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Stewart’s “Sincerity” and Recontextualizing Rallies

November 1, 2010

As I stood on the National Mall for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, I was struck by how much it was like every other rally I’ve ever been to. I was uncomfortable and cranky from standing, a bunch of people had signs (some clever, many cringe-worthy), and I couldn’t see or hear a thing.

But later, as I sat on the steps of the National Air and Space museum eating my freeze-dried ice cream (a museum-trip must, in my opinion), I realized that the similarity is kind of the point. I don’t really know what I was expecting going in, but as Jon Stewart’s remarks in his “moment of sincerity” at the end of the rally indicate, this is a rally just like any other. It’s just a rally about rallies.

Stewart frames his mission here as encouraging compromise, using the example of the consistent, relatively smooth functioning of the Lincoln Tunnel to argue that people accomplish “impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.” Like most other rallies, this one’s also got an agenda or goal in mind. It’s also got some generalizing going on about what we Americans are really like as a group; Stewart thinks that “Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do.” Sorry for shouting but OH MY GOD JON YOU ARE SPEAKING TO ME.

Despite all these similarities, what made this rally different from other rallies I’ve seen is that usually the point of a rally is to advocate for some sort of political change or indicate support for a particular political position. The point to this rally was to advocate for a change in the way that we advocate for some sort of political change or indicate support for a particular political position. According to Stewart, the only positions being advocated here were that people with opposing positions are not necessarily bad and that we need to learn that we can have “animus and not be enemies.” Allegedly, we were making our voices heard when calling out for calmer, more reasoned political dialogue.

This might seem slightly strange, but we’re talking about Jon Stewart here, the man who pretty much got “Crossfire” canceled by appearing on “Crossfire.” In the case of the rally, the point of all the gathering and sign-waving and cheering is to call for a change in how we gather, wave signs, and cheer. It’s a rally for calmer, more civil rallies (and political discourse in general) in the future. He ended his speech on Saturday by telling us that our “presence” at the rally is all he wanted; that seeing us all there was a testament to levelheadedness. Hopefully so, but our presence is also what made the rally a rally per se; without all the right trappings, it wouldn’t have been such a strong testament to the possibility of our actions to also serve as comments on those actions themselves.

If you want to know more:

  • My thinking on this issue was greatly informed by the concept of discourse schemas (in short, cultural practices that can be globalized and recontextualized) as explained by David Machin and Theo van Leeuwen in “Global Schemas and Local Discourses in ‘Cosmopolitan.’”
  • You can watch Stewart’s closing speech here.
  • I mentioned freeze-dried ice cream, and if that got you hungry you can buy some here. Be warned, however: I don’t see them in the “also bought” category, but may whatever god you believe in have mercy on your soul if you ever decide to try the “spaceman” French fries instead.
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