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Jon Stewart perpetuates story of the “moderate center”

originally published on September 17, 2010

This from the NY Times:

Jon Stewart announced his much-awaited “big announcement” on Thursday’s edition of his late-night program, “The Daily Show.” He plans to stage a rally in Washington to counter what he identified as extremists on either side of the political spectrum.

Mr. Stewart told his audience the show had secured the National Mall on Oct. 30 for what he called “The Rally to Restore Sanity.”

He later labeled it a “Million Moderate March.” The purpose, he said, is to counter what he called a minority of 15 percent or 20 percent of the country that has dominated the national political discussion with extreme rhetoric. He tarred both parties with that charge, mentioning both the attacks on the right against President Obama for being everything from a socialist to un-American and on the left against former President Bush for being a war criminal.

Ha ha ha. While there’s actually a lot of clever language in the rally description and I think Stewart’s framing will resonate with a lot of people, here’s the problem

Pundits – Stewart included, unfortunately – love to present the radical right and the progressive left as equivalent in their “extremism.”  So what if President George W. Bush is, by reasonable definition, a war criminal, while President Obama is very far from a socialist.  Facts don’t matter in this story of the moderate center.  Nor does the punditry care to examine how the so-called “center” of national debates (in the halls of Congress and in the mainstream media) has moved further to the right for four decades, how virtually all federal legislative negotiations move only in one direction (to the right, to the right), or what happens when one side’s party leadership is consistently wanting to compromise while the other side’s wants to steamroll or obstruct (depending on how many seats they have).

They don’t care.  Because it’s just so fun to pick on the people who were brave enough to be out on the streets opposing the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war before the majority of the country came around to agree.  And it’s fun to pick out the most freakish looking people in the crowd and show that on TV as the image of progressive activism.  Isn’t it great that we live in a country where, when progressives are validated by the unfolding of events, instead of gaining power and taking leadership, we are shat on even more?

Thanks, John Stewart.  I’m happy for you that you can sound “fair and balanced” by taking a cheap shot at progressives.

I do, however, appreciate the framing for Colbert’s counter-rally: The March to Keep Fear Alive.

This frame actually speaks to the nature of why left and right can’t be treated as symmetrically “extreme.”  To generalize, a pillar of the radical right’s strategy is indeed to keep fear alive, because fear makes people stupid, closes down debate, and presents people with false dichotomies (e.g. “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists”) – which enables political bullies to bully.  Key to the “radical left’s” strategy, OTOH, is opening up ideas space and encouraging people to actually think for themselves and to unchain the popular political imagination.

So how do we counter this popular story of the “moderate center”?  What are some good examples of social movement organizations challenging or changing or bypassing this story?

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