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Stewart/Colbert rallies: Are these guys serious?

This weekend, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert will host the Rally to Restore Sanity and the March to Keep Fear Alive, respectively, at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The much-publicized events are expected to draw large crowds, but what will they accomplish? Offering some perspective is Jeffrey Juris, an assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, whose research focuses on social movements, new media and youth culture.

Should these events be taken seriously on their own merit, or are they just intended as satire?

They should certainly be taken seriously, as should all satire. The point of the rallies, and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report more generally, is to use humor to shine a light on the contradictions, foibles and absurdities of our political culture in order to provoke critical reflection, particularly among young people who might not otherwise take an interest in politics. In this case, the rallies go one step further and entail participatory action.

Will these kinds of celebrity efforts dilute the seriousness of the upcoming midterm election?

Satire blurs the boundary between humor and seriousness. These particular rallies are a risk, though, as they seem to represent, along with Stephen Colbert’s recent congressional testimony in support of migrant workers, a shift from pure satire to a hybrid form involving more direct kinds of political engagement.

As a recent column in the Huffington Post pointed out, the risk is that if the rallies, despite their claim to be “nonpolitical,” succeed in mobilizing people to the polls —likely to vote Democratic — they will have achieved something tangible, but may ultimately undermine the longer-term project of satire. If they don’t mobilize people to the polls, the rallies may come off as narcissistic and self-serving.

Does a big rally in general merely excite the attendees, or does it have effects that reach beyond the rally location?

Big rallies certainly have the potential to excite and energize attendees. But they can have wider effects in at least two ways. First, if the rallies succeed in generating significant media coverage, which I suspect they will, given the novelty of the event and the inevitable comparisons with the rally organized by Glenn Beck, they can influence people far beyond the site and time of the rally itself. Second, if people are moved to take action, such as voting or engaging in political discussion, the rallies could potentially have a more direct, though likely modest, political impact. If they succeed in starting a conversation about the increasing absurdity of our political culture (which the rallies themselves will dramatize) they could also have a broader long-term impact.

Why is there always such sensitivity, and debate, around determining the number of attendees at a rally like this?

Rightly or wrongly, rallies and protests are often seen as embodying or representing a larger movement, interest group or current of public opinion. The number of participants in a rally is thus taken as an indicator of the size and strength of a broader public. Part of the media “war of interpretation” after such events is thus an attempt to shape the perception of the number of participants. This dynamic should be particularly intriguing after the Stewart/Colbert rallies, given the inevitable comparison with the Glenn Beck rally.

Interestingly, the One Nation rally on October 2 to demand jobs and progressive social and labor policies drew a few hundred thousand people but was relatively ignored. In part this is because standard political rallies are commonplace and thus not considered particularly newsworthy, while celebrity events such as the Glenn Beck rally are still novel and thus tend to elicit more media attention. It will be interesting to see how this plays out with the upcoming Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rallies.

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