'Restoring Sanity' Means Reclaiming the Mantle of a Principled Progressive Struggle With a Diverse Base of People

11/02/2010 12:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert provide much needed comic relief from the current sad situation we find ourselves in. Given the tens of thousands of folks who showed up for their "Rally to Restore Sanity," on the Mall this past weekend, many others share this view. Unfortunately, despite the therapeutic effects of a good laugh in the face of lunacy, we are not going to joke and jive our way to a better social and political situation. There are also two seriously troubling things about the Stewart and Colbert rally.

First of all, why was the Stewart and Colbert rally so white? I looked through hundreds of photos online, with funny, witty homemade signs, but I counted only a handful of Black or Brown faces, and by a 'handful,' I mean about five. That is obscene. Does that mean the fan base is as white as Glenn Beck's, albeit white people with better commonsense and better politics? But lily white nonetheless. Or does it mean that "moderation" is just not the galvanizing slogan that most struggling Black people want to hear these days.

Unemployment, foreclosures and the so-called war on drugs, and its corollary mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders, have hit Black and Latino communities hard and heavy. Growing anti-immigrant policies from Arizona to Georgia (where colleges just barred undocumented students) have created a sense of urgency among the Latino population, citizens and residents.

Another explanation is that movement-building requires deliberate, conscious and methodical outreach to communities and organizations often excluded or marginalized in the dominant body politic, and who might be understandably skeptical of a mass gathering convened by two lone white men, however liberal or progressive they may be. In a predominately Black city like Washington, with such enormous poverty and homelessness all around, how can a progressive mobilization be so devoid of a Black presence?

And secondly there is the content of the rallying cry that our two humorous heroes chose as their banners: embrace sanity, combat fear, and celebrate moderation and civility. Uhmm, to embrace the tepid and temperate tone of the day, "I guess I kinda sorta agree with that, mostly." But this is not a "kinda sorta" moment. I am convinced that standing in the middle of the road is not going to get us anything, except maybe run over by a big Mac truck with a Confederate flag on it.

One of the great lines of the old labor movement, and of a popular movement song, was "which side are you on?" This was echoed in the Civil Rights protests of the 1950s and 60s. During those historic decades of struggle against racial tyranny and White Supremacy in the South, young activists would approach would-be supporters and ask -- "are you with us?" Middle class people living comfortable lives were forced to "choose sides" and "take a stand," because lines had been drawn, breaking the routines of business as usual.

Ultimately, this challenge created new bonds of unity, understanding and solidarity that transcended generations-old lines of division between northerners and southerners, Blacks and Whites, middle class and working class people. All this to say, polarizing a debate is not always a bad thing. It can help to clarify and illuminate an issue. It can force people to think carefully and soberly about their own moral compass, and ultimately side with the position which is the most just and fair.

In our visceral response to craziness and meanness of the far right we have vilified, or perhaps just devalued the great integrity of embracing strongly-held convictions. It is not wrong to have strong views or ideals. The substance and basis for our ideas and ideals is what we should be judged for. Compassion, equity, inclusion, self-determination, and freedom are not dirty words. And the ideals of feminism, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, and socialism have represented some of the most humane and noble human impulses of the modern era. We don't have to hide or apologize for being a part of these traditions, even though like all traditions, they were not perfect; nor do we have to reduce our convictions to the "politics of niceness."

The One Nation march organized largely by union groups and an alliance of progressive activists on October 2 got a lot less press and fanfare but brought out a much more diverse crowd, and a crowd whose members had no confusion about which side they were on. They were on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden, the left out and left back, the locked up and locked out. It was a rally about building a movement for social change and human progress.

So, while at the end of a long week of meetings and picket lines, debates and defeats, I settle in to watch Colbert and Stewart make fun of my enemies. It is a way to restore my sanity. It is not the route to building a movement.