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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Rally

I

I was worried right away, when we arrived and finally settled in behind a large monitor, just inside the second section back from the stage.

I was worried because what the monitor was showing were games and trivia about the cast of The Daily Show, and the likelihood that the afternoon might end up being a long commercial for Comedy Central.

I hadn’t dragged myself down the seaboard on a terror-alert delayed flight for that.

II.

The question on everyone lips–or at least manufactured by the sponsors handing out free signs–was whether or not you were Team Sanity or Team Fear: Stewart or Colbert, reasonableness or pant-pissing, screaming terror.

It was always a bit disingenuous–were 200,000 people supposed to be gathered together and told to be afraid, be very, very afraid?–but at the same time, there was (at least for me) a nagging incredulity at the question. It was three days before an election that could put people who have mocked, derided, and belittled the values most of the people in the crowd shared in charge of at least one house of Congress, and there seemed to be no way to stop that from happening. We stood on the eve of a Congress that threatened to continue the collapse of the American economy, continue the rollback or obstruction of gay rights, women’s rights, anybody’s rights but a narrowly-defined collection of white men living in the middle of North America.

I don’t know about you, but I’m terrified.


III.

Of course the name made me cringe. Sanity? Seriously? What was that supposed to mean? That mental illness (and I have a few of ‘em, according to the DSM) meant that you were dragging America down? Or that if you disagreed with Stewart’s middle-of-the-road optimism that you were insane?

So of course it made me cringe. And it wouldn’t get better, as I was to find out.

IV.

Stewart looked out over the crowd and told us that he saw a reflection of America. I don’t know; maybe it looked that way from the stage. But where I was standing, most of the people around me needed sunscreen, and an extension from their professor so they could leave the dorms for the rally.

At least there were a lot of women. And a vocal Muslim contingent.

V.

A lot of the signs were funny. Some were cynical–Garland would have loved the “Cthulhu 2012: why choose the lesser evil?” sign.  ”Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?” asked another. Some were genuinely, and occasionally angrily political, in defiance of the supposed reasonableness of the assembly.

There were also a lot of pirates. I never figured out why.

VI.

I was reminded frequently that my 38-year old knees are no longer cut out for standing for five hours. And that boots, even flat boots, aren’t necessarily the comfort my feet needed.

VII.

Why go? My girlfriend and I spent the afternoon about fifteen feet from a large television set, watching the events on the stage on it; the stage was far too distant to make out anything that was going on. Why stand out in the sun gradually burning into dehydration?

I’m still not completely sure. But there was…something about being with that many people, of feeling the power of not being completely alone, of knowing that not everybody in the country agrees with taking away (or never giving you) your rights. That was worth quite a bit.

VIII.

The Roots were awesome, although I was marooned in a section of the crowd that seemingly was incapable of moving their feet to their impossibly funky groove. And Yusuf singing “Peace Train”? How amazing was that! (Added bonus: my girlfriend turns out to be a huge Cat Stevens fan.) But I began to wonder if I was watching an eclectic concert, or a rally for ostensibly progressive purposes.

IX.

It was Stephen Colbert’s fans that started the whole idea of the rally, as an ironic counter-meme to the Beckian “I Have a Dream Day” gouging of American history. So it was a bit sad to watch him play the pathetic second-banana to Jon Stewart’s wise father-figure, stripped of the ironic double-and-triple put-on of his on-air persona. And I’m not sure how it helped the message; Colbert’s faux-fanatic followers, his suave cluelessness, his refusal to accept any facts but his own, not only satirize the right, they show how powerful its techniques can be. After all, no one ever mistakes The Daily Show for a real news program. But people have actually mistaken Stephen Colbert for a conservative.

X.

Tony Bennett was the only person to mention voting.

XI.

After the rally, we wandered over to the Washington Memorial–yes, I appreciated the irony–and then up 7th street to have Asian fusion with some friends. The menu featured expensive red wines and cheap Mexican beers. I had some Tandoori chicken that combined daal and mango salsa. The restaurant was clean and freakishly modern. The kitchen staff were all people of color. We left a good tip.

I offer this without comment. You can make your own metaphor.

XII.

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, 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’s humanity but their own?”

Why indeed, Jon? Why indeed would you say such things about people on the right, making it impossible to work with them? Except, of course, that it’s not your rights being denied. It’s not you who can’t marry your girlfriend, who when you look down the road at your potential futures see the horror of not being able to protect your assets together, or even be by each other’s side at a hospital bed. It’s not you who have had to fight all your life to get your gender accepted, even grudgingly, as a legal reality, not you who will have whispers following you the rest of your life or who fears to publish things under your own name because it outs your entire life history. It’s not you who worry that you’re getting older and a woman in an industry that is not known for accepting women, not you who are worrying that if you get fired from your job you may never find another one like it.

