My Day At The Rally To Restore Sanity
Scroll down to read the transcript of Jon Stewart's closing remarks at The Rally To Restore Sanity.
I'm about to break a major rule of journalism and do something that should color me immediately as a hack. I'm going to talk about a cab driver.
Today, I woke up early Saturday morning to attend the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear. For reasons too complicated to get into, I had to be there very early. Somehow, I thought I'd be able to just jet in on the Metro. But, upon discovering that the inbound Orange lines were packed to the gills, I quickly vacated my station, and went looking for a taxi to take me to Seventh Street, NW. By luck, an Arlington Red Top cab was idling at the top of the escalator, and the cabbie was happy to help me out. Two minutes into the ride, I realized something about him -- he was a dedicated, dyed in the wool follower of Lyndon LaRouche.
Normally, the LaRouchies annoy me to no end. There they are at the Arlington DMV, bothering people -- to this day! -- about Dick Cheney. There they were at the health care reform rally I attended at my old high school -- doing nothing for the discourse, doing nothing for health care reform, Obama-with-Hitler-mustaches in tow. Usually, when I encounter these cats, I feel the urge to find a strong, talented, CIA deprogrammer to go to work on them. But on this occasion, this guy was my rock. And after the initial, tentative, what-am-I-in-for flare of mistrust, I decided to drop that wall of pretense and prejudice, and try to have nice conversation.
As it turns out, we had a fine ride. We talked U6 unemployment and the need for this country to get back into the business of making something other than war or websites. He told me that he felt that marathon runners were a little bit crazy, and I agreed. For some reason, he was way into the movie Seven Years In Tibet, and he made a good case for it. And I'll be damned if we didn't arrive at my final destination a little too soon, I was having fun talking with the guy. We both did what we could to commemorate the occasion: I gave him a big tip, he gave me a LaRouche pamphlet, and we parted ways. I thought it was a good portent. At the very least, I'd have some sort of peg on which to hang a blog post.
The Rally To Restore Sanity was a well attended, and my by vantage, a well organized event, that drew thousands of very friendly, somewhat liberal, but not at limited to young, people to Washington, DC. The early arrivers were deep into the sanity theme. With signs that decried hysteria, endorsed conversation, and made great sport of the excesses that we are, all, used to by now ("There was only the one Hitler" read one), the most dedicated attendees showed up to support reasonableness. (It was only after the show was over that the "Fox News Sucks" signs seem to show up.) Everyone was very well behaved. It was one of the friendliest crowds I've ever been a part of. One attendee seemed to have it exactly right, carting a sign that read, "I'm pretty sure I'd like you if I got to know you."
Over the course of the early afternoon, they were treated to what amounted to a variety show on steroids -- broad comic bits, mixed with very earnest musical performances. At times, painfully earnest, There was a moment, near the top of the show, where I thought that John Legend was going to straight bum us out with his perfectly reasonable rendition of Bill Withers' "I Can't Write Left Handed." Great song! But it was still feeling like an early morning after a hungover Friday night, and the peaceful, easy feelings were courting catatonia. The show alternated between comedic set piece an musical performance, irony to earnestness, throughout its three hour run.
Want to know what I thought about the comedy? Earlier this week, I extolled the virtue of comedians who found a way to be daring. But if I'm being honest, I have to tell you that the comedy wasn't particularly daring. That doesn't mean there wasn't some good comedy -- from a technical standpoint, Sam Waterston's performance of Stephen Colbert's poem of fear was as well-conceived a piece as you're likely to find anywhere. And everyone certainly meant well. It was a festival of good intentions! But for the most part, the comedy stayed safe. There was a cat, but it didn't jump.
For the most part, Stewart and Colbert cycled through their assigned roles, with Stewart sticking up for reasonableness and Colber pimping terror. There was never a moment where anything was at stake. You knew where this storyline was going, and that reason would prevail in the end. It seemed that given the choice between kitting out their show for people familiar with their comic tropes and people who'd never seen "The Daily Show" or "The Colbert Report" before, they seemed to favor the latter group. It's not a terrible decision from the vantage of someone who wanted to loop new fans into the fold. But for folks with a well-worn appreciation of the two comedians' oeuvre, there were moments that had to have been downright tedious to watch.
A good example came when Stewart and Colbert made their cases for sanity and/or fear in the form of "Formidable Opponent," a recurring bit on the "The Colbert Report." Typically, this bit is whip-smart and fast moving (and, critically, performed by one person). The bit typically takes an argument, dispenses with the most simplistic cases very quickly, and eventually ends up taking the thought behind it to a higher and more powerful level.
On Saturday, Stewart and Colbert faced off, "Formidable Opponent" style, as a battle of sanity versus fear. But all they were able to muster was a very dumbed-down encounter between the two concepts. It was almost as if they were staging their shows' premises for elementary school children. It you weren't familiar with their work, you might have thought it was amazing. Only the widespread joy in the audience prevented most people for finding the bit to be completely tedious.
