Sanity, Iraq, and Jon Stewart's “View From Nowhere”

For me -- and I think for a lot of people -- the moment that “sanity” left the building in American discourse came in late 2002 and early 2003, when it became clear that Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Paul Halfwits, and their minions were dead set on invading Iraq. This was a country that had nothing to do with the supposed issue at hand -- the 9/11 attacks or any ongoing terror threat from al-Qaeda -- and, weakened by years of sanctions, an allied no-fly zones, etc., posed no credible security threat to the United States. And so the idea of a U.S.-initiated war with Iraq struck me as so -- and I cannot think of a better word -- “insane” that for months I waited for the forces of reason, such as influential journalists, foreign policy experts, and rational members of Congress, to rise up and swat down such a bad and dangerous idea. In fact, it struck me, foolishly, at the time that an Iraq war debate -- such as it was in that winter of American-flag lapel pins -- would validate the very reason that I and so many others in my generation went into journalism in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, in aftermath of Vietnam, civil rights but especially Watergate, when it was dogged reporting and the uncovering of facts that proved that an American government had gone way off that tracks. Surely that would happen again in 2002-03.

When that didn't happen -- and when so many of the nation's best-known journalists not only failed to expose the lies surrounding the invasion of Iraq but enabled them -- it radicalized me, and radicalized my ideas about journalists and our responsibilities in a free but fragile society. And I was far from the only one worried about the loss of reason, or rationality, or sanity, in American policy. Increasingly, a new majority of American voters were energized and angered not just by the senselessness of U.S. actions in Iraq, but by a government that was largely alone among our allies in ignoring the well-established science on manmade global warming, or the lack of sanity in the military's “don't ask, don't tell” policies toward homosexuals. Indeed, the idea of a “Rally to Restore Sanity” on Oct. 20, 2010, seemed a tad late; not only is the push to restore sanity in America roughly seven years old, but the entire thrust of the U.S. elections in 2006 and especially 2008 was all about electing folks who at least paid lip service to policies that would be rational and “sane.”

That's why I thought Iraq and its central role in American insanity was in many ways that dog that did not bark in Stewart and Stephen Colbert's big rally on Saturday. Watching it play out on TV, it felt like the two comedians and the 200,000 strong who gathered in their names had drifted so far from the original roots of the “sanity movement” in American politics that the ultimate message -- that the only answers lie in toning things down a notch and in looking for a brand of moderation that finds equal fault with vaguely defined “extremism” on either side -- was a perhaps unintended 180-degree U-turn.

From the stage we saw a tacit endorsement of the dangerous notion of false equivalencies -- the very concept that in a phony quest for journalistic balance caused the news media to give equal weight or greater weight to unsupported spin, not just for the war in Iraq but its cheerleading financial coverage before the 2008 crisis that Stewart demolished on his own show. “The press is our immune system,” Stewart said in his closing speech on Saturday. “If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker--and, perhaps, eczema.” But that's only part of the puzzle -- on way too many critical issues the last 10 years, neither the press nor the public has reacted enough, particularly to ideas that are lacking in reason. It's stunning that Stewart of all people -- who became a national comedic icon in that 2003-04 era, in large part by calling attention to that “Mess O' Potania” that the mainstream media was largely content to ignore -- would forget where the road to insanity started.

The scary part is that central to Stewart's message on Saturday was what one of best media critics around -- the New York University professor Jay Rosen -- calls “the view from nowhere,” the same kind of high-minded pooh-pooing of the messy fray of actual democracy, including passion and commitment that involves fighting in the muck of ideas, that the kind of people who gathered on the National Mall once detested from the likes of the punditocracy's naysayer-in-chief, David Broder.

Here's how Rosen describes “the view from nowhere”:

When you have an obligation to remain outside the arena, it is also tempting to feel above the partisans who are struggling within that arena. (But then where else are they going to struggle?) You learn the attractions of a view from nowhere. The daily gift of detachment keeps giving, until you're almost “above” anyone who tries to get too political with you, or at least in the middle with the microphone between warring factions. There's power in that; and where there's power, there's attraction.

