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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tony Bennett was the only person to mention voting.
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.
“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?
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.”