By the time the comedy portion had ended, you were left with the thoroughly unsurprising conclusion that "reason" was good and "fear" was bad. But then, Stewart, asking the audience for the permission to be sincere, managed to finally get that cat to jump.
"These are dark times, but they're not the end times," said Stewart, beginning a lengthy monologue in which he expressed his gratitude to the attendees, for lending their "presence," and attempted to explain his intentions on the virtues of reason. He did what he's always done, broadly critiquing the media as an institution that had "broken," that had shone their magnifying glass as a terrorizer of small insects. He decried small-mindedness, generalizations, and smugness. He urged the crowds to stop writing off Tea Partiers as racists, and instead see them as people with perspectives on the world that were informed by very real concerns and hurts and hopes. The real racists, Stewart reminded the crowd, worked hard, and put the time and effort into being racist.
Somewhere in the middle of Stewart's monologue, he started to at last expand upon the "sanity" theme in a way he couldn't manage with the comedy, pushing a call for something much more meaningful: decency. The metaphor he summoned, oddly enough, was zipper merging! I know: very strange, and very idiosyncratic to a guy who grew up in New Jersey and who now lives in New York City.
And yet, it was affecting, listening to Stewart described one nation, "a little bit late for something they have to do," in rush hour traffic, slowly merging down from many lanes into one, until everyone, with one shared voice, orderly allows cars to filter into the merge. The idea being: we don't know or care about the political passions of the person in the next car...we just make way for one another.
For my part, I found Stewart's last commentary to be extremely effective, if only because it inspired me to take a searching self-inventory. Here's the question I asked myself: Pick a political opponent, someone you really hate, in terms of political positioning. Yeah, it might be knives out between you and them, in terms of cap and trade or tax policy, but ask yourself: would you celebrate their daughter's graduation from college? If they told you their father had died, would you lend a consolatory embrace, or would you take a secret glee? If they were broken down at the side of the road, would you pull out and offer up your jumper cables, or drive on by.
Stewart reminded the listening crowd that many amazing things had been built by people who had their differences with one another, and that the important work of solving tough problems continues today, everywhere in America -- except, in his estimation, in Washington, DC and on cable teevee. But we didn't have to behave like that.
So, while I wasn't too terribly impressed with the comedic content on this occasion, I was nevertheless plenty moved by Stewart's soliloquy on decency and how the overamplification of our worst impulses and arguments tend to overshadow it. It's a tough remember at election time. We're taught to think of democracy as two sides that want a chance to steal the other's birthday, instead of a democracy in which ideas compete with one another. But we go on with life together, once elections end. When's the last time someone you disagree with actually came through for you when you needed it? For me, it was this morning. Keeping that in mind would be an eminently sane and decent thing to do.
Here's how Stewart capped off today's rally:
And now I thought we might have a moment, however brief, for some sincerity. If that's okay - I know that there are boundaries for a comedian / pundit / talker guy, and I'm sure that I'll find out tomorrow how I have violated them.
So, uh, what exactly was this? I can't control what people think this was: I can only tell you my intentions.
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. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.
The country's 24-hour, political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.
There are terrorists, and racists, and Stalinists, and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned! You must have the resume! Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Party-ers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult--not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate. Just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more.
The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker--and, perhaps, eczema. And yet... I feel good. Strangely, calmly, good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us, through a funhouse mirror--and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist, and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead, and an ass shaped like a month-old pumpkin, and one eyeball.
So why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle, to a pumpkin-assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable--why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution, and homophobes who see no one's humanity but their own?
We hear every damned day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. The truth is, we do! We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don't is here (in Washington) or on cable TV!
But Americans don't live here, or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done--not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.
Most Americans don't live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.
(Points to video screen, showing video of cars in traffic.) Look on the screen. This is where we are, this is who we are. These cars. That's a schoolteacher who probably think his taxes are too high, he's going to work. There's another car, a woman with two small kids, can't really think about anything else right now... A lady's in the NRA, loves Oprah. There's another car, an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car's a Latino carpenter; another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan.
But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief, and principles they hold dear--often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers'. And yet, these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze, one by one, into a mile-long, 30-foot-wide tunnel, carved underneath a mighty river.
And they do it, concession by concession: you go, then I'll go. You go, then I'll go. You go, then I'll go. 'Oh my God--is that an NRA sticker on your car?' 'Is that an Obama sticker on your car?' It's okay--you go, then I go.
And sure, at some point, there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder, and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare, and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst!
Because we know, instinctively, as a people, that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together. And the truth is there will always be darkness, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land.
Sometimes, it's just New Jersey.