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The Jon Stewart rally and the irony equation

It's happening. The Jon Stewart rally -- Rally To Restore Sanity 2010 -- and the dueling Stephen Colbert rally -- March to Keep Fear Alive -- are officially scheduled for the Mall this October.

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This makes so much sense. Even putting aside the fact that Colbert is an explicit parody of conservative pundits of the Glenn Beck stripe, they attract the same kind of rabid fans who feel that, for whatever reason, the mainstream media is doing them a disservice.

Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann or, uh, whoever that guy is on CNN couldn't possibly generate the kind of excitement that Stewart and Colbert have managed to drum up. Don't get me wrong -- those liberal pundits both have great hair and lots of opinions, and if they want me to appear on their shows and say insightful things about finance, I'd be happy to oblige. But the true counterweights on the left to the crowd-rousers on the right are the comedians.

It's all about the irony.

The simple equation states that:

Glenn Beck = Stephen Colbert - Irony; or, put another way,

Glenn Beck + Irony = Stephen Colbert

Irony is a bizarre thing. But it's the dividing line between the two enthusiastic wings -- and it's getting narrower all the time. "I don't actually like Basil Marceaux," people say. "I just love him! He's too much! If that makes sense!" Remember how close people came to voting for him? Or when Alvin Greene asked Wonkette to make his website, mistaking her "enthusiastic embrace of his campaign" for, uh, an enthusiastic embrace of his campaign?

Take trucker hats and plaid. There are two explanations for the fact that you are wearing plaid and a trucker hat: 1. You are, in fact, a trucker and 2. You are an ironic hipster on your way to hear a band whose name is based on a quotation from a movie or an obscure historical event. Same thing goes for drinking PBR or loving Larry the Cable Guy. And look at "The Room," which is quickly becoming a pretty successful movie.

But so far, the ability to put quotation marks around your actions is the prerogative of young people, and these people tend to be left-leaning. You never hear someone say, "I voted for Obama, but only ironically." In fact, there hasn't been much ironic voting, except in Iceland, where all those people decided to elect a comedian mayor. Maybe Christine O'Donnell's supporters felt the same way.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert get this.

There are two things about irony. One is that doing things ironically allows you to make fun of the people who would actually do these things. "But hold up," I hear someone objecting, the hypothetical person to whom I am explaining what irony is. "Why is there a distinction between people who do things actually and who do things ironically? You're both wearing trucker hats!" No, we're not! I'm "wearing" this trucker hat. That trucker is wearing it because he wants to wear a hat, and he's a trucker.

But the other thing about irony -- as my hypothetical interlocutor points out -- is that it allows people who wouldn't ordinarily wear trucker hats to wear them.

That's what these rallies are all about.

Lady Gaga understands irony as well. She isn't wearing a meat dress because she thinks that's a good idea. She is wearing it as a commentary. You can do almost anything as long as you insist that it was a commentary afterwards. "Why are you responding to that Craigslist ad looking for "pussycat doll-style dancers?" my friends demand. "I'm not actually responding," I explain. "This is a commentary on people who really do that." "But you responded," they point out. "And just moments ago, you were gyrating to 'Buttons.'"

That's the problem with irony: if you go too far with it, you might start actually liking these things. It's the story of our whole generation. Once I started saying "totes!" for "totally" as an ironic commentary on people who say "totes!" Now I can't stop! I started playing the accordion ironically -- a fact that I kept insisting to my neighbors as they threw things at me and threatened to call the cops if I continued -- and now I cry a little when I hear Yorba Linda. It's a slippery slope. I started watching America's Most Wanted ironically, on Saturday nights at 9, and I wound up applying to get a job there. They didn't hire me -- mainly, I suspect, because I showed too much enthusiasm and kept calling their office after hours to insist that I could make a difference.

Now that I've discovered this slippery slope of irony, one of the things that keeps me awake at night is the idea that maybe, at one point, the Tea Partyers that so alarm the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert rallyers were just like them. They started watching Glenn Beck ironically. "I like this man," they told themselves. "He understands the Hitler meme. And he yells a lot. He's like a more hardcore Stephen Colbert." Then began the slide. "I'm going to the rally," they told their spouses. "But just ironically." "Do you mind if we have a 'tea party' here?" they come back and ask. "Look, it's in quotes!" But then one morning they wake up and forget to put the quotation marks on. And, boom! America is polarized.

Think about it. Meanwhile, I'd better go get my trucker hat. I've got a rally to attend.

By Alexandra Petri  | September 17, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, Reality? Television  | Tags:  Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, rally  
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