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Why the Jon Stewart Rally is my generation's Woodstock

We don't go to rallies.

Drag races? Men in heels.

Once we were in a protest, but only because we had to walk through it to get to a Lady Gaga concert.

Sign petitions? Please. March for a cause? Only if by "march" you mean "walk in a determined fashion" and by "cause" you mean "to buy that new frozen yogurt that is so popular these days."

Call us Generation I. I for irony, iPhones, and the Internet. I for instant gratification. I for idiosyncratic, inventive, impertinent. We're all these things.

Recently, Charles Murray accused us of being a "New Elite." This might be overstating our case a bit. What binds us is not a common experience or similar eugenetic stock, as he claims. It's our mindset -- a staunch and unstinting refusal to take anything seriously.

It's not that we don't believe some things are serious. We'll make It Gets Better videos or perform comedy for jazz relief, or whatever the occasion is. But sum up our lives in a phrase? The Importance Of Never Being Too Earnest.

We know what happens to people who take themselves seriously. They become bent and broken with care and develop arterial plaques. Sometimes they're elected to political office. "In America, any boy may become president," Adlai Stevenson once noted. "And I suppose it's just one of the risks he takes." We don't like the sound of that.

Forget the 1950s, which we picture as an entire era of people in conservative sweater-sets earnestly pushing towards the front of the class. These days, the whole class wants to sit in the back row and lob spitballs. Our icons are the class clowns, not the overachievers in near the blackboard. Raise our hands? Make a statement? Please. What is this, a Norman Rockwell painting?

After someone discovered the mystical secret of doing things ironically, we felt a great weight lift from our shoulders. Now, we dwell in thickets of inverted commas. Commit to fashions, opinions, favorite beverages? Why bother, when you can take someone to prom ironically as a commentary on beauty, or move to Tibet and spend three years living ironically in a monastery?

Want us to come to a rally? Better make it a "rally." Want us to testify before Congress? Can we do it in character?

Someone more cynical than I might say that our salient characteristic can be reduced to an overwhelming desire to avoid looking silly. But there's more to it than that.

As a millennial, my greatest fear is that someday I might accidentally say something that offends someone. I am so aware of this that the only group I feel safe writing vaguely offensive generalizations about is illiterate people. If you are reading this aloud to an illiterate friend, please, stop two sentences ago! I'm sorry! Read them this instead: Illiterate people are the salt of the earth! Most of my best friends are illiterate! I voted for an illiterate write-in candidate!

That's the one unforgivable sin in our book. Affairs? Addictions? We'll cope. But say something earnestly racist, homophobic, or misogynistic, and just watch everyone's affection evaporate. "I'm just quoting Mel Gibson," you scream. But it's too late.

But throw quotations around it, and everyone heaves a sigh of relief.

That's why comedy -- specifically, satire -- has risen to the top of the food chain.

Sure, we'll watch the news, read the newspaper or the Huffington Post. But millennials reserve idolization for the Onion, the Colbert Report, the Daily Show. We give comics the kind of adulation prior generations reserved for their musicians. We respect Lady Gaga. But millennials travel hundreds of miles to touch the hem of Jon Stewart's robe.

That's why the whole demographic is showing up for the Stewart/Colbert rally. More than 200,000 have already RSVP'ed on Facebook. That's almost as many as have registered to vote! And I'm not sure there's much overlap. The rally exists in a parallel universe in which millennials are politically active. Have you ever heard a millennial say, "Ah, I'm not voting this year." Sure. But have you ever heard one say, "That Jon Stewart guy is not funny at all"? Never! The earth might explode!

Woodstock didn't define a generation because everyone showed up (some people had to run for political office in subsequent years) or because the people who did were a perfectly representative sample. It defined a generation because, for a few days, it bottled its peculiar zeitgeist -- passion for music, free love, an aggressive hatred for bras, hallucinatory experimentation. That's what the Stewart rally does for us.

