In any other society it might seem insane for two late night comedians best known for their work on the Comedy Central cable network to manage to generate more public interest and a larger rally than any political movement (estimates currently range from 150,000 up to 250,000 people). In the United States though it almost seems appropriate.
As soon as Jon Stewart announced his plan to hold the Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington DC, and Stephen Colbert retaliated with his March to Keep Fear Alive the same day, my wife announced that she wanted to attend and I was happy to go with her. Certainly part of that is that we are only 60 miles from DC to begin with. But I for one, never attend rallies.
There are several reasons for that:
- I really don't like crowds
- As a permanent resident rather than citizen I find myself in the position of interested observer rather than participant in US democracy.
- My political views are too nuanced for me to feel comfortable letting any of the political movements represent them.
So what was I doing there then? Despite the media's efforts to portray this as a "comedy" or "entertainment" event and the politicians desperate attempts to either latch on to it or disparage it, there was a message to the Rally for Sanity (and/or Fear) that resonated with me and at least a hundred thousand other people in the country.
As an observer I have felt for years now that this country's much lauded democratic process has been hijacked and manipulated by people who claim to be helping me, but are simply serving their own agendas. In some case it's a party political thing, but as often as not it's just about grabbing ratings and viewers.
Anyone who thinks the Rally For Sanity was an attempt to push liberal politics has sadly missed the point. Certainly lots of liberal activist groups aligned themselves with the event, hoping to gain publicity and support, but the message that Colbert and Stewart were pushing wasn't party political in any way. The message was anti-hysteria; anti-extremist and pro-conversation. Something that is sadly lacking both in the political life of this country and the media coverage of it.
And the fault doesn't lie solely with "old" media either. Check out the political blogs and all you'll see is extremists hurling insults at each other. I can name you plenty of sites that represent the left or the right in political debate. How many can you name that represent the middle ground? Unfortunately "sanity" doesn't sell very well.
At the Rally
So that's the why, but what was the experience like? Crowded. Very, very crowded. From the 45 minute queue just to get inside the Metro station to forcing our way through the crowds just to get on the Mall, I don't think I've ever had my personal space invaded so many times in the space of one day. Some climbed trees to get a view. The roofs of the port-a-potties were used as makeshift platforms. Everywhere you looked there were just more people.
Despite the masses of people in every direction, there was no feeling of danger at all. People were largely polite and well behaved and tempers rarely flared. This crowd had arrived with the intention to enjoy themselves, not to cause trouble.
I was also struck by the diversity of the people attending. The Daily Show audience is made up of (we are told) students. And while there were plenty young people in attendance there was a wide age range and from the look of people a variety of backgrounds and lifestyles. This might well be the most diverse rally ever held in DC.
Judged as a show the rally was flawed. They had a decent range of guests, but clearly hadn't expected the size of audience they got. Not only was it difficult to get a view of the jumbotrons, but at times it was difficult to hear what was being said on the stage as well. Somehow though it didn't seem to matter. The mood of the crowd was upbeat regardless and every guest was greeted with a huge cheer.
Will It Make Any Difference?
While I wholeheartedly support the sentiments espoused by Stewart at the end of his rally, it won't mean anything unless it has some sort of lasting effect. I'd like to think it will, but the pessimist in me says that it will be forgotten about by the next story cycle. The media has already largely written it off, beyond discussing audience size. I don't think this is necessarily because they are one of Stewart and Colbert's main targets. I think it's just because nothing dramatic happened. As I said before sanity doesn't sell.
The driving forces of the US political system aren't likely to be derailed by a well-meaning, but fuzzy message. Nor will human nature. We are psychologically and physiologically designed to group people into "them" and "us". No matter how sane and considered you may be, you are still at the mercy of assorted sub-conscious cues that make every decision you make more irrational than rational.
The media knows that and they know how to work it to their advantage. It will be business as usual within a month.