My main motivations for attending The Rally to Restore Sanity were these ~
1) To visit Washington D.C. and particularly the National Gallery of Art, which is my favorite museum.
2) To see our friend J, who had already booked a hotel room in Dupont Circle
3) I like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert
Nevertheless, I had misgivings. My impression was that it was being marketed as an event for politically moderate people, which I am not. And for that matter, I don't think Jon Stewart is, either. So I found that angle disingenuous.
Actually, it turned out that this rally and especially Stewart's keynote speech got to the heart of some ideas that have been on my mind since the 2008 election. But before I get into that, let me take a minute to talk about why I have a lot of respect for Jon Stewart.
I almost never watch The Daily Show. I used to watch it every night (especially in 2004, 'cause that was one hell of an election year), but I haven't had cable much in the last six years. Still, I think Stewart has more journalistic integrity than anyone associated with cable news. He is obviously liberal, but he isn't a pundit. In his entertaining fashion, he encourages viewers to analyze politics and the news media that inform them. This is an anti-pundit approach. Pundits, conservative and liberal, make their fortune and their celebrity from preaching opinions to the choir about things that generally don't matter. I'm sick of all of them, even the "good" ones like Bill Maher who happen to be on my end of the spectrum. I don't care that ten years ago Christine O'Donnell talked about experimenting with watered down Wicca in high school, but now that matters. I appreciate Jon Stewart because instead of advocating for sides, he advocates for reason. He transcends the fights that don't matter and reminds us that we should do the same.
I don't know why I should be so surprised that this philosophy shaped the rally, but I was. I guess that's because no one knew exactly what to expect. I went to an anti-war rally at the Mall in January of 2007, but I don't recall any of the speakers or events. It was more like a powwow of like-minded individuals. From the moment we arrived at the Mall around 9am on Saturday morning, the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (renamed after Stewart and faux pundit Stephen Colbert joined their two events) felt more like a music festival. Three hours before showtime, the throngs were moving toward the main stage, staking out their seats. Dan, J and I got a bite to eat at one of the museums and then J went with his brother to grab a seat near the second set of big screen monitors. Meanwhile, Dan and I made a quick visit to the National Gallery. When we emerged 30 minutes later, the crowd in the mall had doubled in size. We squeezed our way into a spot near our friends' general location, and that's where we stood for the next four hours.
Within thirty minutes, the crowd around us was so thick that I couldn't see an empty space anywhere. Luckily it was a gorgeous, sunny autumn day, just chilly enough so that the warmth of all those tens of thousands of bodies wasn't stifling. Another thirty minutes later, The Roots took the stage and kicked off a set with John Legend. Then the Mythbuster dudes came out to do some symphonic experiments with the audience (this was mostly lame, but I will say that when 150,000 or so people make a thumb-popping-cheek sound at the same time, it's pretty cool). At 1pm, Stewart and Colbert took the stage and commenced a truly entertaining series of events. For me, the highlights were:
1) When Stewart brought out Yusuf (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens) to sing "Peace Train", which Colbert countered by bringing out Ozzy to sing "Crazy Train". After a lot of theatrical bickering between the two hosts, Yusuf and Ozzy bolted. Then the O'Jays came out and sang "Love Train".
2) The awards portion - Stewart gave awards to public figures who have demonstrated calm and reason while Colbert awarded public figures who promote fear. Stewart first honored Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga, who didn't freak out and throw a justifiable tantrum after umpire Jim Joyce made a bad call that ruined his perfect game. I admit, when they showed Galarraga's videotaped acceptance speech, I was verklempt.
3) Random celebrity appearances, such as Sam Waterston's reading of Colbert's fear poem. Kareem Abdul Jabbar appeared onstage at one point to remind Colbert that he is, in fact, a Muslim.
It wasn't a thoroughly excellent show. When Kid Rock came on stage, Dan said, "Okay, let's go." I think he would have insisted if it wasn't so incredibly difficult to move through the crowd. So we suffered through it, which was ultimately a good thing because Stewart's keynote speech toward the end of the rally was well worth the wait.
The gist of the speech was that, despite our differences, and the divisive practices of our leaders and our news media, it is possible for Americans to work together to fix our problems. I think Stewart's most persuasive argument was when he used an aerial video image of gridlock traffic merging on a freeway. He pointed to each car and made up some demographic information about each driver - gay investment banker, mother of two small children, white baptist plumber, etc. He noted how almost every car moved in an orderly fashion to make it work - "You go, then I go. You go, then I go." It's a good, everyday example of random, disparate people making sacrifices to improve a difficult situation. But my favorite statement, the words that have been ringing through my head since Saturday, was when Stewart said (as best as I can remember), "And occasionally there's a person who drives along the shoulder and cuts in front of everyone else, but that person is rare, and they are scorned and they aren't hired as an analyst."
That inspired me. Not only does it validate my frustration with punditry, it also lines up with my feelings about politeness and civility. For all of my leftist political values, in my day to day life I just want everyone to get along. And I don't mean that in a super deep, Rodney King kind of way (but please know I'm not making fun of him; he, too should be awarded for profound calm and reason in response to a terrible situation). I don't like dramatic family situations, workplaces, or encounters with strangers. I prefer calm and not worrying about the little stuff, which is more apt to happen when social groups are focused on getting along. That takes a lot of thoughtful consideration and sacrifice, but sometimes it really can work.
It worked when we were leaving the rally. We spent over an hour just getting out of the Mall. The human gridlock was almost overwhelming at some points, when no one was moving and my body was sore from lack of food and standing still for four hours. I'm sure everyone was exhausted, but of the hundreds of people I personally encountered, not a single one freaked out or acted like a jerk in any way.
We left town shortly after returning to the hotel room. I heard a bit about the rally on the radio as we were heading down I-395 (mostly about how the city had not properly prepared for the crowds), but we were on the road and with family most of the time until today. I made a point of not reading anything about the rally before I wrote this, because I didn't want this to be a reaction to anything other than what I experienced. I don't know how to sum it up better than this: for a brief moment, a Frank Capra vision of the world became real and I hope I never forget that feeling.