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The People's Rally

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By Samantha Thompson

Rumor has it that Jon Stewart held a rally on Saturday.

Apparently, there were lots of speakers and musical artists. I heard that Steven Colbert induced fear, Stewart alleviated it, Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock sang about changing the world, and Ozzy Ozbourne, the former Cat Stevens, and the O'Jays shared the stage with competing songs about trains.

Ask many of the 200,000+ participants at the Rally to Restore Sanity on Saturday, October 30, however, and many had no idea what happened on stage. There was little frustration, though, and many shared the same sentiment: I couldn't hear anything, I couldn't see anything, but dammit, I'm glad I went.

It's an incomparable feeling being on a road where everyone knows, without communicating, that they're all going to the same place. The highway from New York carried a continuous stream of carloads of twenty-somethings. We passed buses full of rally attendees every ten minutes. Stereos blasted funk music, gas stations were mini-raves, and a man dressed as "Where's Waldo" hung out the window, pumping his fist with enthusiasm, unconcerned about the traffic jam that lay ahead.

The D.C. Metro overflowed with people, bursting with as much enthusiasm as it was bursting with people, yet always making room for one more. Cheers erupted at every station. "Five more stops!!" someone shouted. "Wooooo!!" we replied in unison. "Chinatown!! Almost there!" shouted another. "Yay!" the car rejoined.

When the trains converged at L'Enfant station, hundreds of people lined up waiting to put their ticket in the machine so they could get out onto the streets, the backed-up mass of people growing larger and larger. Finally, the operators opened the gates to, of course, more spontaneous eruptions of cheers. "Keep walking! Keep walking" the Metro workers shouted. "Do not stop moving!"

We finally emerged from underground, raced to the Mall, and met the largest crowd of people I have seen in my life. Standing a half-mile back from the stage and probably a quarter-mile from the nearest screen, the only thing you could see with clarity was your neighbor's ear hair.

"It could be Glenn Beck up there for all we know," I mused to the people around me.

According to CBS news, 215,000 people attended the rally, though there are estimates of up to 250,000, roughly the amount of New Yorkers who protested against the war in Iraq in March 2003. How did this rally's somewhat inchoate message manage to speak to 250,000 people? The unassuming message of sane political discourse? Of tolerance? Of compromise?

Though they weren't aware how many people would show up, that is certainly a question pundits struggled with in the days preceding the rally. Frantic analysis came out of every major news outlet and blog, each trying to answer the same question: What was this rally about?

"I assume [Stewart and Colbert have] concluded that it is time to marshal the tremendous affection they've accumulated. But for what? Just a generalized call for civility? To crush Glenn Beck once and for all?" New York Times columnist David Brooks pondered.

"I must admit I feel a mixture of anticipation and dread," answered Gail Collins, also a columnist for the Times.

"I have had the growing suspicion that the participants in this rally don't entirely think of it as a comedy show," noted Timothy Noah of Slate magazine. "I think that they are mistaking... participation in this rally for some sort of political statement. That confusion troubles me."

Meanwhile, National Public Radio (NPR) forbade its employees from attending the rally because it was expressly political.

But David Brooks, Gail Collins, Timothy Noah, NPR and the rest of the political pundits missed something. People did not go to the rally because Jon Stewart is funny. They did not go to decry exorbitantly high taxes or to protest against the war in Afghanistan. And they certainly didn't see the relationship between politics and comedy as mutually exclusive.

Instead, people from the right and the left congregated on this sunny day in October because Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert offer the most astute critiques of media and politics available. Because they are able to make the saddest, most infuriating pieces of daily news tolerable, humorous even. Because these shows on Comedy Central are not about critiquing policies as much as they're about critiquing the path to how these policies are enacted -- the galling debates, the mediocre media coverage, the acerbity each side exhibits in their quest to achieve the real, ideal America.

We didn't need to hear what Stewart and Colbert were saying, what Tony Bennett was singing, what Ozzy and Sheryl were crowing about to affirm our reasons for coming. In a sense, it was just more noise in the 24-hour news cycle. The point of this rally wasn't on stage, but in the crowd. "I am here and I have no fear," said one sign. "My rent is marginally high, but acceptable," said another. "I disagree with your views, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler."

"I guess they underestimated the number of moderates," said a man next to me.

And I guess Brooks and Collins underestimated people's understanding of what this rally was really about.

"If we amplify everything, we hear nothing," Stewart opined to a massive roar from the crowd, coincidentally the only full sentence I heard over the course of the three-hour rally.

Hundreds of thousands of people from Boston, San Diego, Canada and Tehran, gathered in our nation's capital to counter the vitriol and hyperbolic rhetoric, to protest against the histrionic fear campaigns that have overtaken the political sphere in the past fifteen years, and, yes, to laugh.