The Treachery of Images

Those of us who smoke a pipe – that would be mostly former English teachers and older academic sorts – know all about the painting. It’s “The Treachery of Images” (La trahison des images) – that 1929 painting by the René Magritte. It shows a pipe and below it Magritte painted the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

This is not a pipe. Cool. The painting is not a pipe, of course. A pipe is a pipe. Just so look at the painting – René Magritte was right. That’s a painting. And Magritte was messing with us. The map is not the territory. Alfred Korzybski was fond of saying that – an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. The map is not the territory. Don’t confuse the two. Think clearly.

Ah, surrealist painters from Belgium and Polish-American philosophers who muse about how what we think is reality might be something else entirely. What would we do without them? Someone needs to remind us of such things. We do tend to get wrapped around our own axle about things that might just not be so – a proposed mosque at Ground Zero that isn’t actually a mosque and isn’t actually at Ground Zero and that sort of thing, or Sharia Law in Dearborn or Oklahoma. Or it might be that Obama is a Socialist-Communist-Fascist-Muslim-Atheist who is totally incompetent and also well on his way, so very cleverly, to take over America and change it into France, outsmarting us all, and who was born in Kenya and cannot be president anyway. Or else he’s Hitler, or Stalin, or a disgruntled Kenyan goatherd. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a big rally on the National Mall in Washington with someone holding up a kind of Magritte sign? It would read HITLER IS HITLER.

And actually someone did that. And look at the other signs – SOMEWHAT IRRITATED BY EXTREME OUTRAGE – GOD HATES SIGNS – GOD HATES FLAGS – PROTEST SIGNS ARE AN INEFFECTUAL WAY OF COMMUNICATING NUANCED VIEWS THAT CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT BE REDUCED TO PITY SLOGANS – THIS SIGN IS SPELLED CORRECTLY. And there was one that’s pure Magritte – THIS IS A GOOD SIGN. No one held up the famous Magritte painting. But these folks made the same point. People do get wrapped around their own axle about things that might just not be so.

Yes, Magritte and Korzybski are quite dead, and obscure, except to pipe smokers of course. But we do have Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and they will have to do – and the rally was Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and Colbert’s counterpart, the “March to Keep Fear Alive.” That puzzling joint event was held on the last Saturday in October, one day before Halloween and four days before the midterm elections. They were getting a jump on the upcoming surrealism and this was billed as “a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies.” There is the fifteen or twenty percent of Americans who “control the conversation” of our politics – they have their own hysterical rallies. This was for the rest of us.

And of course it was a response to Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally and the Al Sharpton Reclaim the Dream rally – passionate affairs of course. But this was about the opposite of passion, and Stewart put it this way:

This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are, and we do.

But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus, and not be enemies.

Maybe it is time we unwrapped ourselves from around that axle. Of course NPR issued an internal memo barring staffers from attending the rally – “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies involving causes or issues that NPR covers, nor should they sign petitions or otherwise lend their name to such causes, or contribute money to them. This restriction applies to the upcoming Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallies.”

They were still smarting from all the bad press they got when they fired Juan Williams. They had to prove they weren’t liberals. And NBC and other media outlets did the same, barring employees from attending the rally outright, while the Washington Post was a little looser, telling their newsroom managers to differentiate between “participating” and “observing.” When you’re dealing with reasonableness one cannot be too careful. You don’t want to offend people or take sides, as most people hate reasonableness.

Or maybe they don’t:

According to aerial photography analysis by AirPhotosLive.com for CBS, the Rally drew approximately 215,000 people. Attendance far exceeded both Comedy Central’s expected attendance of 60,000 people and the 87,000 people estimated by AirPhotosLive.com as having attended Beck’s rally.

That was a bit surprising. There’s a venue for reasonableness? Who knew?

But people had said this was a terrible idea. See Mary Elizabeth Williams – Have Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart crossed the line?

And here’s her thesis – “The comedians’ upcoming rallies will mock Glenn Beck’s histrionics. But are they becoming too shrill themselves?”

