Got sanity? I've certainly got a bit more of it than I did before the weekend. Whether you were there in person, or just watched it on television, the Rally to Restore Sanity was an amazing experience.
The significance of the day was palpable long before the rally started. It was immediately in evidence as I arrived before dawn at Citi Field in Queens, where HuffPost's Sanity Buses stood ready to bring more than 10,000 people down to D.C. Among those lining up to board the buses were people who had flown in from across America -- from Florida and Indiana and Hawaii and Alaska -- to take the ride to the rally.
Some had come with their children -- as young as three weeks old. Some had flown in their elderly parents -- walkers and wheelchairs abounded. Some had come alone; some had come in groups as large as 10 or 20. One young man had actually traveled from Washington to New York to join the ride back to D.C. -- an act of insanity in the pursuit of restoring sanity.
They could have, of course, just flown directly into Washington. But on this day, it was about both the destination and the journey. A journey that felt very much like a pilgrimage.
As promised, the rally was non-partisan -- making the mainstream media's unwillingness to allow their reporters to attend all the more ludicrous.
Nobody knew who the person they were patiently waiting on line behind, or chatting with while waiting for the bathroom, would be voting for on Tuesday. But most people I met were longing to be part of something larger, to have their role as citizens mean more.
The bus ride and the rally were, for me, simple reminders that certain things bring out the best in people, and certain things bring out the worst. It's not that the people who attended the rally or watched it enthusiastically on television were nicer or better than those who didn't. It's that the rally tapped into the humanity we all share, but that is rarely called forth, shown, or celebrated by our media or our political leaders.
Not surprisingly, many in the media seem to have totally missed the point of the rally, even though Stewart clearly laid it out in his brilliant closing speech. Better to miss the point, and dismiss the event, than deal with the witty but powerful indictment the Daily Show host delivered:
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 sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.
Stewart described the press as the "immune system" of our democracy, pointing out that "if it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker and, perhaps, eczema." The rally demonstrated that the people, increasingly aided by the organizational power of social media, can join together to provide an immunity boost, showing that they can be their better selves, just as they so often are in their everyday lives at home.
"We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is," said Stewart, "torn by polarizing hate and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day! The only place we don't is here [Washington] or on cable TV."
In the days leading up to the rally, it was fascinating to see how befuddled the mainstream media was by the rally (a befuddlement deftly covered by our own Jason Linkins). There was no end to the concern-troll tsk-tsking about whether Stewart would hurt his "brand" by holding the rally.
In fact, of course, satire has long been a part of our political heritage -- from Jonathan Swift to Mark Twain to Will Rogers. It's a defiantly outsider perspective -- as Stewart and Stephen Colbert demonstrate every night on their shows. Satire can do what other forms of rhetoric can't. It can put things into stark relief with a power and clarity that our failed media establishment -- the one that was complicit in bringing us the war in Iraq and the financial crisis -- rarely exhibits.
Those who orchestrate our public square and guide its conversation -- especially our politicians and the media -- can let the anxiety produced by the economic devastation in the lives of millions of people disintegrate into division and scapegoating or they can help channel it into empathy and community.
And those who claim that the Sanity Rally was somehow just a stealth proxy rally for Obama apparently didn't see the president's appearance on the Daily Show last week.
"You ran with such, if I may, 'audacity,'" said Stewart, "so much of what you said was, 'great leaders lead in a time of opportunity,' 'we're the ones we're looking for' -- yet legislatively it has felt timid at times. I'm not even sure at times what you want out of a healthcare bill."
Not exactly an interview by someone who's in the bag. But certainly a more incisive interview than we get from many "real" Washington journalists.
After the rally, Stewart and Colbert held a press conference at the National Press Club. When peppered with questions about how the rally would affect their standing and whether they were concerned about it, Stewart said, "our currency is not this town's currency." He was talking, for the purposes of the press conference, about the two of them. But he might as well have been talking about all of us. Washington's currency is increasingly not the country's currency.
While the disconnect between what we want our public square to be and the one fashioned by our political and media establishments is most likely only going to get wider after tomorrow's midterm election, I came away from the rally feeling, as Stewart put it, "strangely, calmly good" -- more convinced than ever that the people can, and will, find a way to increase our control over our public conversation and make it better reflect our better selves.
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