We’re pretty clear that you’re not up with that last one, actually.

The thing is, is that it’s not a lack of reasonableness on both sides that’s the problem. It’s that one side is completely unreasonable–whether because of true belief or cynical calculation is immaterial. It’s that ultimately you can’t compromise your own belief that you are a human being and deserve every. single. damn. right. as everyone else does. I mean, what is there to compromise? I’ll be some percentage of a person until you get around to agreeing my troubles are important? You go, and you go, and you go, and for some of us it never seems to be our turn to edge into traffic.

The ludicrousness of the idea that the left and right are equivalent, that for every Scott Roeder there’s an unrepentant Weatherman terrorist, is the most pernicious result of the fake “impartiality” of the modern media, who somehow have all become perfect postmodernists in their belief that if you present two sides to every issue you’ve somehow avoided bias–even if one side is saying that Dachshunds hold up the sun and Santa Claus wants us to nuke Iran.

If you want to take a stand for “sanity” in the media, Jon, why not ask them why the hell they won’t stand on the facts?

XIII.

We sat under the Washington Monument, the pinnacle at the center of the power and myth of America–on one side, Congress, still steadily ceding its power to the highest bidder or whoever the current president is; in front of us, the White House, which looks more and more like a dynastic possession with each passing election; and on our left the Lincoln Memorial, where the substantial achievements and flaws of the greatest human being to ever serve as President have been whitewashed into a dim history where slaves fought for the Confederacy and the tariff was the burning issue behind secession….and wait a minute.

I’m a cynic because I’m a romantic. Deep down, I’ve always believed in America; learning about the many failures of both America and Americans hasn’t completely dimmed that romanticism, because things have tended to get better. Maybe that’s why the Bush years were so deeply scarring to me, or why it was so easy for my optimism about the Obama administration to collapse, or why this year’s midterms seem so hopeless: it seems that more and more America has given up on the idea that we can keep making ourselves, and the world, better.

My girlfriend is more optimistic than me. It is one of the many, many reasons I love her: she reminds me that collapsing into cynicism isn’t going to help you beat back those who are attacking you, that government and movements are only as good as the people in them, that there is still time to take back the American experiment from those who would drown it in the dirty muck of privileges seized and never relinquished.

Sometimes it makes us disagree on things: like whether or not Spike could truly love Buffy, or if Jon Stewart handled the sexism fracas well; in general she’s a bigger fan of The Daily Show than I am now. But then again I’m cynical and distrust almost everyone who purports publically to be an ally. I’ve had a few too many HRC moments.

And the truth is, I wanted to believe. I wanted the rally to be more than just a concert or a comedy show or a call for cable to stop stretching two hours of news over twenty-four.

So I was a bit surprised at what she said next.

“Today I really saw it more clearly than ever before,” she said. ”Today I saw Jon Stewart’s privilege on display.”

29 Comments

  1. Ellie wrote:

    Wow, C.L. I read your stuff on TBD, and I know you’re a great writer (because everybody here is really talented), but every so often you write something that just blows me out of the water. Like this.

    I’ve been reading the reports from TPM, and the Awl, and the Stranger about the rally, and it seems to be less and less worthwhile. I think it’s the ambiguity of the press surrounding it; it’s not a “political” event, according to Stewart, but if it’s not, why is it getting that type of press? Nobody pays this much attention to Comic-con. But if it’s political, and the numbers of people who turned out to this are so much greater than, say, at Beck’s rally, why is our country sinking so fast? I don’t even know how to talk about this right now.

    *sigh*

    Monday, November 1, 2010 at 11:33 pm | Permalink
  2. Jenny North wrote:

    THIS: “The ludicrousness of the idea that the left and right are equivalent, that for every Scott Roeder there’s an unrepentant Weatherman terrorist, is the most pernicious result of the fake “impartiality” of the modern media, who somehow have all become perfect postmodernists in their belief that if you present two sides to every issue you’ve somehow avoided bias–even if one side is saying that Dachshunds hold up the sun and Santa Claus wants us to nuke Iran.”

    I bet you must be super-busy, but please, please post more here when you can. I miss your voice on TBD!

