In 1936, the Nazis organized a massive get-together in Nuremberg for malleable nincompoops and called the gathering Reichsparteitag der Ehre, or “Rally of Honor.” Watching clips from Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor Rally” held in Washington, D.C., in August, I was reminded of how, while growing up and flipping through channels, I would occasionally come across grainy footage of Adolf Hitler in Nuremberg and see the enthusiastic crowds applauding him and waving little flags, and I’d ponder what made these people so gullible to the nationalistic lunacy and bug-eyed, fascistic tribalism they were being inundated with. Is it really possible, I wondered, to imbibe fear and hatred with so much charisma that the end result of heeding its precepts will appear gleeful and positive and finally gratifying? How, I asked myself, could such a whopping organizational feat as a Nuremberg rally even come off, with the weeks of preparation and all those opportunities for second-guessing by so many people? How, with all those workers setting up chairs and hanging banners and angling lights and arranging flowers and loading film cameras and proofreading speeches, did nobody suddenly stop doing what he or she was doing and say, “Hey, wait a minute—this is absolutely bat-shit crazy!?”
Of course, as a political cartoonist, such grand gestures of vaulting ignorance, particularly when marked by all the mindless rage and gaudy, ostentatious celebration of a sporting event, can often make my job way too easy to be at all effective. When Glenn Beck, the headliner at the most recent, though by no means the last, honor rally (the same Glenn Beck who regularly warns his radio and television audiences of the lethal concoction that is Islamic God and Islamic country) stands up in front of the Lincoln Memorial and says that the United States has been wandering around in the dark for too long and that it is time—a civic duty, in fact!—for every American to return to a position of complete subservience to a famously intolerant Christian god who has a long history of murdering and torturing his critics both in and after life, the joke has already been made. The cartoon has already been drawn. In other words, when somebody takes a crap on the floor it doesn’t matter how good your thesaurus is, the actual stench of the shit will always trump any artistic description of it.
So, then, the question becomes obvious: How is it possible for people to so easily ignore, en masse, all the warning signs that typically come before manmade disasters, whether they’re disasters engineered by ego or über-ego or fiat or hubris or whatever? The rallies at Nuremberg, as I’ve indicated, are a classic example. Joseph McCarthy’s Wheeling Speech is another. George W. Bush’s post-9/11 speeches are another. The post-crucifixion, transcribed speeches of Jesus Christ are another. What is it, precisely, about the assemblage of a vast number of human heads that more often than not encourages a uniform stupidity rather than an accrued intelligence? Even the recent election of Barack Obama as president exemplifies a massive congruence of self-proclaimed liberal and progressive Americans suddenly blind by their own choice to the obvious fact that rather than electing a forward-thinking and radically compassionate and intelligent humanitarian—a living saint comparable in the press to Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi and Jean-Luc Picard from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”—they were merely falling in line behind an establishment candidate no more likely to run afoul of the traditional values and deeply conservative principles of the Democratic Party than any ass hired to represent the brand.
(Look out your window and tell me that I’m wrong.)
And then there was “The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” which took place Saturday on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and was hosted by everybody’s favorite TV stars, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Did this humongous assemblage of, according to some estimates, a quarter of a million people encourage a uniform stupidity rather than an accrued intelligence? Or, rather, did this rally’s focus on joke-making exempt it from needing to adopt a hate-baiting, lynch mob mentality? If so, does such an exemption disqualify the gathering from just being Nuremberg-lite?
There’s a story about Oscar Wilde walking through a birthing ward in a London hospital in the late 1800s and saying to an inconsolable mother who had just given birth to a pair of stillborn twins, “Buck up and be jolly, my dear lady! Stillbirth is a sign that God has a sense of humor!” It is a quote that can simultaneously give one hope for the future of humankind while also demonstrating why we are almost certainly doomed as a species. On the one hand, as a sheer spectacle it is an inspiring example of one man’s ability to use humor in a real-life situation that the average onlooker would deem inhospitable to joke-making—the conceptual equivalent of striking a match underwater—and then, more important, it is somehow proof that reality itself, as it is defined by cold, hard fact, is never the sole determinant of truth in any given situation. That is to say that nothing, by mere virtue of its literal physicality, is wholly self-defining and nothing can happen in the world that cannot be skewed by interpretation and made into something else.
