Because it is difficult to form and articulate intelligent thoughts, in general, but specifically about an event that blurs the lines between sincerity, irony, comedy and politics, much of the conversation surrounding Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear revolves around how many people showed up. The Associated Press literally reported the number of Facebook RSVPs. Anyone who has ever used the Internet knows that is absurd. This is the horse race media and its ravenous followers at their worst and it is boring and it is mostly empty.
Legitimacy does not come from internet buzz or numbers, but from ideas and conviction and follow-through (no Malcolm Gladwell). When Glenn Beck says 500,000 people attended his “Restoring Honor” rally, he is lying. When CBS says it is more like 87,000, it still doesn’t really matter. Jon Stewart said onstage this afternoon that 10 million people showed up to his shindig. That’s a joke. Tonight, tomorrow, and the next day, when the “real” estimates come through — from Comedy Central, from CBS, from Fox News and from Glenn Beck — that will be a joke, too.
It will be a joke because the numbers will vary greatly. (A guess: 50,000 to 200,000.) It also will not prove anything, except how many relatively well off, (mostly) white people had not much else to do on the Saturday before Halloween and could make it to Washington, D.C. Maybe it also proves that The Daily Show and Colbert Report have loyal viewers, even beyond their ratings. (Hello, Internet.)
But every media outlet is speculating and every media outlet will report various results. Why? Because everyone else is doing it. It is a simple, built-in narrative, especially after Beck’s bragging. The Rally has already resulted in at least five trending topics on Twitter. You know what else is a trending topic? #yeaulookgoodbut.
All of which is not to say that a mass demonstration of people who believe in facts, rationality and communication through comedy are meaningless or wasting their time. Mediaite’s Rachel Sklar did a good job of justifying why the Rally matters. “Anyone who thinks this rally is about ironic detachment does not get it,” she writes. Moreover:
They’ve reached their audience, and grabbed them through their TVs and computers and maybe even a few newspapers, and spurred them to action. Thousands upon thousands of people amassing on a mall is not an act of collective indifference. It tapped into something – just as Beck’s and Palin’s rally did in August.
But quibbling over the statistics remains meaningless. The need for numbers comes from a shallow, competitive place in our collective American political psyche and accomplishes little to nothing. Do you, Daily Show watcher, Democratic voter or blogger, feel the need to legitimize yourself in comparison with the Tea Party movement? Don’t.
Sure, in a sad season for Democrats a showing of solidarity is somewhat heartening. But just remember that photographs of crowds are deceiving. It’s all in the angles. If there was a way to quantify energy, enthusiasm or loyalty, that might be useful. Oh wait, there might be — it’s called voting. Numbers matter on November 2.
Instead of all the hand-wringing, guessing, arguing and contextualizing about how many people attended two variety shows hosted by television hosts, why don’t we just get Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck on stage and have them drop trou? Then we can just pull out the rulers.