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 12:46 am | Permalink
  3. Fruitonica wrote:

    The paragraph on the Middle ground fallacy was excellent.

    Crazy Extremist: “We have to kill all the kittens!”

    Sane ‘Extremist’: “What?!? No! That’s crazy! There’s no need to kill any kittens!”

    Moderator: “Now, now, none of that namecalling. Compromise is called for. We’ll kill half the kittens.

    (Stole that from a Reddit comment)

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 1:33 am | Permalink
  4. Ennu wrote:

    This post was brilliant. I never liked Stewart’s sort of “above the squabble” way he looks down on both sides evenly. Especially because sometimes he seems to have moments of clarity where he knows that’s bullshit, but he keeps it up anyway. That’s why I’ve always liked Colbert better. I think he’s more genuinely progressive and though sometimes he seems a bit too unwilling to criticize the left for it’s failings he always seems to at least listen–much better than most people in his position, anyway. That’s for damn sure.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 4:09 am | Permalink
  5. Toitle wrote:

    I don’t have anything other to say but “bravo.”

    So bravo. You said everything I’ve been feeling about this.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  6. Siobhan wrote:

    While I agree his privilege was on display BIG TIME, and I have my own issues with the event, it WASN’T a political event. It was an anti-MSM event. I know people had been hoping for a progressive event, but it was never billed to be. Stewart has been arguing for a return to real journalism for forever. The 1/2 the kittens comment is exactly what he is deploring.

    I wish it could have been a progressive event, too, but even in his last speech, it was the MSM he was attacking. Do I think he went way overboard on the false equivalencies? yes. Was it what *I* would have wanted? no. But the rally was about the media. Not about the republicans or even the tea party.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  7. Michelle wrote:

    This may be neither here nor there, but just for the record: at least while you were in town, you were in a place where gay marriage is wholly legal.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  8. Anne wrote:

    Alain de Botton said that cynics are idealists with awkwardly high expectations. I feel like that about covers it.

    Great post, CL.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  9. Elizabeth wrote:

    For fuck’s sake FINALLY someone is saying this. His little heady lecture at the end of the rally really fucking pissed me off. Excuse me Jon, but it is REALLY fucking important that my rights and the rights of gay people and black people are protected. Neither side is great at it, but only one side is outspokenly opposed to it. And guess the fuck what, the Tea Party and the Republicans have been running on a campaign of racism and sexism since Obama and Hillary started to run. Are they all calling Obama the n-word? No. But its absolutely disingenuous to say that calling the right on their racism/sexism/homophobia is some how akin to their inflammatory “MARXISTCOMMUNISTSOCIALISTFACISTS!” screeds, not to mention the “OBAMA IS KENYANMUSLIM” lie. How nice for you Jon, that you get to exist in the world where you can compromise with these people and not have it affect the way you live you life. You should be aware however that that is not the case for all of us, and as for many of us in that category, we will not compromise our rights for the sake of “sanity” whatever dis-abilist shit that means.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  10. Em wrote:

    This is excellent.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  11. loonabee wrote:

    I’ve only de-lurked once on this blog (which I love with all of my heart!), and am doing it again to second Siobhan’s comment.

    As much as many of us who were there were hoping (even seeking) a progressive rally in support of the ideals, goals, beliefs, and needs of so many in our country, that’s not what the rally was billed as. Nor is it what the rally was publicized as. Nor is it what Stewart asked the audience to take away from the event. Because some of the MSM chose to cover the rally that way doesn’t really change the original intent for or message given by the event. (He even specifically noted this fact in his SRSBSNStalk at the end.)

    This weekend I found myself (in turns): cramped (from 14 hours in a car), then elated, then shocked, then amazed, then disappointed, then amazed again. All-in-all, I’m glad my partner and I went.

    CL, you wrote an incredibly thoughtful and profoundly emotional piece, and I thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us. And I do agree with nearly all of what you said. The right and the left aren’t equal – the absolute hatred and lack of reason displayed by the right can never be countered by progressives, in part because Progressivism isn’t monolithic and in part because part of Progressivism is reliance on objective fact and humanistic interpretation of said fact. I will refrain from saying what I think Conservativism is, as any verbalization of said thoughts would be so profane that this comment would never leave moderation.

    But I think that sometimes emotional connection and deep feeling can make us lose an original discussion thread… I don’t believe Stewart (or Colbert, as whether or not he played the starring role, he was a creative voice that shaped the event) thinks that everyone must compromise their values and beliefs every minute of every day. And I don’t think that’s what he was calling for.

