"Restoring Sanity": A Moderate Anti-History?



8 comments
Janine Giordano Drake

There has been great discussion on this blog in recent months about antihistory--that popular assumption that differences in time, space and culture between the Constitutional founders and Americans at present is trivial and in most respects irrelevant. We see this in contemporary Tea Party protests for present taxes as well as recent political candidates' statements that they are "simply" for The Constitution. As Linford Fisher has recently said on this blog, Jill Lepore calls this habit of investing the words of the Founders with timeless meaning, irrelevant of context and ambiguity, "historical fundamentalism." Some contemporary Tea Partiers have indeed sought in the history of the Founders an unambiguous set of directives for taxation, the separation of powers, and the tensions between different interest groups.

And yet, watching the "Rally to Restore Sanity And/or Fear" yesterday, I began to wonder if antihistory looms just as largely within the secular, moderate majority as within the Tea Party. Jon Stewart said he was calling the rally to restore sanity and civility to political discourse. He thus assumed that at one point in the past, American could "have animus and not be enemies." In its lead-up, he referred to the event as a "million moderate march." However, when in the past was there animus without severe political infighting? When in the American past was there political turmoil without fervent religious discourse? Stewart's understanding of moderation was tied to secularism, but this must be recognized as a forward-thinking, and not a "restoration-ist" conviction.

I find myself wondering why Stewart's understanding of civil political discourse makes no room for firm religious commitments. For example, Stewart could have left out a benediction entirely. Instead, he opened the rally with a parody benediction by SNL's Guido Sarducci. Mocking all exclusionary religions and especially the intellectual humility of the Italian-American Catholic priest, Sarducci asked God to send a sign of the particular religion that God liked best. The joke thus not only mocked believers but mocked the possibility that God could be fit into one religion. Stewart didn't have to go here, but he chose to make a clear statement at the beginning of the rally about the irony of both religion and religious leadership in political discourse.

Stewart's closing speech reiterated this statement. He argued that in restoring civility, we need to denude political discourse of religious sensibilities. "We live now in hard times, not end times," he said. By "hard times" he likely referred to difficult economic times, and by "end times" to the conviction that Jesus' return is imminent. This not only bothers me because the idea that we are living in the end times has encompassed the entirely of American religious and political history. But, Stewart's suggestion that the reality of economic hard times become the common denominator of political discourse projects an alternate, secular framework for civil discourse that does not make room for religious convictions.

Stewart closed the rally, "[S]ometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey." Stewart here hoped to push us to see the world through less optimistic and more worldly eyes. He also secularized the founding mythology of a Promised Land to imply that what we really needed to learn from this American experiment was the importance of working together. He could not, or did not want to, imagine political civility within the context of our American plurality of cultures and serious religious convictions.

To imagine we could "restore" a time when Americans argued without calling each other unfair names and declaring some ought to be silenced politically and socially in the name of true religion is to engage in antihistory. Indeed, many these days try to imagine differently (as this pretend political attack ad suggests that even the Founders could not have withstood such oversimplified bickering). However, I think this is just wishful thinking. Politics has always been brutal, and political discourse in this country has always been about coalition building. If it sounds civil, it is just civil enough to engage the moderates who might be wiling to become allies.

8 comments:

tweedlebug at: October 31, 2010 at 12:39 PM said...

I doubt that the word "Restore" in the title of the rally is to be taken very seriously. My interpretation is that it is merely to mock the title of Glen Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally. I do think, however, that he wants us to take the word "sanity" very seriously. His definition of sanity includes a world in which our public discourse respects the religious convictions of others to the extent that we stop insisting on using phraseology that invokes our own religious convictions as unassailable truths. In other words, I think he believes it's ok for people to believe their religion is right and that everyone else's is wrong, but it's not ok to push that philosophy in the public sphere because it inevitably irritates everyone else and makes communication, collaboration, and compromise extremely difficult. It makes pleasant and peaceful coexistence with people with other points of view almost impossible. Speaking from a perspective of "I'm right and you're wrong" -- even if I really am right and you're really wrong -- is counterproductive, alienating, and anti-pluralistic. I don't think he wants us to repress our convictions or pretend that we don't have any. I rather think he wants us to more openly acknowledge and respect the convictions of others, and make meaningful compromises so that each can live according to their own consciences without feeling targeted or attacked for doing so, and without feeling that any group is imposing their worldview on our common society.

That last part is key: we have a common society, in which many people believe many different things. I think he would say that he values the freedom to let people keep believing many different things. To some extent, this does mean that we would have to limit our own public proclamations of our religious convictions and instead use more secular language in the public sphere. I don't see anything wrong with that, and I don't think that limits religious freedom. It creates a climate in which private religious freedom can flourish, precisely because its presence in the rhetoric of the public sphere is diminished.

Tom Van Dyke at: October 31, 2010 at 3:01 PM said...

