Caught In a Satire

November 11th, 2010 § 2 comments

The day began at two o’clock in the morning, when I woke after a few hours of sleep, dressed, and made my way to the Port Authority. My bus was scheduled to leave at 3:45 am, and a long line of sleepy, restless twenty something’s waiting for a similar bus to Washington D.C. welcomed me at the station. I know bus stations, and I know that lines for buses are like queues in Europe, where there is no guilt in cutting and no shame in pushing. The redemptive quality of buses is that there are usually more of them than people who want to ride them. This morning was an exception everyone was prepared for except the bus companies. There was no Arianna Huffington to greet our sleepy line, but we were able to wait indoors unlike the Megabus riders. I met one rider in line who realized, after a small tantrum and some puzzled glances at people holding signs, that he had picked a very unfortunate morning to travel to D.C. After three hours of waiting and a certain amount of mutiny, I was able to look backward into the station, still full of upset travelers left temporarily stranded, from the safety of my seat aboard a bus I wasn’t supposed to be on, and hadn’t really bought a ticket for. It was the chaotic beginning of a frustrating but thought provoking day.

A Rally to Restore Sanity seemed like a clever idea when Jon Stewart first announced it. The humorous yet serious underlying idea of massing together the self-pronounced “reasonable majority” was very appealing to the so-called reasonable majority. It even appealed to people who, like myself, are not devoted followers of either Stewart or Colbert, people who simply consider themselves to fall within the moderate section of the bell curve. I support the idea of a group of people getting together to show that they are capable of civility, as Stewart stated recently, “people can be opponents but not enemies.” In a pre-rally interview Stewart explained that his rally was not a reaction to the Glenn Beck gathering, but was instead a critique of our truly exasperating media. “I’m less upset with politicians than the media, corruption is inherent in politics,” Stewart explained on NPR, while expressing his view that it’s the media who should be holding them accountable. “I think it matters in this world what you label yourself and how you conduct yourself,” Stewart said, meaning that if you call yourself a reporter or journalist you should be expected to uphold a certain level of reporting or journalism. Getting my news predominantly from radio, I didn’t research too much about what the rally would entail or what the underlying motivation was before I went. When I looked into the details of the event, days before hand, all it promised was “Jon Stewart and guests.” It was in trying to understand the outcome afterward that I delved deeper into the concept behind it.

Though I didn’t know too much about this particular rally beforehand, I did attend it with certain expectations about what a rally is, and therefore knew what I was likely to get out of it. It does not matter where a rally takes place, what it’s about, or if it’s pro or con—it could be in the streets of Montpellier against the CPE, it could be at the Pentagon against the Iraq war, it could be in a poor suburb of Philly for the presidential candidate Barack Obama—rallies are always about mobilizing, energizing, and actively engaging the people who attend them. There is nothing passive about a cause people feel passionate enough about to crawl out of bed at 2 am on a cold October morning, and take a five hour bus ride to a three hour event. There is nothing passive about wanting to be there in person and en masse. The format of a rally is the complete opposite of watching The Daily Show on television. People who stay home and watch rallies might be able to see and hear better, they might even garner a better understanding of what the event is about, but they miss the fundamental purpose of it—to be there. Rallies are unarguably a form of propaganda, and an effective one as we have seen recently with the birth of the tea party and the mobilization of Koch money. Rallies are partially about preaching to the choir, but what gives them power is their ability to energize that choir.

The Rally to Restore Sanity, however, was a rally that wasn’t a rally. Standing on the National Mall a good way from the stage, able to hear some of what was happening but unable to see it, I questioned what it was we were doing or accomplishing. The turnout was huge, an estimated 150, 000 plus people, many of them in costume and carrying perhaps the rallies greatest success, fantastic “non-sequitur” signs. The crowd also lived up to the rally’s slogan of “restoring sanity” as it was the most unimpassioned, almost listless crowd I have ever seen on the National Mall. More truthfully, it was a group of very impassioned people trying to show how reasonable and respectful they could be of just about everything—each other, differing opinions, the grass on the Nation Mall. When two Tea Party members, attired in Don’t Tread on Me t-shirts, biked through our midst I think it said a lot that they didn’t fear shouts, jeers, or worse from such a large crowd of liberals. The gathering also did not give way to a kind of frightening groupthink that takes place at so many rallies. Our calmness seemed problematic, however, and the performances of our comedic hosts didn’t help our plight. Was this a political event or simply entertainment? It came across as both, but not the best of either. It might have been the most disorganized rally I’ve ever attended, and it certainly wasn’t the funniest or most insightful version of a live Daily Show or Colbert Report. Hoping to create a new format within the construct of a rally, we created a mellow rally and a mediocre comedy show.

More problematic than issues of format, however, was the underlying premise of sanity, rationality, and reasonableness. They are good qualities, but what is the function of a group of people showing they can be those things? Granted, the current climate of our political discourse seems to demonstrate the necessity for our politicians to demonstrate that they can be those things. We were not gathered together to fight against unreasonableness, to mobilize a much needed demographic of the vote (the youth) days before a depressing loss of government seats, nor were we there to unite in any particular way. In essence it felt a bit like we were being reasonable at the expense of being engaged and passionate. The flaw to our sanity in a climate of insanity, reminded me of a story Adam Gopnik wrote years ago for the New Yorker called Saving The Balzar. The Balzar, a beloved Parisian restaurant, was sold to an Americanizing French chain, and it’s the story of the regulars who attempted to save it.

We were building up to an impressive pitch of indignation, but at that point the waiters began to serve the dinners that we had ordered while we were waiting to begin our protest, and this weakened the revolutionary spirit a little. There was, I sensed, a flaw in our strategy: if you take over a restaurant as an act of protest and then order dinner at the restaurant, what you have actually done is gone to the restaurant and had dinner…having come to say that you just won’t take it anymore, you have to add sheepishly that you will take it, au point and with béarnaise sauce.

I felt a little like our own good intentions, from Stewart and Colbert to the thousands that came to show their solidarity, met with a similar problem. By organizing a rally only to put on a comedy show, we let go of the feelings that drove us to the event. As Brian Lehrer asked the next morning of his listeners, “did you get the meaning you were hoping for?” I might not have known exactly what meaning I was hoping for, but I know for certain that I didn’t get the feeling I was hoping for. Standing puzzled on the National Mall under a crystal clear blue sky, I remember watching a young man walk by carrying a sign that read Meh. Though he was undoubtedly aiming for sarcasm, it struck a chord as though it perfectly described the overall mood of the rally. Did we really go all that way to say meh? I want to be optimistic, I hope this event has a hidden future impact, and I want it to have begun a new dialogue, but instead I believe it served to underscore some fundamental problems with the political left, mainly that it’s not our time to shrug.

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