    My interpretation of the rally, and even of his (extremely) paternalistic speech was just this: Americans disagree with one another. All people everywhere have disagreements, profound, fundamental disagreements. All day, every day. But things (good, progressive things) can still get accomplished, if the frightened and inflamatory screaming stops. And that the screaming isn’t coming from most people, on the left or the right. It’s not even coming from people on the far left or the far right. The screaming is coming from the MSM, with their talk of America’s “fragility,” how we’re a “nation on the brink,” and that we have “two Americas” that hate one another.

    I don’t think he was telling us all to stop protesting, to stop caring and feeling deeply, or even to truly stop shouting at one another – far from it. I think he (and what many of us who went out to support this concept) was telling the MSM to sit the fuck down and simply REPORT on the shouting and the protesting and the dialogue that’s sincerely going on.

    As a concept, it’s identical to the argument he gave to Carlson and Begala on Crossfire in 2004, when he said (basically): “You guys aren’t helping, you’re hurting.” And then he called them awful.

    That his (and the other attendees’) privileges were firmly on display shouldn’t – I believe – take away from the truth of the message: Americans should vehemently fight for what they believe and that the fight will almost always involve compromises as we move forward. But most importantly, it’s the media’s job to report on Americans’ many narratives, not create America’s singular narrative.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  12. I <3 this post.

    I am also reminded, unfortunately, of Yellow Journalism and the Spanish American War.

    I’d elaborate (I mean, c’mon, the handle says it all), but I have a paper to type up, and a time-machine to build to turn it in on time.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  13. EmilyBites wrote:

    @Elizabeth
    you are so right – easy for Jon Stewart to call for compromise because he’s not gay, poor, a woman, a person of colour etc. Compromising on other people’s rights is no skin off his nose.
    Great article, thank you.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
  14. Gnatalby wrote:

    Everything I wanted to say about this rally but couldn’t figure out how to without getting too angry to be taken seriously. Brava!

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink
  15. Lampdevil wrote:

    This expresses very much how I’ve been feeling. Not much more to say but… thank you. Thank you.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  16. tea wrote:

    just a guess, but pirates are probably because of this:
    http://www.venganza.org/

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  17. Brimstone wrote:

    “Sanity? Seriously? What was that supposed to mean? That mental illness (and I have a few of ‘em, according to the DSM) meant that you were dragging America down? Or that if you disagreed with Stewart’s middle-of-the-road optimism that you were insane?”

    I cringe every time I use ‘crazy’ to describe America, and I need to stop doing it. I’m an ex-American with mentally ill friends and family members, and I wish I could find a better word or phrase for the… dangerous weirdness, I guess, that I see

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 8:23 pm | Permalink
  18. Em wrote:

    I don’t think he was telling us all to stop protesting, to stop caring and feeling deeply, or even to truly stop shouting at one another – far from it. I think he (and what many of us who went out to support this concept) was telling the MSM to sit the fuck down

    Getting 200,000 people to take a day off and crowd into the Mall to hear a speech directed not at them, not at the folks with cameras, but at the people who watched and commented on the footage seems like a superfluously roundabout way to criticize the main stream media.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  19. Amz wrote:

    Just a quick point — I actually think A LOT of people think or use Jon Stewart’s show as, literally, their only news source. The New Left Media did a video on the rally (just like they did at Beck’s) and they asked people what news show they trusted most. Guess who they said? (Good guess.)

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 9:06 pm | Permalink
  20. Jeannette wrote:

    Soooo true. I mean, that rally would have been better if Jon had stayed at home, Colbert had run the whole thing, and they had ohIdunno at least 1 other woman onstage besides Sheryl Crow (why WAS she there anyway? and with Kid Rock?? It’s like they sent an open invitation to every random musical act in the U.S.)

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Permalink
  21. k not k wrote:

    Mmmyep. I am really having a hard time figuring out the actual point of this rally. I feel like Neiwert has a good handle on what you are saying, too: http://crooksandliars.com/david-neiwert/just-wondering-has-jon-stewart-ever-

    Like, the media does enough studious ignoring of Republicans’ extremist contacts, imo. Some people you just can’t get along with… including those who are into repealing the 14th amendment! I mean come on… come. on.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink
  22. mmr wrote:

    “The thing is, is that it’s not a lack of reasonableness on both sides that’s the problem. It’s that one side is completely unreasonable–whether because of true belief or cynical calculation is immaterial. It’s that ultimately you can’t compromise your own belief that you are a human being and deserve every. single. damn. right. as everyone else does. I mean, what is there to compromise? I’ll be some percentage of a person until you get around to agreeing my troubles are important? You go, and you go, and you go, and for some of us it never seems to be our turn to edge into traffic.”

