What's the point?
It was a question I asked myself more than once in the last month: While I was booking the hotel room, then sitting on the flight from Houston to Washington, DC, and finally walking with tens of thousands of others down Pennsylvania Avenue to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on Saturday.
Initially announced as the "Rally to Restore Sanity" in September by Daily Show host Jon Stewart, the gathering had an ostensible purpose that was just as stated: to coax out an alleged silent majority of those weary of the antics of extreme voices on both ends of the political spectrum controlling the public discourse on politics. You know, the ordinary, decent, hardworking Americans who long for the return of...I don't know, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, or something.
That the event would be political theater was never in doubt. Stewart and Stephen Colbert — who'd merged his own March to Keep Fear Alive with Stewart's rally less than two weeks prior — are first and foremost satirists, even if Stewart himself has, consciously or not, increasingly assumed the role of muckraker extraordinaire/supreme shit-disturber. He did nothing to put off this opinion with his speech at the rally's end, but more on that later.
So was sanity restored? Fear kept alive? Yes, and...yes.
You got the impression even before Saturday that the event was going to be big. Like, US Festival big. The lazier media sources pointed to the Rally's Facebook page and its 200,000 attendees for proof, because as we all know, nobody ever RSVP'd for something on Facebook and subsequently backed out. Stewart should have set up an Evite page as well, just to be thorough.
But there were other, more reliable indicators. Hotels in the District and immediate suburbs were booked weeks ago, seats on flights into Reagan National and Dulles airports were few and very far between. My own flight from Houston to DCA was easily half-filled with rally attendees, going solely by Colbert T-shirts and people reading Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great.
The evidence mounted Saturday morning, as my wife and I were getting our things together for the trek to the National Mall. Here was a couple who'd driven from Kansas City, there was a text from my friend Dave, who was riding the train in from Philly and reporting it was packed with sign-toting Rally-goers. As far out as Dupont Circle and Crystal City, we could see bands of people walking in the direction of the Capitol. And all this before 9 a.m.
What was also becoming apparent was the demographic makeup of the crowd. I'd written a hasty aside in my notebook on the flight up that I wondered how dissimilar the crowd was going to be demographically from your average Tea Party get-together, sarcastically predicting (with the help of a couple Jack and Cokes) there'd be an overwhelming majority of white, upper-middle-class folks. This was true, to an extent, but I saw plenty of people of Asian and Middle Eastern extraction (not a census category well represented at Glenn Beck's rally), and a much greater spread across age groups. There were many so-called "millennials," sure, describing this as their generation's Woodstock, but also plenty of people their parents' age, and older.
But let's get back to the comparisons to Beck's rally (because that's what everyone seems to be doing). CBS, who estimated 87,000 attendees for Beck's "Rally to Restore Honor," put the total for the Stewart/Colbert shindig at 215,000. Which just goes to prove more people are interested in sanity than honor. Obviously, we're not feudal Japan.
The National Park Service stopped doing crowd estimates after the controversy over their figures for the Million Man March, and I have no idea how to gauge crowd size, especially when I'm in the middle of one and advancing at the rate of three feet a minute. There were a shit-ton of people there. The crowd, not counting the usual areas kept clear by police for emergency vehicles, stretched back almost to the Lincoln Memorial, with spillover choking Madison Drive and Independence Avenue as well. By the time the Roots took the stage to kick things off at noon, it was almost impossible to move.
But the crowd was overwhelmingly good-natured. The weather, sunny with highs in the low 60s, contributed to that. One doesn't mind the oppressive crush of humanity so much if they're not also in danger of heatstroke. Not only that, there was a real sense that you were participating in Something Big. An event you might one day discuss with your kids or grandkids ("Tell us again about the time Yusuf Islam and Ozzy Osborne sang dueling versions of 'Peace Train' and 'Crazy Train,' Daddy.")
But I must admit, I was a bit taken aback by the relative lack of heavy hitters in the entertainment category. Sheryl Crow is all well and good, I suppose, but for an event doing its best to get us to look forward and forge a better future, the guests were of a decidedly more seasoned vintage (the O'Jays, Mavis Staples...Don Novello). The Roots and John Legend gave younger attendees something to latch onto, and were possibly invited because Jimmy Fallon's show doesn't go up against Stewart's or Colbert's.
But again, what was the point? Was it merely to let a bunch of hipster liberals walk around with funny signs and feel good about themselves? The signage was hilarious, to be sure, and there was an undeniably jovial attitude about the whole affair, but I couldn't help wondering if the whole approach wasn't just misguided.
Is a restoration of so-called "sanity" even possible at this point? If we're defining the word as "reasonable debate and compromise," then no. Nothing that happened Saturday, no sign warning "God hates HMOs," no pithy rejoinder from Stewart, is going to stop the Republicans from taking back the House next week. And the GOP has not demonstrated, at any time in the last 18 years, any interest in compromise or reconciliation. Stewart's "merging traffic" analogy at the end of the day was flawed, because the opposition doesn't want to wave you in as the lanes narrow, they want to run you off the road and laugh as our car bursts into flames. Did the GOP ask for succor after getting their asses stomped in 2008? No, they put their money into things like the Tea Party and reframed the debate: "Obamacare" is a failure; the deficit is the current administration's fault; Afghanistan is "Obama's war;" we have to "take our country back" from the secret Muslim usurper. And so on.
Those in power haven't feared mass public demonstrations in America since the 1960s, because they've realized it's one thing to fly in to Washington to go to a rally, and quite another to translate that action into something meaningful. Which is why I wonder if Jon Stewart himself might consider taking the next step and actually seek out some sort of public office. I know, I know; his increasingly labored claims of "But I'm just a late-night comedian" continue unabated, but statements like this, from his closing speech at the Rally, have to make you wonder:
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.
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.
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I admit, I was really hoping the Boss was going to come out after that segue.
With that, Stewart sounded like a man with his eye on something greater than a late-night cable show, even one regularly drawing two million viewers a night.
The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, in the end, succeeded in its intended purpose: It drew a quarter-of-a-million people (give or take) together on a beautiful day in our nation's capital to share a laugh and make what can only be seen as an honest (if smart-assed) plea for tolerance. But compromise is a two-way street, and activism is about more than sparking one up and watching TDS every night. Whether our politicians and media suddenly reverse their present course and take their request to heart, or those who so enthusiastically participated in the rally put their money where their mouths are, remains to be seen.
Even Jon Stewart doesn't have that kind of clout.