Unfortunately, the real work of restoring sanity in America is hard, and it begins “somewhere.” On Saturday, I found myself agreeing with the Twitter observations of cartoonist Tom Tomorrow (whose strips were also a breath of sanity during the worst of the Bush years), who wrote, “Jon Stewart 1964: let's just agree to disagree on this whole ”civil rights" issue," and Keith Olbermann, the first major TV figure to call “insanity” during the mid-2000s, who wrote, “The America before today's cable wasn't reasonable discussion.It was the 1-sided lockstep of Fox and people afraid of Fox.That got us Iraq.”

It is difficult to criticize Jon Stewart because while I think his “view from nowhere” on Saturday was a dangerous misstep, it was also a rare one. It's not just that Stewart and Stephen Colbert are consistently hilarious and on some nights the only television (outside of a Phillies victory) worth watching -- although there is that -- but it's that what they do within the setting of their actual shows is real journalism of a kind you typically don't find on the cable channels supposedly devoted to 24-hours news. That's because TV-show Stewart and Colbert are willing to tear down the extra wall and show the media's toxic role in our political follies, as with the legendary takedown of CNBC's financial cheerleading, and unlike news outlets do real fact checking, as when they caught the Fox News Channel in this moment of trickery. These are critical things that more journalists -- and not just comedians -- need to be doing, but when Stewart steps outside this wonderful niche is when he suddenly seems a tad lost.

In more fairness, its not just Stewart. The final chapter hasn't been written, but it feels like a large and potentially potent movement has drifted in a few short years from pushing sane and reasonable ideas (ending the war in Iraq, addressing climate change) to electing seemingly sane people (see “Obama, Barack”) to -- in understandable frustration over the lack of results -- rallying now just to endorse the vague concept of “sanity,” and little more than that.

That may be partly a comment on the increasing lameness of activism in the Facebook age, when -- when as Malcolm Gladwell (who normally I agree with about as often as I disagree with Jon Stewart) nailed it in this recent New Yorker essay -- it's never been so easy for so many people to get involved in so many good causes while actually doing so little. To rally on the National Mall with so many like-minded person -- not on Facebook or Twitter, but outdoors and in person, on a sunny fall day -- was so cathartic for some of the attendees that the fact they weren't really rallying for much of anything specific was barely relevant. I thought this attendee summed it up:

Like it or not, modern activism takes place largely on Twitter and Facebook, where the discussion is lively, passionate, and immediate. It takes something extraordinary to get people to disengage from their laptops and hang out with many thousands of other people for something they could much more comfortably have watched on HDTV....I think most people today felt the way I did ... huge satisfaction and relief to connect with others... hundreds of thousands of others... (millions of others, actually, if you count all the satellite rallies held internationally, and the many viewers at home). All of us attended in order to be reassured that we really are, for the most part, reasonable, respectful, good-hearted people whether our opinions ally or not. We want the best for each other, and will make the extra effort when the need is clear...

In a time of war and economic collapse and sharply competing visions for the future of America, how much more clear does that “need” need to be, and -- with an election tomorrow -- how much more immediate? The truth is that the sanity of the majority of the American people -- kind of like, at the risk of sounding trite, the courage and brains and heart of the travelers in “The Wizard of Oz” -- never had to be restored. It has been there all along. What was lacking was the passion and the commitment and the energy to make sane ideas happen in the face of fear and opposition. Unfortunately, nothing much happened this weekend to move that ball forward, either tomorrow or in what will likely be an ugly aftermath.

And it's not a rally numbers game, despite the crowing that more twice as many people were on the Mall on Saturday as attended the Glenn Beck shindig back in August. That's because the Beck/Tea Party people didn't live their political life in one day, as I reported in my recent book, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama. They've been working the system every day since the spring of 2009, getting extreme, non-sanity-based candidates like Sharron Angle of Nevada and Rand Paul of Kentucky in position to become U.S. senators and influence middle-of-the-road and not well engaged voters to believe things that are not true (like the false idea that taxes have increased under Obama). Maybe the coming changes in American politics will convince the silent majority to shun the empty “view from nowhere” and begin all over the actual work of restoring sanity. But that hill is going to be much, much harder to climb this time around.