Millennials are Generation I, for whom life exists so we can put as many things as possible in quotes. And this "rally" is the closest millennials will ever get to a love-in. It's a "like-in." Millennials going to get together and wear properly supportive bras, which they will not burn, and carry reasonable signs! It's the ultimate anti-protest. It's a Facebook group in the flesh.

And it's millennials' Woodstock. Or, rather, "Woodstock."

But there's a nervous frisson of truthiness behind all this. "Give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth," Oscar Wilde once wrote. But what's behind the mask?

A recent article in the Style section quoted a media professor who said of Stewart, "He's a progressive, but his bias is towards reasonableness." When it comes to opinions, that's about as far as any of us can go. One step farther, and someone might call us angrily from Sweden! We're clinging to our satire as we've heard some people cling to their guns and religion.

But the problem is that great ages of satire are seldom great ages of, well, anything else. As Ogden Nash once asked: "How can anyone accomplish anything immortal/When they realize they look pretty funny doing it and have to stop to chortle?" So far, we haven't quite figured that out.

Maybe, at the rally, Stewart will explain! I'll be there covering it. And you'll be there too. Ironically, of course.

By Alexandra Petri  | October 26, 2010; 4:34 PM ET
Categories:  Petri  | Tags:  Rally To Restore Sanity And/Or Fear, Stewart Rally, woodstock  
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Comments

The "Rally to Restore Sanity" is a play on Glenn Beck's "Rally to Restore Honor." It's a joke. And the joke is funny because it implies that Beck and his supporters are mentally deranged.

Jon is alone in his use of mental insanity in commercial, comedic, or political speech. Even used car lots don't advertise "insane" prices, at least not on the Internet. And there are no paid text ads or paid search results returned when Googling "insane prices."

Beck and his supporters aren't powerless, but the physically and mentally disabled are. And that's of course what makes the joke funny -- people laugh at Beck as if he were a lunatic, which means Stewart believes that the suffering of the mentally ill is appropriate to use in his derisive and caustic humor.

Jon Stewart should change the name of his rally today.

Posted by: blasmaic | October 26, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for a very cogent summation of a generation. You didn't go to Harvard for nothing.

Having treated the mentally ill for many years, I firmly believe that without humor, they do not get better.

Humor releases our fears, and soothes our anger, at least temporarily. But it is during these brief respites from our pain that we are open to the one true path to healing - love.

I believe that your generation, by embracing political humor and spreading it globally through new media, is on the road to calming the fear and hatred that has defined the previous generations. Perhaps the Age of Satire, which you describe, will lead to a real Age of Aquarius:

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

Posted by: divtune | October 26, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

Yeah I really dislike your article. I think you make a couple good points, but I'm pretty offended by some of what you're saying. For starters:

"Sign petitions? Please. March for a cause? Only if by "march" you mean "walk in a determined fashion" and by "cause" you mean "to buy that new frozen yogurt that is so popular these days."

This is completely a ridiculous statement. We're not all so inward that we don't care enough to voice our opinion. If protests are down maybe it's because it's just as easy to start a social revolution on the internet as it is in the streets. But still, I'm not sure that you are correct regardless. I've been to plenty of protests and political rallys and it seems my generation is in full force.

Then there's this gem,

"These days, the whole class wants to sit in the back row and lob spitballs. Our icons are the class clowns, not the overachievers in near the blackboard. Raise our hands? Make a statement? Please. "

Are you serious here? Because this is not how I see it at all. College enrollment is higher then ever, the work force is tougher to crack because more educated people are in it, politics is still huge, non-profits are bigger then ever.... what you're saying doesn't make any sense. As a recent college grad (2009) I can tell you that my college experience was VERY competitive. Yeah we do worship the clown, but we worship the intelligent clown, not the idiot. In fact the idiot is looked down upon with great disdain. The person who is the most book AND street smart is the winner now. In fact the 80s and 90s were WAY more about slacking off. If anything, to be cool now is to be the teachers pet, not the class clown.

I don't know, maybe it's just me, but it seems like what you're saying is that we use irony as a way to avoid the scary things of the world and that all we care about is having fun. That we're afraid to offend and therefor afraid to commit, afraid to speak up... However i see it completely the opposite. I think for the first time we're NOT afraid, we're doing what we want, we're speaking up loudly AND intelligently. And i don't give a crap about frozen yogurt.