The joke thus not only mocked believers but mocked the possibility that God could be fit into one religion. Stewart didn't have to go here, but he chose to make a clear statement at the beginning of the rally about the irony of both religion and religious leadership in political discourse.

Stewart's closing speech reiterated this statement. He argued that in restoring civility, we need to denude political discourse of religious sensibilities.


Thank you, Ms. Drake. We have not yet come up with---or perhaps we have forgotten in that anti-history sort of way---what genuine [American] religious pluralism looks like. It's far more difficult and mindful than simply bleaching out religion of all its content.

Cynthia at: October 31, 2010 at 4:01 PM said...

Hm, I think your response is correct given your reading of Jon, but I think almost everything about your reading is wrong.

I agree with tweedlebug that the word "Restore" was just taken from Beck.

The "Benediction" was very irritating to me at first (I am a believing and practicing religious person). But I thought it ended on a very sweet and sincere note. "the irony of both religion and religious leadership in political discourse"---surely you aren't suggesting that there isn't room to criticize the role religion has played in our political discourse of late? Even as a member of a very conservative religious institution, I find the sins many and egregious and very mock-worthy.

I think you also totally misread the "We live now in hard times, not end times" comment. I read it as a denunciation of the ridiculous Obama is literally the anti-Christ because he was born in Kenya and he is really popular rhetoric of the the anti-Obama crowds. Again, pretty objectively scorn/mock-worthy.

"To imagine we could "restore" a time when Americans argued without calling each other unfair names and declaring some ought to be silenced politically and socially in the name of true religion is to engage in antihistory." Again, hanging way too much on the title of the rally, which was just a play on Beck's words.

Cynthia at: October 31, 2010 at 4:27 PM said...

Actually I think the "We live now in hard times, not end times" comment is precisely in line with your observations about history in this piece. You identify how alarmist, end-times, all-around very raucous politicking has been going on since the beginning. You identify that our nation has undergone major mission-changing shifts over time. Well, Jon is making the exact same point, to wit, "relax people, we've been in tough spots before, we've undergone major change before, we've had big political disagreements before." None of this is completely sui generis type stuff, the way the anti-Obama crowd sometimes makes it out to be. I think the sui generis point was the real point, and the "end-times" label was just a turn of phrase, again responding to specific things the other side has said (like the "Restore" in the title).

Tom Van Dyke at: October 31, 2010 at 5:27 PM said...

http://isbushantichrist.blogspot.com/

Whatever.

Janine Giordano at: October 31, 2010 at 5:37 PM said...

Great discussion erupting here. I agree both a) that "restore" was really a play on Beck's words and b) that the denunciation of end-times rhetoric was in part a response to people who think Obama is the anti-Christ. And, if it's not obvious, I'm certainly not one of the people who makes such claims--I believe in civil political discourse as much as anyone. :)

My point was much more in line with that of Tom Van Dyke: that in calling for a relaxed political climate, Jon didn't try hard enough to imagine a pluralistic democracy. The very fact that Stewart called this "Restoring..." (rather than challenging this term) and claimed the rally was for moderates (rather than anti-Beck political organizers) admitted that he wasn't trying to be too imaginative either. I don't like that Stewart makes it seem cool to reject political fervor. I don't like that he equated racists and homophobes with Marxists in the same sentence on people who undermine the Constitution. As an educator and political historian, I think it's our job (don't you?) to teach people how to do the research and get invested in their polity. I'm all for civil political discourse, but to suggest there's a reason there was never a million moderate march before.

January at: November 1, 2010 at 10:28 PM said...

My position comes from only anecdotes and vaguely remembered arguments. Yet I recall being convinced that we have seen a change in our political atmosphere in the last 30 years, from campaigns as contests to campaigns as wars, intended to destroy rather than merely win.

I recall receiving literature and training from the Chamber of Commerce in the 1960s to learn how to win elections. I have seen historical commentaries proporting to show that American business had come to realize that control of political process can bring great financial rewards.

However, the systematic plundering of the national treasury traced by Republican advisor Kevin Phillips offers a justification of the charge that, indeed, the tone of politics today is different, more sinister, than in the past.

So, "restore sanity" means something concrete to me. "Dirty tricks" may not be new, but their predictability is.

U. P. Image, LLC at: November 4, 2010 at 11:37 AM said...

I do find the discussion interesting; I only wish to raise the question about Stewart's "promised land" comment. I suspect (not living in Stewart's mind, I can only suspect) that he intended this to suggest that no one party holds the solutions to the problems at hand. In 2008, it seems to me, then-candidate Obama was seen as "the light at the end of the tunnel" who would bring hope and solutions. Now, it seems that another segment of the population is pointing to the return of Republican power as "the light at the end of the tunnel" of two years of Obama.

But Stewart, I think, is saying that neither party holds the answer--that if we depend on a particular party's being in power to be the "light at the end of the tunnel" we will find ourselves in just another place, not in the promised land (I don't think he meant any particular disrespect to New Jersey).

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