I didn't really know what to expect, but the concept sounded too perfect to resist: people coming together to say, "I'm tired of the extremism. I'm tired of living in a country where, according to the media, all liberals are socialist/communist, baby-killing, tree-hugging, terrorist-loving atheists and homosexuals, and where all conservatives are racist, bigoted, uneducated, gun-toting hillbillies and religious zealots. I'm tired of the animosity, how a difference of opinion is suddenly a call to war. I'm tired of the ugly talk, the suspicion, the refusal to compromise and work together, or to even acknowledge that the other side may have good intentions. Let's TAKE IT DOWN A NOTCH."
I'm sorry, but who among us hasn't felt that way in the past year or so? I don't care if it's Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann, Sarah Palin (Meh. Sorry. I'm trying to be rational, but I just don't like her!) or Wolf Blitzer or - well, really, how long do you have? The list could go on for a year and a day, because they've all, apparently, been drinking the Koolaid.
So I drove to D.C. Pulling up in the hotel parking lot, I saw cars covered in window marker messages about the rally. Checking into my room, I saw people wearing homemade T-shirts. And contrary to what I've been reading in media coverage, the people I saw weren't all white middle-class college students. There were some of those, yes, but a surprising diversity not only in race and social class, but more astonishing to me - in age. It wasn't just young people. There was even a seventy-year-old couple from Missouri there that I'd end up talking to at more length the next day when we shared a shuttle ride back from Union Station. And all these people, all here for this rally - all here, I assumed, because they too were sick of it and wanted to say, "Hey! Enough already!"
I made the comparison in a facebook comment to how I feel whenever I go to a Harry Potter convention. There are people who say, "Oh, Harry Potter, I like those books." And then there are WIZARDS. People who dress in costume, or listen to wizard rock, or write fan fic, or check the Potter websites daily, or work references to the books and characters into everyday conversation. And you know when you've found those people. Arriving in town for a Harry Potter event and seeing people walking around in robes and scarves, or with wands tucked behind their ears, or debating the merits of floo powder versus airline travel. You recognize your people. Comic book collectors probably know what I'm talking about. Fans of the same sports team. Or any member of a group with shared experiences or ideals, really.
It was like that. Walking into the place and realizing, "I'm among people who get it!" We were all there for the same reason, and we were all excited. There was a tangible buzz, a hum of energy.
That night I made some cute little signs. Here are some of them:
The next morning on the way into the rally I met even more people from the hotel who were headed there too. Here'a couple from Philadelphia and one of their friends. We walked together from Union Station down to the mall. Some rally volunteer gave us free towels:
When we got there, there were people everywhere. It was a bit overwhelming. People in costumes. People with stickers that said "Vote for Sanity." People waving all sorts of crazy/ridiculous/wonderful/inventive/silly/etc signs. I took many a picture trying to capture as many of them as I could, though I only captured a miniscule fraction of the awesomeness with my camera.
Random things that stick out in my mind: The oldest, fattest woman I've ever seen with a "You Tax It, I'll Smoke It" marijuana leaf button pinned to her cardigan. This sign: "BRING BACK 'ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT,' OBAMA!" Spotting Where's Waldo and Carmen Sandiego in the crowd. And Papa Smurf. And the Flying Spaghetti Monster. A zombie with a sign: "What do we want? BRAINS! When do we want them? BRAINS??" A Stephen Colbert/Keep Fear Alive poster that quoted the "Bed Intruder" song ("They're climbin' in your windows. They're snatchin' your people up...").
There were SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF PEOPLE. I don't know how to stress that enough. If you're looking at the mall from above facing the stage, I was in the first section behind the press area, to the left of the stage. So I was only really aware of the people in my section and the one in front of me. It was only when they showed aerial shots of the whole mall that I realized how many people were there! So when I talk, it's only about the people closest to me that I saw. Still, there were frat guys behind me, a woman with a head covering in front of me, and to her right a guy who was military, I think (not in uniform, but I'm guessing from the way he snapped to attention when they played the national anthem that he's had military training of some kind). An elegant older woman with long silvery hair holding a "We need a Department of Peace" sign. Two thirtysomething guys, one white, one black, each wearing "Fox News: Keeping Fear Alive" buttons.
And there was me:
As a side note, I should add: though the rally was about taking it down a notch, calming down, stepping away from extremism, there were still nutjobs and people with hugely biased signs. There was a lot of liberal sentiment, since Jon Stewart is fairly liberal himself. But (a) the crazy people with Hitler-mustache signs were the minority, and (b) most of the "liberal sentiment" wasn't against the politicians, but the pundits. You'd see signs with Glenn Beck's face on them, or poking fun at Fox News anchors. One sign I particularly liked said: "I am happy you have your own opinion. But opinion does not equal fact." And on the back it had the "Fair and Balanced" catchphrase with a slash through it. In general, any "anti" or negative sentiments seemed directed at people who have been frequently guilty of extremist talk and generalizations.
But back to the rally. It started. The music was great, I like the Roots a lot, and John Legend has a nice voice. But for most people, you could tell we were all really waiting for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, so it was like, "Okay, this is cool, but... forty minutes? Really? And they haven't come out yet?" But then the guys from Mythbusters came out and did their shtick. I've been told by people who watched it on TV or the internet that this part was boring, but being in the crowd, it was actually SO MUCH FUN. When they did the massive wave that ran the length of the mall, it was absolutely exhilarating. They showed shots on the big screens of the wave trickling down to the very far end. That was the first time I'd gotten a feel for just how many people were there! And when we all jumped at the same time... I know the seismologist guy was making it out to seem like it was a small reading, but I felt the ground shiver under my feet... which is definitely not a normal sensation!
