31 October 2010

The Real Mythbusters

Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart debate reasonableness. Photograph: Kris Connor/Getty Images

So the mystery has been solved: What are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert going to do at their big rally?

Unlike Glen Beck’s rally, where the tax-exempt co-sponsor of the event, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, required all speakers to sign an agreement promising not to talk politics, yet the politically polarizing Sarah Palin was one of the main speakers, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Keep Fear Alive was not in the least bit political. That’s right – no left-wing bias on stage, unless one considers diversity, the patriotic call to come together as a nation and stop allowing ourselves to be painted as opposing forces, and comedy itself to be left-wing biases.

Let me begin with diversity. From a pro-wrestler to the black woman who had the guts to stand before President Barack Obama recently and criticize him for failing to get his message of Hope and Change out to the people, from Ozzy Ozbourne, to Tony Bennet, from Father Guido Sarducci to Abdul Kareem-Jabbar... And the crowd was of all ages and walks of life, too.

The rejection of divisiveness was really the key to the whole affair. The Glen Beck rally had also emphasized unity and the coming together of the nation, but they spoke entirely in religious terms, which are inherently divisive, because religious reaching out to others who are different is never for the sake of love and compassion, themselves. This is not to say that religious people never reach out to others with genuine love and compassion in their hearts. I am speaking of religious outreach, and holding rallies about solving the nation’s biggest problems with religion and spirituality at a time when science and coming to agreement on the very nature and scope of the problems and not rejecting solutions on fundamentalist ideological grounds would better serve us all. Religion and spirituality are helpful to individuals, but they are not a uniting force when it comes to consensus building and cultural diversity. Religious unity is centered on religious belief, and that is not the same thing as social unity centered around a set of democratic ideas.
As always, the boys from Comedy Central were right on target with their message that cable news is a huge part of the problem of cultural division. I was quite moved by Jon Stewart’s speech at the end, in which he did not blame one faction or another, nor deny that there are big problems that the nation is struggling with, nor try to make himself out to be the leader of any mass movement, not even encouraging people to go vote. Rather, he simply expressed frustration about the very thing that he makes his living pointing out, that is, how the 24-hour news channels are more about drama than information. His complaint was backed up by Steven Colbert’s montages of the media’s fear-mongering and name-calling, and they put on display not only Fox News, but also MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and many others.

Personally, I agree with Keith Olbermann. I do think that the Tea Party is very much about racism and xenophobia and homophobia, and exaggerated fears in general. Even the those whose big issue is opposition to taxation are motivated by phobia – of Big Government. I have been known to cheer ol’ Olbey on when he expresses his outrage so passionately, and I think there is a place for passion. In fact, I was very disturbed by the lack of passion during the run-up to the Iraq War, and today – where is our outrage about our military operations that have been uncovered by WikiLeaks?

A major step toward being able to have a civil national discussion involves facing our fears and identifying which ones are legitimate and which ones are phobias. Fear of all foreigners, for example, or all Muslims, as Stewart and Colbert pointed out, is irrational – based on exaggerations and cultural misunderstandings. The same could also be said of fear of Big Government, as the culture of the United States is steeped in the message that all governments are incapable of doing anything except amassing power, so less is best. The Small Government forces seem to be intent upon placing uniquely unqualified people in charge of the government to prove their point that government is incompetent. But just because our government has some huge problems that need fixing doesn’t mean that the problems can’t be fixed.

This was another theme of the rally. And it is why there was a left-wing bias, despite the carefully orchestrated centrism displayed onstage. The thing is, in order to fix the problems, the legitimate fears must be faced, fears such as the effects that human beings have on climate change, the health effects of pollution, the corruption of our politics by unlimited and unknown sources of funding, or the disturbingly unethical means of conducting a war that the military has kept hidden behind a wall of secrecy and impunity... These fears are not fear of cultural change or fear of other. They are based on acknowledging the complexity of the universe, and the way to vanquish these fears is through knowledge and understanding and putting the pieces of the Grand Puzzle all together and trying to make sense out of it all. Just because the puzzle is enormous does not mean we can’t ever solve it.

So if two rallies claim that their goal is to bring the nation together, – one, with god and honor, the other, with sanity and civility – can either vision of unity be achieved? The fact that there are two visions of unity may be the highest hurdle. But just because the hurdle is high doesn’t mean we can’t find a way to hurl ourselves over it. I mean, it's amazing what a person can do with just a long, bendy stick! True unity will require honesty and integrity, and this gets at the heart of the difference between people standing on the two sides of the hurdle.

What the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Keep Fear Alive did not address is the other part of these pundits’ jobs, which is to point out egregious lies and inconsistencies that other pundits and supposed news sources are poisoning the national conversation with – which is why Fox News and in particular, Glen Beck are so often the targets of their criticism. These two satirists go at it with the easy stuff – showing video from the past that directly contradicts them or displays inconsistencies in their messaging is as obvious as it gets, causing one to wonder why actual news outlets do not do the same. Media Matters for America and many other watchdog groups go at this task with more research, citing multiple reputable sources and doggedly keeping track of what pundits are saying and how they don’t have their facts straight. The fact that the pundits that Media Matters and Stewart and Colbert are always outing are all of the same political ilk is not due to any left-wing bias, but speaks to the level of insincerity of those who, because they believe in a higher cause, are willing to forgo truths that do not support their narrative in order to push a political cause. They can accuse others of doing the same all they want - but they don't have the full, undoctored video to prove their claims.

Does this mean that holding authors and pundits and news casters accountable is a left-wing bias? Or is it the case that this left/right dichotomy is a false dichotomy to begin with? It is, after all, a political construct, born of a two-party political system, which might seem like it is an organic way for our society to conduct its self-governmance, as a balancing of two opposites. But society is way more complicated than that, and it is this duality that claims to represent us that is what is tearing us apart through polarization, the either/or viewpoint, the illusion of separation.

...which brings me back to diversity. The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Keep Fear Alive was a demonstration of how our nation is not just two sides of a political divide. The politics of the nation thrive on this division, political marketers make a damn good living off of it, and the press drums it into us. They perpetuate the myth that there must be two sides to every argument, just as religions contrive the dichotomy that everything that is “good “and “honorable” has a foil. But duality is an illusion. Good and Evil, black and white, yin and yang are gross oversimplifications of vast complexity. Society is not a coin with only two sides. One faction is not always “correct” and the other always “incorrect.” And one god is not the connective link that can bring a multitude of spiritual beliefs together to create one strong nation. What can do that is acknowledging diversity and complexity, insisting on openness and accountability, and seeing a vision of unity in terms of our common humanity.

Here are the best quotes from Jon Stewart’s speech:

“This is not...to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do”

“We live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country's 24 hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder.”

“The press could hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofor unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire. And then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

There are the many faces of the nation. These next two quotes were in reference to images of cars driving into the Lincoln Tunnel. Jon Stewart spoke of how each car had individuals inside who do not fit the classifications of "this" or "that," who would probably disagree with each other on many many issues, but in order to drive through the tunnel, they had to cooperate: my turn, your turn... my turn, your turn... With an everyday image of everyday life, without highfalutin language or over-the-top passion, having brilliantly had the Mythbusters open the show to set the tone, he dispelled the Myth of Separation:

“We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is ... and why don't we just work together to get things done. The truth is we do, we work together to get things done every damn day. The only place we don't is here [Congress] or on cable TV. But America doesn't live here or on cable TV.”

“Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land – sometimes it's just New Jersey.”

If such unity, such sanity, such civility is a “left-wing bias,” then I guess the willingness to laugh at ourselves in the face of our greatest challenges is a “left-wing bias,” too.

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