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Personalities and politics | Jesse Singal

Funny won’t cut the hate

October 28, 2010

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IN HOLDING their “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’’ on the National Mall Saturday, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are seeking to dial down the temperature on the nation’s political rhetoric.

Hopefully, the image of the Mall packed with folks advocating for sanity will send a message. But however much fun the event may be, there will be an air of futility to the proceedings.

Sure, we should be more civil. Yes, we should have more productive debates. No, it isn’t good that we seem unable to disagree politely. But the Stewart-Colbert rally isn’t going to change any of this, because we’re far past any notions of the “two Americas’’ talking past each other. We’ve entered another era, one more Orwellian and less conducive to compromise.

Tens of millions of Americans think Obama is a socialist. Or that he’s sympathetic to the goals of Muslim fundamentalism. Or that he is an ardent follower of his father’s radical anti-colonialist beliefs and is seeking to enact them so he can weaken the United States relative to other nations.

The response of liberals and some conservatives has been to point out these beliefs and ridicule them for having little connection to reality. But the efforts have been completely ineffective. And now the Tea Party movement and several high-profile legislative battles have made such claims all the louder and more widely disseminated.

The sad truth, and one that will be highlighted by the rally, is that there really isn’t much anyone can do about this. We’re wired, psychologists have found, to reinforce those beliefs we already hold, and to filter out or to ignore evidence that rebuts those beliefs (and when we strongly believe something, rebuttals actually tend to bolster our belief).

And the asinine ideas in question aren’t just propagated by basement-dwelling bloggers. Members of Congress regularly spew them forth as well, as do mainstream conservative activists, respected media outlets, and countless cable-news and talk-radio pundits. All of this noise comes together to form a discourse built not on debate, but on paroxysm and outrage one-upmanship, whether the issue in question is health care reform, the stimulus bill, or student loan reform.

The impact of all of this is a devastating, malaise-inducing sense of distraction that prevents any real discussion from taking root. Maybe the health care overhaul won’t cut costs. Maybe Obama’s foreign policy will make us less safe. Maybe he’s dangerously driving up the deficit. But we’re not debating any of these issues in a substantive way.

Instead, we see the usual suspects trying to convince Americans that Obama is a radical, dangerous threat to our nation. Then, Stewart and Colbert hilariously skewer them for doing so. No minds are changed along the way, and on Saturday we’ll see the same script play out on the Washington Mall. It may be funny, but it will have little impact on a political discourse that flew off the rails years ago.

Jesse Singal is co-editor of The Angle, which can be found at www.boston.com/theangle. He can be reached at jsingal@globe.com.