Jokes, like any other form of magic, can take a truth, usually a horrible one, and convert it into a satirical concept that, because it is an opinion and no longer tethered to fact, is malleable and, therefore, capable of either rising above or nestling beneath, like a whoopee cushion, those truisms that the joke teller hopes to subvert. Humor, then, like any other form of mollification, can often dislodge the disease of hopelessness from any situation that appears hopeless and invigorate the joker’s chosen audience with hopeful optimism. But, of course, on the other hand, when such a distraction is allowed to divert attention away from a situation that may in fact be truly hopeless and really dangerous then the diversion can prove disastrous.
In other words, readying a slide whistle and a pair of cymbals for the consequences of a safe that is being pushed from a 10-story window above a crowded sidewalk will not alter the physics of gravity sufficiently to temper the tragic consequences.
And that is precisely what I believe makes Stewart and Colbert, particularly in the context of a political rally staged at the nation’s capital in obvious response to Beck’s event, ultimately ineffective as either saviors of our collective cultural sanity or inspirational martyrs maligned unjustly by our savage indifference to our own fate. After all, when a clown is chosen by a society’s pandemic fear of the dark to lead us all into the light, we can’t be certain that the clown will think to move us all beyond the circle of his own spotlight. But why should he? A comedian’s ultimate obligation is to a society’s funny bone, all other bones be, perhaps not damned, but at least razzberried and machine-gunned by the fury of a seltzer bottle.
Thusly, when an average of 2 million viewers, myself included, tune in every weeknight to see “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” they are there to jeer and hoot and ridicule the despicability and ineptness and sometimes criminality of both our elected officials and the media outlets that leech off their troubling antics and sell us our soap. They are there to see powerful men and women clobbered by their own exposed hypocrisies. Viewers of “The Daily Show” are there to have their anxiety alleviated, to have their mistrust of politicians justified and to have the pain and humiliation of their being continuously shat upon by oppressive forces from the upper echelons of government and industry and social pedigree lessened. Indeed, these are the noble tasks of the satirist: to help not only maintain but also to promote the concept that the power we invest in authority is power that we can also divest, to prove that laughter is much more likely than sorrow to inspire our desire to congregate as a democratic society and to shake the fear from our natural instinct to retreat from psychological hardship and to cower in isolation.
But, of course, enlightening people to the reality of bullshit is only half the task of the satirist and by no means an end unto itself. After all, it is not the diagnosis of a disease that cures the patient.
So, minus the existence of a well-organized, well-informed, deeply passionate and viable peace and anti-establishmentarian movement in this country, what will usually end up happening is that contemporary satire will often convert our rage at the dominant culture into whimsy and transform us from a threat to the social structures that berate us to complacent idiots. Political comedy, without practical application within a political strategy, will merely satiate our hunger for real change with a punch line and rob us of our sensitivity to any number of social and political injustices. Remember that levity provides a biochemical relief to our physiologies. It tells our insides that all is well and that there is happiness in our lives and that being buoyed by this temporary joy is justified by its own ends. Only when a wound is allowed to remain open and some measure of discomfort is permitted to pester our morality will we act to seek a solution to eliminating our pain and the pain that we empathetically feel in others.
“I’m sure a lot of you were just here to have a nice time, and I hope you did,” intoned Stewart from the stage at the end of his rally, groping comedically for a reason why the event was organized and also why the overwhelming majority of his audience showed up to watch it. Such a banal and grandmotherly adieu left me to wonder if Americans shouldn’t be looking for a more profound reason to stand shoulder to shoulder in a crowd of 250,000, in their nation’s capital, carrying signs and wearing T-shirts demanding peace, love and understanding in every way possible, than just to have a nice time.
Contrary to the mood of those surrounding me, those who were continuously waving at themselves on the immense monitors set up all over the Mall, I refused to fool myself into thinking, even for a historical moment, that we were just too big to fail.
Mr. Fish goes to Washington. Photo credit: Jeff Booth