In which your correspondent tries to find the zeitgeist at Jon Stewart’s “Rally for Sanity” on the Mall in Washington, D.C., 10/30/10.
Not really knowing what to expect, and loving any rally trying to counter the right-wing insanity in this country, I headed out to the Mall this morning in hopes of capturing its atmosphere and getting a sense for the true politics of its organizers and their thousands of followers.
The first indication that it was going to be big came on the Metro. The crowds were enormous. At Van Ness/UDC, my stop on the Red Line, hundreds of people were waiting on the platform. It took four or five trains before I could even contemplate getting on. My car was absolutely packed; I felt like I was back in the MRI tube I had to lie in for 60 minutes about two weeks ago. But people were jovial and cooperative, and tried to make room for those of us squeezed by the doors; one dude next to me put his around my back to hold me away from the doors.
By the time I got to Metro Center, five stops down, I was starting to get claustrophobia, and I made my way out of the car and into the station. I’d told the people around me that this was the right stop for the Lincoln Memorial, where I thought the rally was. But when I got out on the street, I noticed everybody was walking in the other direction, towards the Capitol. Turned out I was wrong about the location, which is kind of stupid for someone who’s been here since 1982. And no big deal – except I’d told about 400 others to get out here and head for the Lincoln too. Oh well; it was a nice day for a walk.
Once I got close to the Mall it became clear this was an overwhelmingly young crowd (mostly in their 20s and 30s, it seemed), full of whimsy and humor and sick of stupidity. They were out expressing opinions on key issues like racism, the anti-immigrant prejudice so deeply engrained in the Teaparty movement, the financial difficulties of students, and gay rights (but one thing I quickly noticed about the young crowd: there were lots of cigarette smokers, which is too bad, and also mighty uncomfortable for people like me who hate smoke, at least from tobacco).
I especially liked this sign, expressing exactly my sentiments at the Glenn Beck meme that the left = progressive = socialist = communist = Nazi = Hitler. Yes, there was only one Hitler, and making people think that somehow we on the left who want national health care and greater government spending on education and infrastructure would support a Nazi regime; that is a monstrous lie that is shamefully trumpeted every day on Fox and the Beck circus-show.
So the crowd, which included many people like me who’ve been around since the 1960s and before, seemed overwhelmingly progressive and left-of-center. And as I began to get close enough to the stage to hear, that too was the message from the Stewart machine. The first singer I could identify was, to my astonishment, Cat Stevens, AKA Yusef Islam, someone I heard frequently on stereos in college who ended up becoming a Muslim and living abroad for most of his life. Hearing him sing “Ride on the Peace Train” made me happy, and told me that Stewart really was trying to send a message of tolerance and love for our fellow humans. Maybe that’s not radical, or a spark for massive change, but it certainly goes against the right-wing hate we’ve been experiencing for the past few years.
By this time I was way on the left side of stage and still couldn’t see a thing, and the sound system was not exactly booming. In fact, the logistics seemed very badly organized; there were only a few video screens, and as it became closer to one o’clock, the starting time for the rally, it was clear most of us weren’t going to be able to see. It’s also likely that Stewart and his company simply didn’t anticipate this many people showing up.
So I cut down behind the museums and made my way to 7th Street, which runs across the Mall behind where the main stage was set up. From there, I could hear much better, but the visuals still weren’t much. I finally made it to an area to the right of the stage where I could hear well and see the side of the stage and kind of watch the crowd as it listened and drank in the entertainment and the satire. Which was pointed mostly at the mass media.
Y’all outside of DC had a much better view of the show than I did, but I thought both Stewart and Colbert were brilliant in their skewering of CNN, Fox and the other cable news shows (“Every point must have a counterpoint, John,” Colbert explained). Despite my inability to see what was happening on stage, my vantage point was interesting because I could actually read the Teleprompter they were using (you can see its outline to the left of this picture). That way I could follow the banter and the songs – which really were quite uninspiring. I’ve never been a big fan of Sheryl Crow, and the first song she did with Kid Rock was awful. I caught the words on the Telepromputer: “I can’t stop the war…I can’t change the world…The least I can do is take care of me.”
What kind of message is that? Then it struck me – this wasn’t a political event; it was cultural, or something in between. The closest analogy I can find is the “Human Be-Ins” that took place in the mid-1960s in places like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, when Allen Ginsberg and others gathered to chant and love and try to forget the evil of the Vietnam War and the poverty and racism that kept America so divided and beaten down.
When Stewart took the stage for his keynote, his message too was a vague call for love and understanding. “We live in hard times, not end times,” he said, in a message to the fundamentalist Christian right. OK, yes, I can agree with that. But his plea for people to “work together” seems pretty bland in the face of what we’re dealing with today from the teaparty people and the hard right. They don’t want to work with us; in fact, they consider us the enemy. So when Stewart pleads “Why would we work with Marxists actively subverting the constitution?” he seemed to be almost stooping to their level: please, we wouldn’t do that. Well, Mr. Stewart, I’m a Marxist, and I love this country and its constitution, and have no wish to subvert it; by playing up to fears of Marxists and socialists and even communists you’re playing their game. Instead of trying to sound more American than the right, let’s defend our ideas and our politics.
But, hey, that’s just me (and at least one reader disagrees with my take; read the comment below). Stewart and I may not be perfectly aligned politically; yet I still appreciate (immensely) what he did today, and how he’s trying to change the dialogue. This rally was a message of tolerance and acceptance for everybody – Muslims, gays and lesbians, Republicans, Democrats, conservative Christians, whites, blacks, Latinos, and all who make up this beautiful country. It was a call for a different language, and a turning down of the volume. And to have fun and enjoy life if we can. Nothing terribly political or energizing about that, but it’s human, and it comes at a time when the American right is on the rise and about to sweep and creep into power in all kinds of ways.
So in that sense, the rally for sanity was a progressive step and anti-fascist in both tone and substance. We just need a stronger message and rallying cry. As I tweeted on my way home: “Great turnout, mostly young crowd, good humor & kindness in abundance. Hopeful & sweet. Creative. But we need harder edge for what’s ahead.” Enjoy the pics! And don’t forget to vote.
Finally, this jug band – the Capitol Hillbillies – was playing on the Mall during the rally. They were by far the finest music to be heard.