    This is tremendous. Thank you so much for even just this paragraph, which I can now send to all my crazy family members. GREAT DISTILLATION

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  23. Emily wrote:

    Stewart is right that both the left and the right are stupid. He just neglected to mention that the left is stupid and netural-to-occasionally-accidentally-good, while the right is stupid and evil. A pretty glaring omission, if you ask me.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink
  24. Spiffy McBang wrote:

    This is an excellent post, period.

    But I’m more with Siobhan and Loonabee. The reaction to Stewart’s speech actually got me thinking about how he’s handled business since Obama’s election. While there’s clearly some privilege at work, I think a lot of this stems from how he began to treat the two sides once there were non-lunatics in office.

    Basically, it seems as though he’s been working to keep relatively conservative viewers on board by finding the times when he can legitimately poke at anyone on the left, even though it means jumping on just about any lefty mistake and necessarily ignoring much of the lunacy on the right due solely to time constraints. And it seems like he’s done this with noble purpose- he doesn’t want to be viewed as constantly harping on the right wing because he’ll be perceived as just another liberal yap. He really believes someone has to try and keep whatever sane right wing might still exist in America interested in working with the left, and there isn’t anyone else willing to do it. (I’m not saying if that’s true or not, I’m saying that’s how it appears he views the situation.)

    Spin that forward to more recent Daily Shows and the rally speech. Stewart’s major point was that the media needs to stop flipping the fuck out over every tiny thing and lying about shit left and right. We’ll all agree that’s true, I’m sure. The problem is the specific rhetoric he used. I won’t defend it as the right way to spread the message he was going for; I think he’d have been better served not to bring specific left or right talking points into it at all, because then everyone could read what they wanted into somewhat more general statements of what the media is doing wrong. And there are topics, especially regarding Muslims, where he could have hammered the media on the issue of human rights.

    But I think his mistakes in rhetoric are not borne out of a blindness to the plight of the underprivileged so much as an extension of his desire to reach out to as wide a political cross-section of the country as possible. It’s felt, for a while now, like much of his criticism of the left is forced; he knows he’s being unfair to some degree, but he genuinely feels the need to give people on the right every chance and reason to stay tethered to reality.

    At this point, though, they just need to get cut loose. My hope is he’ll come to realize that, but his desire to see even one adult in charge of the Republican party/conservative movement may end up getting the better of him.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  25. Excellent post, CL, thanks so much for this.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  26. Roving Thundercloud wrote:

    Agreed, Spiffy–and part of this shift is due to the development of the Colbert Report. Jon can lay off attacking the right all the time, and can now afford a few pokes at the left (thereby retaining more mod/cons viewers but also, righly pointing out the foolishness on the liberal side as well). The Daily Show has become more shticky as a result, while the Colbert Report is more elegant and sophisticated (see item IX above).

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 8:00 pm | Permalink
  27. s wrote:

    Holy shit, yes. This is the first write up of the rally that expressed how I felt about it. (I was also by the second tier of TV screens.) I remember wondering at one point why there were so many men on stage, where had the women gone? And then wondering why I was telling myself not to question this that…

    Thursday, November 4, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  28. Bethany wrote:

    I was also disappointed by the rally when I watched it on TV. Should have let Colbert be more serious and satirical instead of silly and stupid. Sheryl Crow looked like she didn’t even know what lyrics she was supposed to be singing.

    Roving Thundercloud @26: I think the Colbert Report is capable of extreme Take That! moments, and Colbert’s White House Correspondence Dinner speech was all kinds of courageous and awesome. But the Colbert Report is capable of extreme silliness. Seems like a lot of recent episodes are dedicated to cartoon character!Colbert or Colbert Nation wackiness, not hard-hitting satire. Which is fine, but I don’t necessarily think it’s sophisticated. I don’t watch either show much lately despite how much I used to love them. I don’t think The Daily Show is really funny anymore. Although, I will admit that Jon’s done some great interviews on his show at times.

    Friday, November 5, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  29. Christianne wrote:

    Glad to see you back to writing. Particularly this:

    “If you want to take a stand for “sanity” in the media, Jon, why not ask them why the hell they won’t stand on the facts?”

    Yes. Exactly. The notion that there are two sides to every story is a pernicious fallacy.

    Monday, November 8, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink