Saturday, November 6, 2010

Last Weekend (a long post)

The rally crowd (above) Our group for the rally (with friends from Wisconsin Chris and Sara)

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Yusef (formerly Cat Stevens), Ozzy Osbourne, The O'Jays, Mavis Staples, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, R2D2, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, The Roots, Tony Bennett, 250,000 people, and one shared purpose, these are the ingredients for a fairly amazing weekend. Last Friday, Nissa and I (with the a
id of my good friend from college, Aditya) flew to Washington D.C. to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. While I'm a huge fan of both the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, the real motivation to embark on such a spontaneous trek was the message of the event, essentially that America could stand to take it down a notch, not in terms of political policy or passion, but in the bizarre and unnecessary inflamed rhetoric that the media and certain fringe groups to explain, rationalize, and critique policies and politicians...think Hitler mustaches on pictures of Obama, devil horns on George W. Bush, the popular thinking that disagreement with traditionally held positions is unpatriotic, or that defense of those positions is, at best religiously motivated ignorance, and at worst blind evil. Fear is used as political and ratings-gaining capital in this country to a point that nearly all meaningful debate is lost in the politicians' and pundits' need to either defend against gross exaggerations and unreasonable accusations, or engage in similar tactics in order to deflect the criticism and be heard above the noise to ensure reelection and repeat viewing just in case the lunatic fringe really does represent the American viewpoint at the polls. Admittedly, the majority of rally attendees would probably identify themselves as democrats, the idea that saner, more reasonable methods of communicating one's opinions would lead to a more rational national debate, perhaps even lead to the possibility of an environment in which compromise is not only considered, but encouraged, is neither a liberal nor conservative one. The incredible diversity and sheer, unexpected size of the crowd suggests this is an opinion held by many, and the fact that so many were willing to fly all the way to D.C. for an afternoon without any details of who would be there or what would occur, proves the immediacy and importance of the message. I've never been a part of a crowd that large, and I've never seen a crowd of any size as polite, kind, and calm as that at the rally, I witnessed no pushing, no complaining, and people even picked up litter as they left the mall after the event. I only experienced a small section of a massive body of people, so it's possible that things were less rosy elsewhere, but the amount of completely reasonable people I witnessed was significant nonetheless.
Nissa, our friends, and I were not able to get close enough to see the stage first-hand, but we had a great view of the second row of Jumbotrons and could easily hear the proceedings (after an initial, low-volume first half hour due, I assume, to the fact that no one at the rally expected a crowd the size of the one that showed up). The show was filled with comedy that ranged from subtly insightful intelligence, to silly and surreal, to occasionally juvenille, along with a host of surprising guest stars, musical numbers, (see the above list) and stage show gimmicks. At one point Jon Stewart brought out Yusef (Cat Stevens) to sing "Peace Train", only to have Stephen Colbert rush on stage mid-verse and stop him, shouting that he wants no part of that train, and has his own, the conductor of which has a message for the crowd. Then, from off-stage, we hear "ALL ABOARD!! HA HA HA HA!" and Ozzy Osbourne walks onstage as the Roots (who opened the show and acted as backing band to all the musical guests) launch into "Crazy Train". After a verse, Jon Stewart stops Ozzy and brings back Yusef to continue his song. The two go back and forth, back and forth, eventually both singing their songs at the same time, until both are fed up and walk off the stage. Jon and Stephen then argued about who's fault it was, shouting that some kind of train was needed. In between host gripes, a voice off stage was heard singing "People around the world." Eventually, Jon realizes who it is, and both he and Stephen could agree that a Love Train was something they could both get behind, Jon because it's a positive and reasonable thing to want, and Stephen, who spent the event trying to convince the crowd that irrational fear was a positive thing, agreed because love can result in STDs and heartbreak. Then, onto the stage rushes the O'Jays to perform their hit, "Love Train" in full! The show was filled with bizarre and unexpected moments like that. When Jon and Stephen were debating the virtues of reason over fear, Kareem Abdul Jabbar was brought on stage to prove to Stephen that, while some Muslims are indeed extremists, not all are to be feared...then R2D2 in order to prove that not all robots were evil either. At another point, Colbert brought out "Fearzilla", a giant puppet of himself, and battled against Stewart's pleas for reason with montages of reporters and politicians engaging in pointless and hyperbolic fear-mongering. When Stephen declared he had killed Jon with his argument, John Oliver came onstage dressed as Peter Pan, instructing that the crowd could revive Stewart with chanting. Stewart awarded medals of reasonableness and Colbert medals of fear, one of which went to a 7 year old girl that was brought on stage because she had more courage than the surprising number of news organizations that would not allow their employees to attend the rally so as not to appear biased (ahem), including NPR, Associated Press, CBS, ABC, and HLN among others (in fact, Fox News was one of the few networks that covered the rally, and from what I've heard, portrayed it in a fairly reasonable light), and another to Anderson Cooper's tight black t-shirt, because if you see that t-shirt, it means something horrible has just happened where you live.
The rally ended with Stewart's "moment of sincerity", in which he effectively and logically outlined the reasons for the event and the importance of the crowd:

"So. Here we are.

