Honor versus Sanity: Dueling National Identities in the Rallies of Beck and Stewart

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

We’re all familiar with Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s upcoming “Rally to Restore Sanity ,” right? Scheduled to take place on the Washington National Mall on October 30th, the semi-facetious gathering is targeted, in the words of Stewart, at “people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler.”

stewart rally to restore sanity

In a not-so-veiled spoof of Glenn Beck’s recent Restoring Honor rally—“a celebration of America’s heroes and heritage,” co-emceed by Sarah Palin—Stewart’s counter-demonstration aims to be a call to level-headed arms against the hyperbole in rhetoric and extremism in thought that has come to dominate t

he American political experience of late.

What is most interesting about this development, though, is that it highlights a growing divide over what people in this country believe constitute American values in their truest form. Perhaps more than either camp realizes, the substance of this growing friction extends far beyond questions of purity or decorum: At their foundation, Beck-Stewart’s competing rallies inform–perhaps even epitomize–the enduring uncertainties surrounding the condition of American national identity.

glenn beck

In his book, “Imagined Communities,” Benedict Anderson argues for a conception of nationalism which is “’modular,’ capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, [and] to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations.” He maintains that the nation is an imagined community because its existence is owed to “the spontaneous distillation of a complex ‘crossing’ of discrete historical forces,” and because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of communion.”

So, the one million dollar question: Is ‘true’ Americanism rooted in religious, cultural and political particulars, as maintained by the Beck-Palin camp; or, as implied by Stewart and his cohort, is elemental Americanism about moderation in ideology and civility in discourse?

As posed, such questions are, of course, unanswerable. Furthermore, Beck’s and Stewart’s rallies aren’t explicitly concerned with addressing the question of national identity as I’ve it raised here. As a political sticking point, though, the Beck-Stewart dichotomy is instructive: To the extent that contingents on both sides of the political divide view Americanism as being defined by the substance of their particular worldview, they have adopted a view of Americanism counter to that of Stewart et al., which is alternatively characterized by a civility in approach to whichever worldview.

Even the rallies’ billings—restoring honor versus restoring sanity—are evocative of a debate over national identity. What ought to constitute “Americanism” at its most fundamental, they seem to ask: “Honor,” and thus a purity in adherence to one’s beliefs; or “Sanity,” and thus a rationality in thought with which to temper said beliefs?

Perhaps more provocatively, one might consider the extent to which these values are or are not mutually exclusive.

In considering these questions, I would welcome anyone and everyone to share with me their thoughts, opinions, and indeed criticisms of my ideas as I have outlined them here. Perhaps my involvement in gnovis this semester will serve as an ongoing platform for a dialogical consideration of these and other issues in which, whether we like it or not, we are all so intimately invested as people living in America.


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