11/01/2010 09:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Whither Jon Stewart?

They arrived on buses from nearby city centers and faraway small towns. There was Brooklyn and Philadelphia, but there was also Boise and Purdue. They flew in from Florida and Quebec and, as caricatures might, perhaps rolled their eyes at the electronic banner that welcomed them to Ronald Reagan National Airport.

They slept on the couches and floors of their friends. They brought signs and placards and Halloween costumes, a tableau with varying levels of irony, and cameras, oh yes, cameras and Hipstamatic phone apps -- so many Smartphones that the National Mall became a massive cellular dead zone for the crush of amateur documentarians. They stood, packed too-tightly together in the autumn sun (many unable to see or hear the event), driven to the District by something inchoate: a material event promising only nonmaterial dividends. They clambered up the trees on 7th Street to get a better view and to be viewed getting a better view. They came to see old friends or to satisfy some neglected civic guilt before the (allegedly) inevitable post-November 2th political winter pushes them back into hibernation.


There is no such thing as an apolitical rally. Critics of The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, who christened it an apparatus of the liberal agenda, were probably right. And while Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the writers and organizers executed an eclectic, thoughtful, even patriotic program, it was the attendees who colored the rally with political context. It was the crowd who, in addition to advocating against Snuggies and eggplant, advocated for Proposition 19 and the release of Bradley Manning. For better or worse, the crowd did the thinking. Those watching at home might have been entertained, they might also have been at a loss for a salient takeaway message.

Following the event, the news coverage of the rally was surprisingly deferential. Despite the decision of many Fox affiliates to air a clip of a teenage rally-goer stumbling through an artless indictment of the Tea Party, many of the stories about the rally (by the media targeted by the rally) noted the celebrities involved and the unexpected size of the crowd and featured the event prominently in their news cycles. Simply put: while there was a lot to report, there wasn't that much to parse. And therein lies a problem.

The reality is that the middle is a position. It has to be. A clarion call for rational conversation has to have causes and champions and, yes, even politicians to accompany it. This kind of civic curation may not be the job that Stewart and Colbert applied for, but if their rally is meant to change the dialogue, all espousers of political moderation and civilized discourse must find more ways to present the political issues that should matter.

In other words, more necessary than a rally is a counterweight to the political extremism so commonly lent a media platform. Otherwise, the middle is just a collection of witty slogans and cartoon thought-bubbles.