Friday, November 5, 2010

Doing Our Part to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

Main Stage, the Night Before

Main Stage, the Night Before

October 2010, Washington, DC


Now that the mid-term elections are over here in the US, this almost feels like Old News. Still, I think it's important to document this.

Back in mid-September, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert called the faithful to a rally in Washington, DC. Proclaiming it either "The Rally to Restore Sanity" (Stewart) or "The Rally to Restore Fear" (Colbert) the intention was still the same: if you're a member of Stewart's fanbase and/or the Colbert Nation, you were being called to DC to show your support for... well, either sanity and/or fear, I suppose.

With the rally on Saturday, we drove to DC on Friday, spending the night in a hotel room (about as big as the bed) in Silver Spring, Maryland. After walking around for an hour or more not finding the great Thai restaurant we had eaten in a few years ago, we settled for another nice ambience/lousy food restaurant. After dinner, Bonn wanted to go down to the National Mall and see what the layout of the rally site was like. So, a quick hop onto the DC Metro later we were walking the six or seven extremely long blocks down to where the stage was set up.

When we arrived, it was kinda nice to see some of the other faithfuls had made the trek to the site the night before as well.

As it turned out, that was as close to the stage as we were ever going to get.

Early the next morning we walked to the Silver Spring Metro station to get down to The Mall. The first sign that something BIG was happening was there was a line to buy farecards to get onto the subway. Not only is there rarely a line (outside of rush hour, perhaps) but the line was over 100 people long. We thought the Silver Spring station would be a good one to use, it being only three stops from the end of the line. However, when the first subway train came by, it was already slammed full. I suppose we've been away from DC life for too long because we didn't elbow our way into the packed car.

We did get in the next train. Three stops later, when Bonn was starting to feel claustrophobic, I told her (in all seriousness) not to worry. If she fainted, she couldn't fall to the ground. We were pressed so tightly into the car that people were bracing themselves by pressing their hands against the ceiling of the train car because all of the handle bars were too far away.

Deciding to forgo the transfer at Metro Center and catching a Blue or Orange line train to the Smithsonian exit (as we had the night before) we got off at Gallery Place/Chinatown and walked down 7th Avenue. Along with a steady, streaming crowd of people. We crossed over a block and then got to The Mall itself.

And that's where the massive wall of people stopped moving.

Faced with an unmoving wall of people, we headed to the left. With that being the only direction we could move, it made the choice that much easier.

Crowd Shot

Crowd Shot

October 10, 2010, Washington, DC


Now, keep in mind that the image here is from the side street, not from The Mall itself. See all of those gaps between the people? They weren't there on The Mall. (Neither was the car, for that matter)

About half that city block later, we stopped and found a place under a tree, close to one of the marble-faced art museums.

Otherwise, the crowd looked like this:

What the Crowd Looked Like

What the Crowd Looked Like

Screen capture


Now, I'm third-generation DC. I started going to protest marches and rallies in the 70s and I've been to a lot of them over the years. I'm a huge fireworks fan and I've braved the crowds to be on The Mall for the Fourth of July.

Without a doubt, this was the most crowded I have ever seen The Mall.

Crowd Shot

Where We Were

Screen Capture


As it turned out, the shade tree Bonn had wisely chosen was in a straight line-of-sight from stage right. If I stood and used my camera, I could just make out recognizable people on stage. I figured I could enlarge the images once I was home so I could have some idea of what I had (sort of) seen.

For instance:

Jon Waiting for Stephen's Entrance

Jon Waiting for Stephen's Entrance

October 10, 2010, Washington, DC

Stephen's Entrance

Stephen's Entrance


The acoustics were, well... indecipherably horrible. The speakers were all facing The Mall, so between that and the echo-y reverberations off of the marble walls of the museums, I could just barely make out... well, okay. I couldn't make out much of anything.

When we settled on The Tree of Our Choice, the warm-up band was playing... something upbeat. I was able to recognize the theme music to The Daily Show when Jon Stewart came out but I wasn't able to recognize his voice when he started speaking. I was able to recognize the theme music to The Colbert Report, but not Stephen Colbert when he started speaking.

Then a short, older guy came out with a guitar and started... singing, I guessed. He was joined by someone who started making lots of loud noise. I decided to take a picture of them just to remind myself to see what all of the chaos was about later on.

Yusif  Ozzy

Yusif and Ozzy


Turns out it was Yusif Islam (the former Cat Stevens) and Ozzy Osborne. That I didn't know Ozzy's music is no surprise. That I didn't recognize one of my favorite singers singing "Peace Train" showed me (later) just how bad the acoustics were where we were sitting. (Minutes later I did recognize The O'Jays doing "Love Train" however -- another all-time favorite song)

Having given up on understanding anything that was happening on stage, I settled down between the exposed roots of our tree and started in on the bread and cheese we had brought with us. Bonn decided to take her camera and wander around while I ate and took pictures of some of the more amusing signs people were carrying.