Williams was not impressed with the idea:

We’re going to show you how ridiculous Glenn Beck is because we’re going to put two comics up there and they’re going to have more people. Yay! Our side gets its very own hollow gesture, too!

There’s something undeniably frustrating about watching a bunch of yahoos bluster around acting like they own what is ostensibly also our country. Hey, wackypacks, we abortion-loving immigrant homosexual non-Christians are America too. Yet the joke must be a little too clever for my eyes when the Rally to Restore Sanity is described as the one “for the 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 we shall do that by … having a rally.

She sensed pure hubris:

Remember how you and your buds ironically started calling each other “dude” freshman year? And now it’s many years later and you still do? At a certain point even sarcasm jumps the shark. Oh no, you politely rebut. See, we’re doing it to be funny. Plus we’re right and they’re wrong.

It’s just that it’s tough to tread in the muck of parody and not wind up bearing an uncanny resemblance to the things we despise.

And then Mary Elizabeth Williams went to the rally and changed her mind:

The show/rally/event itself was an uneven affair, with Comedy Central devoting the first 40 minutes to the quasi warm-up performance by The Roots and John Legend. Sure, everybody loves a sousaphone jam, but as the televised event crept toward the one-hour mark, watches were glanced at, sandwiches were made. And when “Mythbusters” hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman led world’s largest/least-interesting-to-watch-at-home version of the wave, it seemed the thing was spinning its own wheels – and hard. But then, when they coaxed the crowd into a rousing, synchronized jump, the point of the day began to reveal itself. When we move together, you see, we can literally create a groundswell. Or at least the quantifiable impact of a minor car crash.

Things were shifting:

A day built around the taking down of notches is not necessarily going to be a day with a high wow factor, and indeed, Jon Stewart’s low-key, almost professorial official introduction was no “Are you ready to rock?” Thank heaven, then, for Stephen Colbert. Emerging from a “Fear Bunker” in a tube fit for a trapped miner and chanting, “Chi-le! Chi-le!” Colbert, clad in a patriotic Evil Knievel-esque ensemble, instantly provided the clowny yin and/or yang to Stewart’s earnestness. And when he threatened to restore fear to the crowd with the only thing more terrifying than a shoe-brandishing terrorist – a swarm of peanut-butter-covered bees – it was the long-awaited first belly laugh of the day.

But then if there was the one key moment that changed it all, that had to do with all the nuttiness about Muslims:

It would have been enough had it ended with Stewart bringing out Yusuf, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, to lead a lilting rendition of “Peace Train.” But the ante upped when Colbert had the audacity to cut him off to trot out Ozzy Osbourne to thoroughly bring it with everyone’s favorite ringtone for their designated lunatic, “Crazy Train.” But then something truly amazing happened. Stewart cut the action off again – and somewhere in the distance, the sound of “People all over the world …” was heard. It was the O’Jays, a little vocally worse for the wear but bedazzled and funky as ever, to finish off the greatest train-song medley trifecta in recorded history. “Love Train” was a punchline, yes. But if you didn’t feel a lump in your throat watching thousands of Americans on the Mall soulfully command us to join hands, then I feel sorry, sorry for you. That sweet, funny moment was what the day was about. My fellow Americans, if we don’t have love, we’ve got zip.

She does mention flat moments – Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow and this and that – but she says that when Stewart and Colbert took their podiums for a mock debate, things began to come back into focus:

Stewart astutely pointed out that we can’t condemn all Muslims when “There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world,” but the point really resonated when he trotted out beloved basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to bring it home. Is Roger Murdock a terrorist? Then shut up, haters. Colbert then mock-countered by unleashing a giant, Colbert-shaped “Fearzilla” to unveil a brilliantly terrible montage of mainstream media fearmongering. Suffice to say, the phrase “in YOUR town” featured heavily. Lessons learned from the Rally: Both your flip-flops and your television remote are trying to keeeeeeeell you.