Posted by: trm382 | October 27, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

trm382 angry. Needs more fro-yo.

Posted by: dlwjunior | October 27, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Wow I really dislike this article, too, and I think it's because it affirms all my greatest fears about your generation (I'm not much older, but, thank god, I think I'm a tad bit wiser). You write a bunch of blanket statements that sweepingly categorize your *entire generation* as a bunch of self-serving, narcissistic, whining brats who only want to do what feels good, is easy, and is fun. It's not cool to sit at the front of the class? Cool???!!! Who TF cares about cool? Do you see what is going on in the world around you??? Some of us do - a LOT of us do - and we're going to the rally, too. Because for us, these points actually mean *something.* It's not irony for irony's sake. We can read a bit farther into it than you seem to say your generation can.... Maybe it's because we sat at the front of the classroom.

Posted by: ThisandThat | October 27, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

I thought this article was hilarious and pure satire like something you would see on Jon Stewart etc... very unexpected... loved it!

Posted by: Oscar1231 | October 27, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Hint:

If you're commenting on an Alexandra Petri column and you find yourself writing words like this,

"Surely you can't be serious,"

STOP writing, and start over.

And her name isn't Shirley!

Posted by: divtune | October 27, 2010 6:30 PM | Report abuse

More like a comedic attempt to restore the IN-sanity we've been living under the rule of BHO.

Posted by: stvjo | October 28, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

This is a great piece on so many levels.

"What is this, a Norman Rockwell painting?"

GOLD!

Posted by: trident420 | October 29, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

I thought this piece was spot on....and I'm a boomer. See you at the rally!!

Posted by: kayrosburg1 | October 30, 2010 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Uh, oh. Alexandra, you admit to "an overwhelming desire to avoid looking silly" only to, well, I don't like to give offense, either. But, please, the only generation remotely fitting your description of "an entire era of people...pushing toward the front of the class" is YOURS. And kudos to you all.

In many ways, we old people had it easy. Gender, race, ethnicity and economic class defined our limits legally to an extent evidently unimaginable to you, dear. For example, you would not have dreamed of applying much less getting into all-male Harvard. Don't sell your generation short. You personally didn't get where you are by shooting spitballs from the back of the classroom.

In the old days, 3/4 of us were just expected to obey the rules, making it easier for 1/4 to claim their entitlement to the front rows in life.

The people who "want our country back" want to return us to that era, when the rules made it easier for their kind to get ahead of others. It's really that simple.

As your generation would say, whatever. Please vote on November 2.

Posted by: jhbyer | October 31, 2010 4:50 AM | Report abuse

Great piece.

Posted by: H0wardRoark | October 31, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

nice article! you make some interesting points, generation I and all.

cheers

Posted by: ae-inc | November 1, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Having attended the rally, I think there is some inaccuracy here. Before I went to the rally, I would have expected it to be a bunch of 23 year olds like myself. However, from where I was standing, there were just as many people my parents age as mine. Some of them brought their kids.

Stewart may be a comedian, but there was a real message here that wasn't funny at all. It was a moment of relief. We constantly watch the news and read about these lunatics with extremist perspectives. This rally was a way for us to feel like we were saying SOMETHING and making some kind of a stand; letting them know that we are here too.

I am sorry if this does not meet your romanticized view of protest and activism. I assure you that I have already mailed in my ballot (as I am in school out of state). To assume that the people attending the rally were not going to vote is entirely unfair. I would guess at least 90% of the people there that were over 18 will vote.

Posted by: joadar | November 1, 2010 6:34 PM | Report abuse

Very thorough and accurate description of our generation. However, I would like to point out that I definitely saw MANY people who were old enough to have been AT Woodstock. Not quite sure if I would define this rally as our Woodstock--but it is probably the closest we will ever get.

Posted by: akue88 | November 1, 2010 7:46 PM | Report abuse

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