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Raj Patel

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Polite Laughter on the Mall

Posted: 10/31/10 06:26 PM ET

Hundreds of thousands came. Theresa Floyd, a 19 year old student and poet, flew from California to try to make the world "marginally better". Wassim Shazad, a 36 year old brick shithouse of a former-Marine drove four hours from North Carolina, to take aim at racial stereotypes of Muslims in America. For nearly everyone I spoke to, this was their first rally.

As rallies go, it was a little unrepresentative. It began, for instance, exactly on time, and just before the cameras went live, a little overture played over the sound system: Robbie Williams' Let Me Entertain You. Philadelphia funk ensemble The Roots kicked off for half an hour, followed by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, TV's Mythbusters, who performed a series of experiments on the crowd.

People were encouraged to stomp together to create a miniature earthquake (it worked, a little), or to propagate a crowd wave to the back of the assembled masses which took 54 seconds to travel the length of the Mall outside Congress. One of the oddest experiments, and I fear we'll have to watch the Discovery channel to find out the myth they were busting, involved getting everyone to make a range of sounds simultaneously, with noises ranging from 'laughing like a mad scientist' to cheek-popping, to polite laughter.

And then Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert took to the stage for a two hour show with a list of guests escalating from Ozzie Osbourne to R2D2. The proceedings ended with a serious bit, though, when Jon Stewart took a couple of swipes at the media. "We live in hard times, not end times. 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."

There was a 'yes we can' moment too. Americans, Stewart pointed out to one of the loudest cheers of the afternoon, "work together to get things done every damn day". He used an unusual metaphor to explain what that cooperation looked like. The view on the jumbotron screens switched from the Mall to an overhead view of cars funneling from eight lanes to two. Although the people in their cars might be of different religions, political orientations, and intensities with which they love Oprah, Americans can somehow get along, letting each other in, and narrowing down in a civil, moderate and reasonable way. Yes, We Can.

Trouble is, as any game theorist will tell you, there's not much about road-traffic cooperation that rises to the level of reasonableness. Once folk have agreed on some foundational things like where they're going and what side of the road to drive on, the rest is just basic courtesy. It's a stretch to call it 'reasonable'.

Reasonableness is, however, genuinely under threat. The Tea Party understands the US Constitution as a divine document. In so doing, they pine for a pre-Enlightenment politics where God -- not reason -- is the ultimate arbiter of political life. To put it in Stewart's terms, they're arguing about which direction to drive and whether it's bad to run over pedestrians. That's a threat to the possibility of cooperation.

It took a lot of political work to make a world that could cradle the moderation everyone came to Washington to celebrate yesterday, yet there was palpable distaste for taking a political stand. In fact, the undercurrent wasn't one of defending the politics of reasonableness so much as of mourning its impotence. For instance: Jon Stewart invited Kid Rock to sing "an amazing" song that was "so apropos to this situation". The song was 'Care' and the lyrics went: "'Cause I can't stop the war/ Shed the homeless/ Feed the poor... /the least I can do/ Is care." So although Americans get things done every damn day, it's the small stuff. The bigger problems are just too, well, big.

But perhaps I'm asking too much. Perhaps the politics can and should come some other time, and not from Comedy Central. Two people who thought so were friends from Washington DC who held signs saying "Down with this sort of thing!" and "Careful now!", a reference from a British TV comedy called Father Ted that confused a few rally-goers. They didn't want their employers knowing they were at the rally, so let's call them Bill and Kylie.

"Some people were disappointed that Stewart didn't ask people to vote or that there wasn't more politics. But Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert recognize that they're entertainers," said Bill. "And that's pretty cool." This wasn't Bill and Kylie's first rally -- they've been to several this year, most recently the One Nation Working Together rally organized by the Democrats and large unions at the beginning of the month. And neither Bill nor Kylie are shy of politics. "I'm a socialist", said Bill. "I'm getting there," said Kylie.

I suspect that it's through Bill and Kylie's brand of political understanding, rather than Kid Rock's, that change will happen. Yes, the punditocracy is bad, but pointing out its failure is hardly going to change it. Yes, civility is important, but that's not the same as political engagement. Pining for 'sanity' during the rise of the Tea Party is like talking about who leaves the seat up when the house is on fire. What Comedy Central offered on the mall was laughter in the dark, but it was impotently polite laughter. Perhaps that's what the Mythbusters wanted to understand.