Keeping irony alive on the Mall

On Saturday, I went to the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, an event that might more accurately have been called The Rally For Ironic, College-Educated, Eastern Seaboard Liberals With Blocky Glasses Who Pay Their Taxes Mostly Without Complaint and Want Only to Enjoy Funny Skits and Good Music.

An estimated quarter of a million people flocked to the National Mall to see co-hosts Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report," plus a variety of special guests, entertain the crowd and live television audience for two hours. Take that, Glenn Beck, who managed only a mid-five-figure turnout at his rally this past August.

The crowded Mall made it hard to see the stage, and amplification issues made the performances difficult to hear. But most who attended seemed hardly to care: They were delighted to be around others also not suffering from — or trafficking in — the politics of hysteria. As if to reward their placid demeanors, the weather was sunny and temperate.

Although the audience was undeniably liberal, there wasn't much in the way of specific defense of the Democratic Party or particular politicians. Creative T-shirts and wacky signs carried the day, in fact. The more overtly political messages often relied on clever phrasing ("More Sanity, Less Hannity") or broad philosophizing ("Scratch Anger and You Get Fear"), and some poked fun at the worst elements from tea party rallies past ("Hitler Mustaches Make Everyone Sad"). There were also plenty of postmodern, apolitical entries, including "There's No Second 'R' in Sherbet" and "I Want a Sandwich."

In short, the rally was a half-sarcastic, half-serious plea for the country to ratchet the noise level down a bit, and to demonstrate that not every citizen believes America is careening toward a socialist apocalypse that can only be prevented by pitchfork-style revolts.

Was this highly ironic, tongue-in-cheek pageant appropriate political expression by those who can afford to laugh at a time when many of their fellow Americans are crying because they've recently lost their jobs, homes or retirement savings? Maybe not.

Still, Mr. Stewart — who delivered a serious monologue at the end of Saturday's program — is correct to call upon some voters to dial back or at least redirect their anger, especially when one considers how much confusion, misinformation, hysteria and hypocrisy have polluted our politics. To wit:

•Some citizens expressing anger about the 2008 corporate bailout bill don't seem to remember or realize that a) although supported by many Democrats and then-candidate Barack Obama, the bailouts were passed with the blessing and signature of President George W. Bush; and b) all but about $50 billion of the original $700 of government bailout loan guarantees have already been paid back.

•Americans who complain about the failure of current economic policies and yet call upon President Obama to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for those who earn more then $250,000 per year seem to forget that these tax rates are current policy, strongly suggesting that they never stimulated the economy despite adding $1.3 trillion, plus interest, to the national debt. (That also means the Bush-era tax cuts cost the U.S. treasury more than the stimulus and bank bailouts combined.)

•According to Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler, a significant percentage of Americans believe they have "not used a government social program," when in fact they rely upon government support in the form of Medicare, Social Security, the mortgage interest deduction, the earned income tax credit, or other wealth transfers and tax breaks. If you're wondering where all the monies from tax cuts and government spending went, folks, check your pockets or last year's tax return.

•The core premise of the "Taxed Enough Already" protests is that the U.S. government taxes Americans oppressively, even though a USA Today report earlier this year showed that tax rates are at their lowest levels since 1950. And as Wall Street Journal columnist Tom Frank has shown, the original tea partiers were actually bootlegger merchants at least as furious about the East India Company's oppressive business practices that drove prices down for sellers as about the British monarchy's tea taxes that drove prices up for consumers.

So, yes, on the way to the polls today, let's all chill out a bit. As for me, I just want a sandwich.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is

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