Close to the end, Stewart, ever the more gravitas-endowed, came out alone to do the hardest work of the day – to tell the crowd and the viewers what the hell they were all doing here. Well, sort of. “I’m happy you guys are here,” he said, “even if none of us are quite sure why we’re here.” And he announced, encouragingly enough to be convincing, that “We live in hard times, not end times.” It was a welcome reminder of the distinction.

She was won over:

What this crazy, not entirely well-thought out, quasi-free-for-all was about, it turns out, was we, the people. The proud, generous, spirited, non-yelling and non-bullying real Americans who know that “If we amplify everything we hear nothing.” Having 4Troops perform the national anthem and Tony Bennett belt out “America, the Beautiful” was not irony. Even Father Guido’s rambling benediction that ended with a “Thank you, and we really mean it,” was sincere.

Because the ultimate metaphor for who we are, in the competent words of Stewart, is our nightmarishly daily, eminently Yankee commute. The NRA members and the Obama voters. The soccer moms and the immigrants. And somehow we all generally merge into one harmonious lane. It’s true that as Stewart explained, “Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. It’s just New Jersey.” But when we practice compassion and community, when we remember that the loudmouths are not a true picture of who we are, we can heal a nation, fly to the moon, and even get to work on time.

Yeah, but so what – what did this really change? There one cannot know:

Did it cure hysteria, paranoia and rampant jerkwaddery? Only time will tell, but don’t hold your breath. Maybe it was nothing more than a comedic stunt. Maybe it was just a helpful reminder to, as one genius sign in the crowd implored, “Make awkward sexual advances, not war.”

But when Mavis Staples and the entire ensemble gathered for the finale to promise “I’ll Take You There,” it seemed, at least for a minute, something more. It was a message to the world that we are not the sum of our loudest, angriest parts. That most of our hearts, broken and aching and cynical and flawed though they often are, are in the right place.

And that’s not exactly chopped liver, as they say. These two showed Beck how it’s done.

By the way, Mary Elizabeth Williams is the author of Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream – she knows the housing crisis inside and out. Maybe she’s not impartial.

Alex Pareene has a slightly different take:

Jon Stewart didn’t lie. His “Rally to Restore Sanity” was aggressively non-partisan. But while none of the participants had anything to say about the upcoming midterm elections (besides a brief shout of “vote!” by American treasure and ’60s civil rights marcher Tony Bennett), there was a quiet political message. And, honestly, it’s a message that Democrats should be happy with.

So it was a partisan rally, after all:

An endorsement of civility and reason is basically an endorsement of Barack Obama. “Reason and civility” are practically the Democratic Party’s platform. The rally was a call to keep fighting for the things that make educated young liberals support Democrats in the first place.

And there are the other guys:

The Republican midterm strategy is based on anger and resentment. A celebration of the idea that basically everyone’s pretty okay at heart is a pretty liberal message. Some of the comedy (most of it involving Stephen Colbert) was explicitly against Republican midterm fear-mongering campaigns involving the demonization of Islam – like bringing on Yusef Islam and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to drive home the apparently controversial point that Muslims are nice, pleasant people.

And there is the media:

Stewart’s final monologue – his serious, Mr. Smith moment – was less a political message than an extended bit of media criticism. It was a sequel, really to his famous “Crossfire” appearance. Twenty-four-hour media doesn’t cause problems, Stewart argued, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The mainstream press has been this rally’s greatest critic (Stewart’s too political/too naive/too serious/hurting his “brand”) and they ended up being – much more than, say, Glenn Beck – its biggest target. The nonpartisan establishment press is a thousand times more cynical than Stewart the irony-drenched comedian, and that’s in part why they hate it when he gets “preachy.”

“The only place people don’t work together to get things done,” Stewart said, “is here,” gesturing to the Capitol, “and on cable TV.”

And Pareene better explains the key metaphor Stewart was using, cars merging into single lanes to enter tunnels:

Trust me, it actually worked. … What about the guys who drive up the shoulder and try to cut in at the last possible second? “That individual is rare, and scorned, and not hired as an analyst.”

