Now, that's simplistic, of course. If all those people had to talk to each other, a ruckus would ensue and traffic would stall forever. Democracy is a slow process, and a highway is not a democracy under the best of circumstances. But the idea is still sound: When we have to work together, we humans, we can. We can look past individual tics and irritations, past religious and political differences, past ethnic and racial divides, past the very things we allow to get in our way in ordinary circumstances.  We can set these things aside to get something done, when we must.

We can. We don't always. And then we are so keen to annihilate our opposition, the excuse being, if I don't annihilate you, you will annihilate me. Our political discussions are full of annihilation. We can be forgiven for wondering if real annihilation is far behind.

Democracy is designed to avoid this, and it's a measure of how poorly ours functions that we have begun to doubt the peaceful rule of democratic law. When we are in the tunnel together, we have to be more tolerant, not less, assume the best of those around us, not the worst. But only if we all want to get out of the tunnel alive.  History suggests that it's not a given that we will succeed. We are prey to hot rages and dark fears. Tolerance is rarer; assuming the best is considered a sign of naivete or, worse, weakness. 

Stewart's great value is that he makes these fundamental principles clear. He's a practical philosopher at the same time that he's a great jester. Political sanity? No democracy is possible without it.