Photos courtesy of Priyanka Mantha.
I'm at The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington DC, an event promoted by Comedy Central stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The event comes about two months after the August 28 “Restore Honor” rally led by conservative Fox News anchor Glenn Beck in which 87,000 people flocked to DC for a gathering that “has everything to do with God, turning our faith back to the values and principles that made us great.” The Stewart/Colbert event had a purpose slightly less fervent: “We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler.”
But I cannot see anything. Nothing. It's giant heads for miles around, and for a brief moment I'm seething, imagining myself a modern-day Vlad the Impaler, sticking them on pikes so that my sight line will no longer be obstructed. And I'm not even that far back, not even mid-way through the massive crowd.
But because of where we were standing, the rally took on its own life and created a microcosm, a community of diverse individuals from across the age and color spectrum, individuals whose camaraderie was based on a shared physical perspective. It was as if the population was imbued with the sense of reason that Jon Stewart was advocating, that even though the Metro felt like a clown car, the venue was crowded, and nobody could see, the aging army veterans, multi-ethnic college students, and young parents with babies in tow all still treated each other with basic respect. We were relaxed, almost to the point where our behavior could have been mistaken for sedation, for a bland half-attentiveness during the contemplative musical numbers that clearly weren't designed to rile up a mob.
But we were very much awake. We were listening, commenting, and participating, but not just with him, with each other. The rally was short and sweet. We listened to an eclectic group of musicians, including Cat Stevens and Ozzy Osbourne, to humorous poetry read by Sam Waterston from Law and Order, and applauded for an awards ceremony. Each award, whether it supported fear mongering or condemned it, emphasized the rational behavior that both comedians were advocating. The rally as a whole created the atmosphere of low-maintenance civility that was the organizers’ very point. And in the end, the only ordeal was finding a cab ride home.
Stewart and Colbert’s point, and the entire purpose of the rally, was that there is a difference between breaking news and breaking analysis, that one states the facts while the other fills hours with needless speculation, picking minutia out of historical context that consequently gives rise to deadly opinions based on falsehood.
Case in point; on his program, Fox News anchor Glenn Beck discussed "anchor babies,” a particularly distasteful way of referring to the US born children of undocumented immigrants, as potential threats to national resources and security. Beck neither made a nuanced argument nor used factual underpinnings to support his assertion that birthright citizenship should be revoked, a fact which was made abundantly clear when he falsely stated we were the only country in the world that had such a right. The result is irksome, because it gives rise to the implication that threats to our nation come in many shapes but only one color, demonizing a particular ethnic population but also all those who question his rationale as hippie-socialists who don’t value national security.
But on other side of that coin resides the equally dangerous liberal news organizations who paint any opposition of the Obama Administration, the Tea Party in particular, as collectively racist, forgetting how reminiscent it is of the Bush Administration’s branding of all dissidents as unpatriotic. These sentiments are damaging to progress and positive change because they assert that the few individuals who swallow their message are reflective of a widespread, rabid, and polarized electorate, which in turn fuels hatred and incivility. After all, according to Stewart, "We live now in hard times, not end times...We can have animus and not be enemies." Being a functional society is just as dependent on the truth of our convictions as it is on the rationality of our conduct. We simply don’t have the time for anything else.
There seem to be many individuals who believe Jon Stewart's message was anathema to the kind of passionate activism that often fosters change in our country. I do not believe the overarching message was to be dispassionate about our beliefs and ideals. Rather, this rally was a pointed indictment, heightened (rather than diffused) by humor, of those who mistake the fearful, polarizing hysteria that the media perpetuates for passion and urgency. After all, wasn’t it civil disobedience that catalyzed the most prominent change in this country, pushed forward by individuals who focused on the issues without demonizing the opposition?
It’s undoubtedly a serious message. But it’s one that is incredibly well argued through a hilarious and irreverent mouthpiece. Faux-conservative Stephen Colbert, for example, rattled of a huge list of things to fear. And according to him, the scariest were robots, and predictably, Muslims. But what about Kareem Abdul Jabar, and R2D2, who both walked out on stage? Don’t they, with their obvious awesomeness, debunk the generalizations and myths that make us fear them? Ultimately, it’s not just support of sanity that brought thousands of people to The Mall, it’s the brilliance of comedy that is funny not just because it speaks the truth, but because it values truth.
Unlike his many adoring fans, neither Stewart nor I wish to give him more credit than he deserves, to define him as a visionary or a catalyst for revolution. That itself would be the opposite of his message. He’s human just like the rest of us, someone who just needs to go about the business of living without the baggage that hatred and discord creates. But even if we went to the rally just to see our favorite comedian, Stewart’s message is still timely. During Wednesday morning’s post-midterm election press conference, President Obama talked about a man from Richmond, VA, who asked him if there was hope for returning to civility in our discourse. Maybe this, independent of any partisan ideology or specific policy agenda, is what will be our generation’s most significant contribution towards progress.