Remember, remember, the month of October.
That may not rhyme or roll off the tongue, but when it comes to national political protests, it’s been the rule of thumb for the past couple of years — and if these protests can be used as any sort of pulse of the liberal or progressive movements, we’ve gotten a lot less fun, but a lot more focused.
We started with the seed of something groundbreaking, something that had the potential to marry popular culture and politics in an effective way that had never been used before. This was was Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s joint effort, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Keep Fear Alive on Oct. 30 of last year. But the movement dissolved into a bland, predictable ruse that was cynical without being constructive.
What didn’t work for last year’s rally was that nobody was completely sure what it was trying to accomplish. A plea for young liberals and progressives to wake up, perhaps — and on some level maybe that worked. But once we were awake, then what were we supposed to do? Keep watching “The Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” and shaking our heads at other people’s stupidity? Reach out to people across the aisle, despite there being no common ground for us to stand on together? The Rally to Restore Sanity, so arrogantly ambitious in its title, ultimately did little more than advance Stewart’s and Colbert’s profiles.
For the left, that used to be enough: The idea that we had comedy, intelligence and the best of culture on our side was, for too long, an acceptable alternative to wielding actual political power. Because for many educated progressive young people, it’s simply not in our nature to take politics seriously. When we know that the odds are so clearly stacked against us, it’s much easier to just laugh at the fools on the other side.
The election of Barack Obama was an exciting moment to be sure, but when he made some questionable compromises with Republicans despite the power the supermajority gave him, it became clear that the president was at best a moderate, which in this case is political shorthand for “won’t put up much of a fight and wants campaign money.”
And there was Jon Stewart on the air almost every weeknight, attacking Obama and Congress for their decisions. Stewart clearly considers himself liberal, and knowing that he could criticize politicians and be so popular was a nice consolation prize. But did Stewart and the like provide so much catharsis that real action no longer seemed necessary? Facing the growing Tea Party was a joke-filled pseudo-protest in Washington with signs and slogans like “Angry Protest Sign” and “Make Awkward Sexual Advances, Not War” the best we were going to get?
Apparently not. Almost a full year later, Occupy Wall Street happened. And it’s still happening. It has spread all over the country, and some of its main goals — to take power away from big banks and to redistribute wealth from the top 1 percent to the other 99 percent — are unapologetically progressive. This truly grassroots movement, which started in chaos, is gaining organization and attention, and has a real voice. There are a few jokes coming from this occupation, but then, jokes don’t pass laws.
If anything was gained by the Rally to Restore Sanity, it was the reminder that putting all of one’s faith in a leader who relies on public opinion for his or her livelihood is a risky move. The left saw that with Obama, who is smart enough to know that if he wants to be reelected, he cannot serve any one faction too loyally. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are the same — for all their strong views and influence, their attempted “movement” showed that they value entertainment above anything else, and frankly, entertainment is what they’re best at.
What’s great about this movement is that Jon Stewart and his peers on “Saturday Night Live,” etc. still have a place — but it’s as the commentators on the sidelines rather than as the center of it all. A year ago, the young left, disillusioned with Obama, was a movement without a singular leader, and we thought we needed one in order to voice our discontent. But with Occupy Wall Street, that weakness has turned to a strength. Putting your faith in people is asking to be disappointed, but if you put faith in ideas, you remain in control. We are no longer caught up in our own self-image, reflected back to us in the detached cynicism of the Rally to Restore Sanity, but rather are focused on making ourselves heard to create a more just society.
Think of it this way: The progressive movement last year was like that cynical hipster in your discussion section who implies through his sulky tone that he’s smarter than the TA, but can’t muster much more than a snarky comment or two. Today it is the teacher’s pet, always up on the reading and brimming with insights.
Maybe both of those individuals are annoying to you, but the latter is going to get an A.