So let’s get serious:

Stewart’s message is basically that all Americans have the ability to just not be assholes, and the press has a responsibility to not reward being an asshole.

But see this – Keith Olbermann Thinks Jon Stewart Jumped The Shark Yesterday – “What apparently set Olbermann off was the long montage of cable clips Stephen Colbert introduced to back up the appearance of his ‘fear’ monster – essentially a longer version of typical Daily Show editing that strives (successfully, it must be said) to highlight the ridiculousness of cablesphere.” Some of that was Keith Olbermann self-righteously ranting. Like Queen Victoria long ago, Olbermann was not amused. It seems Olbermann doesn’t get it. He was the one who jumped the shark some time ago.

And Andrew Sullivan says that’s a very good sign – as this was a rally unlike almost any other rally he’d ever been to:

One obvious observation: it was the first actual ironic rally I’ve attended. Most of those in this movement were clearly ambivalent about being in any movement, but at the same time seemed to be acting out of some shared civic duty. “One man can write a pun, but every man must try.” Almost every poster and placard was ironic, or undercut the ego or seriousness of the protester. One of my truly in-joke favorites: “Personally, I Blame Matt Yglesias.” Who cannot rally behind that?

There were very, very few explicitly partisan appeals or personal attacks on public figures; and if the Beck rally coalesced around vague themes of patriotism, God and motherhood, this one seemed motivated by a simple sensibility of reason, empiricism and humor.

And here’s the real kicker:

The point, it seemed to me, was that politics isn’t all there is to life, there is something slightly off about those who think it is, and that political ideology has come to define us culturally and personally far too much. So this wasn’t an angry rally for the alienated Democratic left; or even a joyous rally like last fall’s March for Equality; or a desperate and frustrated rally like the Tea Partiers. No one was demanding their country back; they were just demanding, well asking, for a little less polarization, and a little more mutual understanding. It was an Obama rally that didn’t want to be an Obama rally. And it was only an Obama rally sotto voce because he seems currently the only adult in Washington with any interest in compromising with anyone.

And then Sullivan gets into some interesting taxonomy:

There are, after all, three political groupings in American politics: Republicans, Democrats and Independents. But there are also three cultural groupings: ideologues, the pragmatists, and the totally indifferent. This was a rally for the pragmatists, which made it, for my money, the core Obama base.

It wasn’t ethnically very diverse, but there were many more boomers than I expected. It was very good humored, and one sensed that the entire crowd loathed Fox, felt queasy about MSNBC, couldn’t bring themselves to watch CNN and caught NPR in the commute. The young were out in force, but, again, they seemed like the Obama generation – not the facile dreamers who saw a Messiah in 2008, but the resilient rump who knew full well what he was up against.

Was it politically coherent? It was neither the Perot stuff from the early nineties nor the Beck stuff of a month or two ago, but it was coherent:

It is an identity politics: proud of being educated, sick of being stereotyped, interested in facts and reality, fed up with being condescended to … and deeply worried about the direction in this country.

If the ghost of Richard Nixon will allow me, Stewart and Colbert have sensed a silent plurality, alienated by both parties, still hoping for Obama’s success, and yet unwilling to worship any politician or even take themselves too seriously for fear of falling into the same foul-smelling bullshit that already covers far too much of our political culture.

And that gave me not just a great afternoon. It gave me hope.

And what Sullivan calls the same foul-smelling bullshit that already covers far too much of our political culture, Magritte called the Treachery of Images. The map is not the territory.

Not that any of this is new. Via Digby see HP Lovecraft from 1936:

As for the Republicans – how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical “American heritage”) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience?

Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives to the dead.

Yep, people do get wrapped around their own axle, and end up believing preposterous things – even those on the left too, of course. And this is not a pipe.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in America Grows Up, American Delusion, American Sense of Fair Play, Jon Stewart, Political Discourse, Political Irony, Political Surrealism, Rally to Restore Sanity, Reason and Civility and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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