We had some really incredible music performances here today. I hope you enjoyed them. We’ve had what some would classify as comedy as well. But now I thought we might have a moment, however brief, for some sincerity; if that’s ok, I know there are boundaries for a comedian pundit talker guy, and I’m sure I’ll find out tomorrow how I have violated them.

I’m really happy you guys are here. Even if none of us are really quite sure why we are here. Some of you may have seen today as an clarion call for action. Or some of the hipper more ironic cats as a “clarion call for action.” Clearly some of you wanted to see the Air and Space Museum and got royally screwed. And I’m sure a lot of you are just here to have a nice time, and I hope you did.

I know many of you made a great deal of effort to be here today, and I want you to know that everyone involved with this project worked incredibly hard to make sure the we honored the effort that you put in, and gave you the best show that we could possibly do. We know your time’s valuable, and we didn’t want to waste it. And we are all extremely honored to have had a chance to perform on this beautiful space, on the mall in Washington D.C.

So uhhh, what exactly was this?

I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions.

This was not a Rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or to 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. But unfortunately, one our main tools in delineating the two…broke.

The country’s 24-hour politico pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems; but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues here to for unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then, perhaps, host a week of shows on the sudden unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

There are terrorists, and racists, and Stalinists, and theocrats-but those are titles that must be earned; you must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists, and tea partiers; or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult! Not only to those people, but to the racists themselves who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate. Just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more.

The press is our immune system, if it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker, and perhaps eczema.

And yet with that being said, I feel good; strangely calmly good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a fun house mirror. And not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist and maybe taller. But the kind where you have a giant forehead, and an ass shaped like a month old pumpkin, and one eye ball.

So why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin-assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution? Or racists and homophobes who see no one else’s humanity but their own?

We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how its a shame how we can’t work together to get things done.

But the truth is, we do. We work together to get things done every damn day! The only place we don’t is here [the capital building], or on cable TV. But Americans don’t live here [the capital building] or on cable TV. Where we live our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done. Not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as democrats, republicans, liberals, or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do, but they do it. Impossible things everyday that are only made possible through the little reasonable compromises we all make.

Look on the screen, (a video of cars merging into one lane begins) this is where we are, this is who we are, these cars. That’s a school teacher that probably thinks his taxes are too high, he’s going to work. There’s another car, a woman with two small kids, really can’t think about anything else right now. There’s another car, swinging, I don’t even know if you can see it. The lady’s in the NRA and loves Oprah. There’s another car, an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car is a Latino carpenter, another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman, atheist obstretician, Mormon Jay Z fan. But this is us! Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear. Often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers. And yet these millions of cars somehow find a way to squeeze one-by-one into a mile-long, 30-foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved by people, by the way, who I’m sure had their differences.

And they do it. Concession by concession; you go, then I’ll go, you go, then I’ll go, you go, then I’ll go. Oh my god! Is that an NRA sticker on your car!? Is that an Obama sticker on your car!? Ah-well, that’s okay, you go, then I’ll go. And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute, but that individual is rare, and he is scorned, and not hired as an analyst. Because 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 a tunnel isn’t the promise land; sometimes its just New Jersey. But we do it anyway-together.

If you want to know why I’m here, and what I want from you, I can only assure you this. You have already given it to me; your presence was what I wanted. Sanity will always be, and has always been, in the eye of the beholder. And to see you here today, and the kind of people that you are, has restored mine.

Thank you!"

I read several articles about the rally after getting home. Some flatly reported the goings on, some editorialized, nearly all that did tended to miss the point. The rally was criticized for being muddled, for not taking a position and for not being more overtly political (for instance, encouraging young people to vote, or encouraging certain positions). The point was not about policy or process, it was about the way citizens and the media discuss them in public. It was a statement for calm, and reason and, most importantly, good-natured humor at our own expense. I don't intend to blow it out of proportion as an earth shaking, nation-changing event, but I can say that being in that crowd, and knowing that there were so many that were on the same page as I, was a comforting and illuminating experience, not gained from knowing that because some others agree with me and that means I'm right, but from truly feeling that differing opinions, backgrounds, and preferences do not need to prevent open and mutually beneficial discussion and compromise. That may be naive and overly optimistic, but standing in that crowd, it was wonderful to believe that quite a few people think the same. And, yes, there were a few overly snarky signs, and a few that missed the point and demonized the GOP and such, but the majority of what I experienced exemplified the spirit, motivation and humor of the day.

The next day, we got up "early" and walked around the National Mall area. We visited the Washington, WWII, Vietnam and Lincoln Memorials. I have been to D.C. twice before, once in 2nd grade, once in 7th) and I've seen these spots before, but I have to say that revisiting them as an adult was entirely different experience. The Lincoln Memorial has special impact. Seeing his face and reading his words was deeply affecting at this point in my life, having gained more knowledge of US and World history, and having a greater context for the true meaning of the events than I did in 7th grade surrounded by 60 other kids who just wanted to get to lunch. One really thinks about what are country was built on and what it stands for. Admitted problems withstanding, it is a unique and special place. Not a bad way to spend the weekend. (Not to mention that we got to hang out with old friends in a cool hotel, and we flew business class on the way there. I could cross my legs on an airplane!!!!)

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