If you've watched the show on TV or the internet, you'll know what followed after. It was kind of like a hodge-podge of the Daily Show and Colbert Report antics mixed in with fun guest spots and musical numbers. It was entertaining and funny and definitely a good show. I loved the part where they gave out Reasonableness awards (to the baseball player who had a perfect record ruined by an incorrect call from the umpire and handled the situation with grace and kindness, the woman who had an opportunity to speak with President Obama and disagreed strongly with him without ever yelling or being anything but gracious and polite, the young man who snatched a gasoline-soaked Quran out of the hands of someone who was trying to burn it, and the professional wrestler who uses his fame from a very extreme/ridiculous day job to spread kindness and "stick up for the little guy"). I was a bit appalled by one of Colbert's competing "Fear Awards": the fact that ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, NPR, the New York Times, Associate Press, Wall Street Journal, and more, actually forbid their employees from attending rallies like this one. I'm sorry, but isn't the freedom to peaceably assemble in the First Amendment? Way to infringe upon your employees' Constitutional rights!
My favorite part of the rally, though, came at the end. There was the cute back-and-forth between Jon and Stephen about not making generalizations about people or ideas (Stephen: All robots are evil. Jon: What about R2D2? Stephen: Well... not *all* robots are evil.), but it kind of had the feel of an after-school special on "acceptance and understanding."
No, what I'm talking about is the heartfelt speech Jon Stewart gave at the very end. Trying to recap it, I'd probably end up messing it up, so please watch the video if you haven't already seen it:
Three things I got out of this:
(1) "We can have animus without being enemies." Animus, of course, being the Latin for "spirit" or "passion." We can disagree without hating each other. We can be gracious and civil, and not suspicious and fear-mongering and absolutely sure that "those people" are our enemies, out for our destruction. We can coexist.
(2) The media is broken. In college, our professors urged us to read the news, in the papers and online, to watch news stations, because the idea was that we should start to care about what's going on beyond the tiny little bubble of our individual lives. That we should take interest in affairs happening at a local, national, and international level. This is true. But they also painted this highly idealistic picture of the news as a noble profession where journalists live up to this code of integrity and chivalry, never blighting flawless fact with the ugly blemishes of opinion or subjectivity. That is, of course, a lie. No news is going to be entirely objective. BUT - that's not an excuse for journalists and news anchors to blur the line between fact and opinion as blatantly as they have been. Stewart's wonderful metaphors (the fun house mirror, the magnifying glass, the immune system) fit so very well. The "twenty-four-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator" is broken. It's perpetuating a false image of what America is really like right now. It's not by any means the cause of all our woes, but it isn't doing anything to help the problem.
(3) We are not what they say we are. Their image of us in the fun house mirror is way off. We don't lead our lives as Republicans and Democrats, but as people. My favorite part of that speech was the part where he shows the cars slowly merging into the tunnel. I'm probably venturing into "Beatles are more popular than Jesus" territory here, but it really did remind me of Christ's use of parables. How metaphors are sometimes far more powerful at explaining truth than just saying the thing outright. All those very different people with vastly diverse opinions and experiences are driving side by side down the same road. They're trying to get to the same place. And they have to work together, to make small concessions and compromises, to do it. Otherwise they'd go nowhere.
"A house divided against itself will not stand." But we are not as divided as some claim. And I was so proud to be one of over 200,000 people standing on the mall that day saying, "Enough. Let's be sane about this. Let's stop being petty and ridiculous and calm the heck down."
It was, I think, probably the only time in the 24 years of my life that I can recall ever feeling truly proud to be American.
After that, it was over. There were so many people there that getting out of there immediately would have been insanity. So we hung out a while by a tree, I journaled the experience a bit, and after about a half hour I braved the walk to Union Station. It was quite a long wait to get back to the hotel. The metro stations couldn't handle that many people and stopped the trains after a while. Taxis were impossible to come by. Fortunately the hotel had anticipated the problem and sent a shuttle on a continuous loop to and from the station. Still, with so many people having been at the rally, and the shuttle being a fourteen-passenger van, it took a few cycles (with the traffic, that equals a couple hours) of sitting there in the uncomfortably chilly D.C. air before I finally fit into one of them.
During this time I got to talking to other rally-goers heading to the hotel. The couple in their seventies I mentioned before. Several people from Canada who came down in support of the idea of a saner, more rational America. A guy from New York City who seriously looked like Don Cheadle with glasses and Einstein hair. A family (mom and dad in their fifites, son in his late teens, daughter about twelve or thirteen) from Atlanta. It was a weird assembly of people crammed into this one van; I was trying to picture any other circumstance in which we would ever be brought together like this and was hard pressed to come up with an answer. But we were chatting happily about our travels here, our favorite parts of the rally, how we felt about what he said at the end. No mention of politics or parties. No bickering. No assumptions or preconceived notions. Just several strangers reveling in the beauty of a shared experience. Of a shared hope.
I know I use lofty rhetoric. I'm not a politician, I'm a poet. I think poets are allowed a little bit of idiotic optimism. But isn't courage technically stupidity? Isn't faith a foolish risk? And isn't love the most irrational act of all? If we praise these things as admirable, if we cling to them as some of the highest achievements our species is capable of, then why can't I have hope? It is stupid, and idiotic, idealistic, and most probably wrong, but I can hope that one day our country will be healed. And maybe not all of them, but a great many others in that crowd of 200,000 share that hope.
A hope for sanity.