For the Old Mole Variety Hour, 1 November 2010.    This past weekend in Washington, DC, saw Jon Stewart's Million Moderate March to Restore Sanity, and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Keep Fear Alive.

These were comedic riffs on Glenn Beck's August rally to "restore honor," at which, in the words of Adele Stan on Alternet, "the notion that the election of a black president somehow sullied the nation's dignity was dressed in sanctimony and a display of patriotism so bombastic that it was almost camp." As Stan and others have pointed out, the impressive turnout at the Sanity-Fear event has the potential to show that the "right-wing juggernaut" is not the majority it likes to pretend, to recast liberalism as mainstream, to energize young people, more of whom get their news from Stewart's Daily Show than from any traditional news source, and maybe even to get out the vote for sanity.

On the other hand, some of those at the Stewart –Colbert event declared they have no intention of voting, and it's possible that, as Bob Samuels recently argued in the Huffington Post, the humor of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report "put[s] down social institutions and celebrate[s] the ironic individual," in a way that can leave viewers with the complacent sense there's nothing to be done about the crazy state of the political world but to laugh at it.

Moreover, as Medea Benjamin and Jules Boykoff have noted, Stewart's "civility fetishism" conflates "volume with content, style with substance," and creates a false equivalence between the Tea Party and Code Pink, neglecting the fact that "it’s the sane people who protest crazy wars, who cry out against the dangers of global warming, who rail against big money in politics, who implore our politicians to spend our resources rebuilding America, not bombing people overseas" and that "it has taken quite a bit of civil-and uncivil-disobedience to undo the damage unleashed by the zealous civilizers of the past."

Johann Hari, writing in the UK Guardian, reminds us of some examples of how active protest really can help stop the insanity.

[L]et’s look at a group of protesters who thought they had failed. The protests within the United States against the Vietnam War couldn’t prevent it killing three million Vietnamese and 80,000 Americans. But even in the years it was “failing,” it was achieving more than the protestors could possibly have known. In 1966, the specialists at the Pentagon went to US President Lyndon Johnson . . . with a plan to end the Vietnam War: nuke the country. They “proved,” using their computer modeling, that a nuclear attack would “save lives.”

It was a plan that might well have appealed to him. But Johnson pointed out the window, towards the hordes of protesters, and said: “I have one more problem for your computer. Will you feed into it how long it will take 500,000 angry Americans to climb the White House wall out there and lynch their President?” He knew that there would be a cost – in protest and democratic revolt – that made that cruelty too great. In 1970, the same plan was presented to Richard Nixon – and we now know from the declassified documents that the biggest protests ever against the war made him decide he couldn’t do it. Those protesters went home from those protests believing they had failed – but they had succeeded in preventing a nuclear war. They thought they were impotent, just as so many of us do – but they really had power beyond their dreams to stop a nightmare.

Protest raises the political price for governments making bad decisions. It stopped LBJ and Nixon making the most catastrophic decision of all. . . .

And protest can have an invisible ripple-effect . . . . A small group of women from Iowa lost their sons early in the Vietnam war, and they decided to set up an organization of mothers opposing the assault on the country. They called a protest of all mothers of serving soldiers outside the White House – and six turned up in the snow. Even though later in the war they became nationally important voices, they always remembered that protest as an embarrassment and a humiliation.

Until, that is, one day in the 1990s, one of them read the autobiography of Benjamin Spock, the much-loved and trusted celebrity doctor, who was the Oprah of his day. When he came out against the war in 1968, it was a major turning point in American public opinion. And he explained why he did it. One day, he had been called to a meeting at the White House to be told how well the war in Vietnam was going, and he saw six women standing in the snow with placards, alone, chanting. It troubled his conscience and his dreams for years. If these women were brave enough to protest, he asked himself, why aren’t I? It was because of them that he could eventually find the courage to take his stand – and that in turn changed the minds of millions, and ended the war sooner. An event that they thought was a humiliation actually turned the course of history.

You don’t know what the amazing ripple-effect of your protest will be – but wouldn’t [this] be a better place if [protest] replaced the ripple of impotent anger so many of us are feeling? Yes, you can sit back and let yourself be ripped off by the bankers and the corporations and their political lackeys if you want. But it’s an indulgent fiction to believe that is all you can do. You can act in your own self-defence. As Margaret Mead, the great democratic campaigner, said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”


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