Rally Signs

Where Are the Mimes/Hide Ya Wife, Hide Ya Kids

Rally Signs

The Only Thing We Have to Fear: BEARS!

Rally Signs

My Feet Hurt


When Bonn came back she told me about having walked behind the stage area and getting shoo'ed away by the security guards and then trying to walk around to the other side of the crowd. She ended up running into the same brick wall of people on the Air and Space Museum side of The Mall before she decided to turn back.

We listened to the marble walled reverb for a while longer and laughed at some of the signs. After about an hour and a half we took a long look at the crowd and knew that as hard as getting to The Mall had been with people coming in a relatively slow stream, the mass exodus of people from The Mall to the Metro was going to be horrendous. And since we were driving back home that afternoon/evening, we decided it was wisest to head out before the Rally was officially over.

On the drive back we talked about what had happened and why we had come. I'm still not sure if it's ironic or simply a sign of the times that we had to wait until we got back home and were able to find the video footage on the YouTubes to explain what we had been a part of.

And now I thought we might have a moment, however brief, for some sincerity. If that's okay. I know that there are boundaries for a comedian / pundit / talker guy, and I'm sure that I'll find out tomorrow how I have violated them.

So, uh, 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 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 of our main tools in delineating the two broke.

The country's 24-hour, political 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 heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants 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 Party-ers, 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 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 funhouse 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 eyeball.

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, and homophobes who see no one's humanity but their own?

We hear every damned day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. The truth is, we do! We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don't is here (Washington DC) or on cable TV!

But Americans don't live here, 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, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

Look on the screen. (Video of cars on a busy road.) This is where we are, this is who we are. These cars. That's a schoolteacher who probably think his taxes are too high, he's going to work. There's another car, a woman with two small kids, can't really think about anything else right now... A lady's in the NRA, loves Oprah. There's another car, an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car's a Latino carpenter; another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. 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 must somehow find a way to squeeze, one by one, into a mile-long, 30-foot-wide tunnel, carved underneath a mighty river.

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?' It's okay. You go, then I 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 he is 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 the tunnel isn't the promised land.

Sometimes, it's 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. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you.

Peace Flag

Peace Flag (and my forehead)

Photo by Bonn


Here's the thing: Jon Stewart called for a Rally to Restore Sanity. A quarter of a million people showed up, having no expectations of what was going to happen other than someone we like and trust called us to appear and support him. And we did.

One of my biggest problems with every rally and march I've ever attended for whatever left-leaning cause has been the Left's willingness to be inclusive, to allow all of the voices to be heard. So when I was out marching against nuclear power back in the 80s, I was hearing messages about Pro-Choice and getting the US out of Nicaragua. Those are noble causes, but they were not what the rally was about.

Along with all of those messages there is an undercurrent of anger. After all, getting out into the streets to protest something means you are worked up enough to do something about it. Even when we were out in the streets protesting the decision to go to war in Gulf War I, the crowd was angry that American lives were being put in harm's way all for the sake of protecting another country's oil reserves.

This, however, was a Rally to Restore Sanity. There was no anger present at the Rally (or, at least, none that I saw). The people were civil. They were in a good mood. They were friendly. They were having fun.

We came armed with a respect for Jon Stewart and what he does, and with our own sense of right and wrong and, just as importantly, we came with a strong sense of humor as well. No one was taking themselves too seriously, but I think we were all taking each other seriously. For an afternoon, a quarter of a million gathered, had fun, treated each other with friendship and respect and, hey, we even left The Mall pretty danged clean, too.

If nothing else, it was worth traveling to DC to be a part of a national reminder that these things still exist in ourselves and in each other.


-- Tom


  1. Amazing post, Tom. This reminded me of a story about Mother Teresa--she refused to attend the many anti-war rallies she was invited to, but said if someone held a peace rally, she'd be there. I live in Colorado which was a crazy place to be for mid-term elections, and I saw some major ugliness come out in my neighbors when 'their guy' didn't win.

    It's sometimes hard to get others to realize that we're all on the same team, and that's what was so great about the Restore Sanity rally. Thanks for sharing this. :)

  2. "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing." Jon Stewart has joined the ranks of immortal American aphorists. Thanks for this post. It gave me a picture of an event that (so far as I know) was grossly underreported. I was on the Mall for the huge May 1970 antiwar rally, which was in its own way an important stepping-stone, but I'm not sure it was as important as this: a declaration of the need for civility and rational discourse. The world, not just the country, is in the balance.

  3. Wow, this looks like it was so much fun. I wish I'd been there--what a time to have been living abroad instead of home in D.C.

    Thanks for this report of the event--so awesome to get a firsthand account!