In Search of a Little Sanity

First things first. It’s Election Day tomorrow. VOTE! Click here to find your polling place. I know you’re probably disillusioned and disappointed and angry—we all are. But you still have two parties espousing for the most part diametrically opposing platforms and two houses of Congress in the balance. You might find yourself with an unsatisfying choice, but somebody is going to win. Might as well be the lesser evil. So if need be, hold your nose, weep softly—do whatever you need to—but vote!

Now on to other matters…

This weekend, two comedians presented very different conceptions of sanity. Jon Stewart, in his much ballyhooed Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear alongside Stephen Colbert, decried extremism in a distinctly bipartisan manner, chastising blowhards on the left and right for drowning out rational political discourse. Bill Maher, on the other hand, launched an unusually sharp attack at conservative guests Reihan Salam and Margaret Hoover on his HBO show, repeatedly playing video of a volunteer getting her head stomped on by a Rand Paul supporter in Kentucky before rattling off a greatest hits list of Republican extremism. The message: the insanity of today’s politics is no bipartisan affair. Accused by Salam of “saying that we are all bigot and homophobes, and we stomp on people’s heads,” Maher held his ground: “I’m just saying that when someone does that, they’re on your team.”

Maher hardly bolstered his sanity credentials when he, out of nowhere, asked his panel, which also included MSNBC host Laurence O’Donnell, whether he was racist to be alarmed by the fact that Mohammed has become the most popular new baby name in the UK. “Because I am,” he went on. “And it’s not because of race. It’s because of the religion. I don’t have to apologize, do I, for not wanting the Western world to be taken over by Islam in 300 years?”

In response, the advertised extremist was a model of reasonableness. Salam replied, “I must say, as [someone named] Reihan Salam, I’m pretty comfortable with Mohammed. I have some uncles named Mohammed, and I think that they’re pretty decent guys.”

Maher’s indulgence of his own irrationality and bigotry was unfortunate (both with his Mohammed quirk and his all-conservatives-are-bigots spiel) because there was a valuable point somewhere in there that Stewart’s vague calls for sanity missed. The insanity in politics is disproportionately located in one party, and Stewart’s (to borrow from Will Bunch at HuffPo) “high-minded pooh-pooing of the messy fray of actual democracy,” as the JumboTrons at the rally alternated between rants by Glen Beck and (John Gruenberg hero) Keith Olbermann, bore the hallmarks of the self-righteous centrism of Joe Liberman (frequently criticized by Stewart on his show), for whom the ability to speak softly and sound reasonable even while casting aspersions on the patriotism of his party’s presidential nominee, is a mark of moral superiority.

But sanity, moderation, reasonableness—all those good things—do not lie neatly at the midpoint between the extremes of the left and the right. They cannot be located by taking the mean of Glen Beck and Keith Olbermann, or of Tom Coburn and Bernie Sanders.

Because the goalposts are being moved as we speak. The mainstream political dialogue is becoming less rational as the wacko ideas of Angle, Miller, O’Donnell, Paladino and co. occupy one end of the spectrum and drag the supposed “center” unrecognizably rightwards. It’s not the crazies on talk radio and FOX per se that concern me, or even this election’s loon fringe, who strike me as the beneficiaries of uniquely propitious circumstances, although time will tell if they’re anything more than a flash in the pan.

In fact, I’ve become relatively immune to the steady stream of hyperbole that proliferates from right-wing outlets. When I read Frank Gaffney’s claim that NPR’s firing of Juan Williams is “evidence of submission to shariah,” I hardly batted an eye. I did more than that, however, a few weeks back when I saw that ABC’s Sunday show, This Week, hosted by acclaimed journalist Christiane Amanpour, would be hosting a town hall called “Should Americans Fear Islam?”

I’m sure Amanpour had the best of intentions in light of the controversy over the fearful “Ground Zero Mosque,” but the very fact that a mainstream media outlet would hold an hour-long special chock-full of reasoned insights from the Reverend Franklin Graham like “I understand what the Muslims want to do in America. They want to build as many mosques and cultural centers as they possibly can so they can convert as many Americans as they can to Islam” speaks to just how far off the rails our public discourse has wandered. It’s why Juan Williams’ tempered bigotry on the issue seemed so unremarkable.

(In other news, ABC’s election night coverage will feature notorious hack Andrew Breitbart, who, you might remember, smeared USDA employee Shirley Sherrod over the summer as a racist for shits and giggles.)

The point is not that the left or the right has a monopoly on truth or morality, because neither does. It’s that in the face of real problems, real challenges and real threats, we need to start defining what is reasonable based on facts, evidence and, dare I say, common sense rather than falsely equating it with an ever-shifting political centrism subject to the constant tugs of the radical right.

So while I share Jon Stewart’s distaste for loud media windbags, let’s not pretend that’s where the real problem lies.

Happy Election Day!




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