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Wrapping Up “Sanity”

2010 November 3

In the weeks leading up to the Stewart/Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” I closely followed many of the articles here on The Busy Signal, (Henry Casey’s excellent piece, and Andrea Greco’s before that) as well as elsewhere (notably Timothy Noah’s article for Slate) criticizing the comedians cum rally leaders for overstepping their bounds by entering into the realm of pure politics, where no good comedian should ever go.  In theory I completely agreed with the notion that this rally would do nothing, that it was a waste of time to go; and I was slightly suspicious of Jon Stewart’s motives.  But I was curious.

Thus, when faced with the proposition “to go or not to go” to the rally—or more elaborately, to confront the weekend-long mayhem of crowds and Beltway traffic and evil Gawker spies and counter-demonstrators dressed as Hitler-Obama and progressives themselves dressed as Nazi commanders, or to stay home and watch the madness unfold on television—the choice was clear.  If not for the content then for the adventure, I said what many liberals decried, the inimitable infinitive: ‘to go.’

I joined in the mass-migration to Washington, DC and became a part of the floor-crashing throngs of journeymen in search of political decency, and more generally, the promise of the restoration of sanity.

The irony was that sanity had to dress up in crazy clothes in order to garner a sizable turnout.  Lured by another promise, a Halloween party on the Mall, hundreds of thousands came out in costume to receive the spectacle of an all-star lineup of super-secret Grammy-winners and liberal pop-cultural icons sharing the stage with their two favorite comedians in a three-hour made-for-TV special.

Besides coming in costume, many rally-goers wore their opinions on their sleeves.  Political signs were out in force, with many satirizing the themes of sanity and decency that the rally attempted to drive home.  While this was all part of the fun, and admittedly well-charted territory, at some point it becomes difficult to say how much irony is too much irony, especially when it seemed like everyone was in on the action.  While news organizations from Buzzfeed to Time hosted pre-rally sign round-ups (as well as ranking the 25 best shirts and 25 cutest kids), Public Citizen, one of the more upright interest groups, founded by Ralph Nadar, hosted a pre-rally sign contest.  When serious progressives give themselves over to the kind of spectacular, self-referential banter generated by a pseudo-political gathering for nothing, I can’t but help be disappointed in the Left.  It was clear that the rally’s bizarre glorification of saneness missed the mark.

Unfortunately for many onlookers, the folks at Comedy Central only projected crowd attendance at 60,000.  This gross underestimatation of the turnout, a fact that has been ignored or overlooked by many media outlets, led to a number of critical problems.  With only a handful of JumboTrons and a serious shortage of speakers, much of the crowd was left unable to see or hear the proceedings.  As soon as the initial excitement of “being there” wore off, the rally became a “theater of the absurd” throughout much of the crowd: hilarious and grotesque characters wandering aimlessly, speaking occasionally to each other and others, but for the most part silently contemplating the overwhelming and fragmented gestalt.  For a rally that was billed to inspire unity, these production failures made a coherent interpretation impossible, giving way to the experience of exclusion.

Somehow, I don’t think this was the sane experience that Stewart and Colbert intended.

Despite all the problems posed by the organization and the hype of the rally, its content managed to be decent; perhaps too decent.  Jason Linkins’ “My Day at the Rally to Restore Sanity,” Huffington Post’s summation of the day’s events, perfectly captures the feeling of “nothing exciting happened at all” that was all-too-apparent to those milling about the mall, bored by the proceedings.  The article ho-hums through the entire agenda of the rally, summarizing everything you need to know about the proceedings.  Although I caught absolutely none of what was said from my vantage, it appears that I didn’t miss anything important: it all just sounds so – reasonable.  The comedy?  Fine.  The message – reason over fear?  Also fine.  But you know it’s bad when the author begins by “breaking the rules of journalism” to talk about a “decent” experience he had with another human being:

I’m about to break a major rule of journalism and do something that should color me immediately as a hack. I’m going to talk about a cab driver.

Today, I woke up early Saturday morning to attend the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear. For reasons too complicated to get into, I had to be there very early. Somehow, I thought I’d be able to just jet in on the Metro. But, upon discovering that the inbound Orange lines were packed to the gills, I quickly vacated my station, and went looking for a taxi to take me to Seventh Street, NW. By luck, an Arlington Red Top cab was idling at the top of the escalator, and the cabbie was happy to help me out. Two minutes into the ride, I realized something about him — he was a dedicated, dyed in the wool follower of Lyndon LaRouche.

Normally, the LaRouchies annoy me to no end. There they are at the Arlington DMV, bothering people — to this day! — about Dick Cheney. There they were at the health care reform rally I attended at my old high school — doing nothing for the discourse, doing nothing for health care reform, Obama-with-Hitler-mustaches in tow. Usually, when I encounter these cats, I feel the urge to find a strong, talented, CIA deprogrammer to go to work on them. But on this occasion, this guy was my rock. And after the initial, tentative, what-am-I-in-for flare of mistrust, I decided to drop that wall of pretense and prejudice, and try to have nice conversation.

As it turns out, we had a fine ride. We talked U6 unemployment and the need for this country to get back into the business of making something other than war or websites. He told me that he felt that marathon runners were a little bit crazy, and I agreed. For some reason, he was way into the movie Seven Years In Tibet, and he made a good case for it. And I’ll be damned if we didn’t arrive at my final destination a little too soon, I was having fun talking with the guy. We both did what we could to commemorate the occasion: I gave him a big tip, he gave me a LaRouche pamphlet, and we parted ways. I thought it was a good portent. At the very least, I’d have some sort of peg on which to hang a blog post.

This is unbelievably long and boring.  Have we really reached the point where our mundane interactions with others are newsworthy?  Even if we disagree, do we constantly have to pat ourselves on the back for being level-headed?

Okay, okay, I realize this is coming off as a bitter rag, and that’s unfortunate because, truth be told, I had a great time.  The environment was full of energy (though undirected) and the crowd was in high spirits (probably because of Ozzy).  The problem is that in the wake of all this hype, we have arrived at Election Day lacking in inspiration, obsessed with our own sanity and reason, afraid of what the future should hold things go one way or another.  Is this going to drive people to the polls?

The crisis of irony is precisely the failure of irony to do anything.  Not that this was a rally that was billed to do anything.  In fact, the opposite is true.  All along the Rally to Restore Sanity was meant to accomplish nothing, and in that, it was a success.

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