Saturday, October 30, 2010

The We Party

Except for when the name sponsors tried to sing, the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear came off without a hitch Saturday on the Mall in Washington. The runup to this hybrid pre-election event meant to return tranquility to American life (at least until Nov. 3) went on on Comedy Central for weeks; the payoff was a huge crowd on more or less their best behavior. By all accounts, civility, consideration, reasonableness reigned.

The fact that that’s even worth mentioning is exactly the point.

After the rising chorus of Blue Meanie, Chicken Little, Father Coughlin rhetoric from the extremists— and an appeal to the country's Christian identity, distilled in Glenn Beck’s amazing simulation of Lonesome Rhodes and Elmer Gantry at a rally at the same location back in August — the stage was set for some kind of counter response.

What Stewart and Colbert came up with was brilliant: rather than present a reflexive, rote politically-based response, theirs was mostly a sendup, a well-timed spasm of silliness, a monster goof on the animosity that characterizes our politics, but a goof based, finally, on a call to bringing tolerance back to the discourse.

It was pretty well received. Crowd estimates were all over the place, as usual, but they were all respectable. CNN and NBC NIghtly News estimated at least 200,000 people showed up. CBS News was more generous, reported the count at 215,000. CTV (Canadian Broadcasting) guesstimated 250,000. All were well above the folks were turned up for Glenn Beck's Tea Party-tinged "Restoring Honor" rally in August. After commissioning a scientifically-based estimate of that crowd, CBS News reported that just 87,000 attended.

They all got a healthy dose of foolishness: Colbert arrived dressed like Evel Knievel, making his appearance onstage a la the Chilean miners in a rescue capsule; he and Stewart sparred good-naturedly. And Stewart sang something of a duet with Colbert (Note to both: Keep your night jobs).

But Stewart waxed serious at one point.

“We live in hard times, not end-times. We can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools [...] broke.” In a frontal attack on the rhetorical styles of the news media — which he called “the country's 24-hour politico pundit perpetual panic conflictinator" — Stewart said: “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. ...

"There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned," Stewart said. "You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and tea partiers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult, not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate -- just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more." ...

“Americans don’t live on cable TV… most Americans don’t live their lives as Democrats or Republicans or liberals or conservatives,” he said. “Most live their lives as people a little bit late for something they have to do, often something they do not want to do. But they do it … making little, reasonable compromises we all make… we have to work together to get from the darkness to the light.”

“The press is our immune system: If it over-reacts to everything, we get sicker, and maybe eczema.”

Implicit in his remarks was the deeper point of this latest rally in D.C. The very need for the Stewbert production is a sign of how low we’ve fallen in the level of our argument. Analysts and reporters snarl and foam at each other on the air, trying to make their points by elevating their voices instead of their game. The president is called a liar in a joint session of Congress. Politics, never beanbag, has become zero-sum game bloodsport, mixed martial arts on Capitol Hill.

To go by the crowd that attended Saturday’s rally, there’s hope that the cross-section of Americans haven’t given up on the ideas of rational thinking, rationally presented in the media and elsewhere; or on the idea that, no matter what your political persuasion, there’s commonality to what we face as a nation, things we face in the unpredictable future that will be, collectively, an equal opportunity challenge.

The We Party gathered in Washington on Saturday, Americans that got together to celebrate both their diversity and their strength, their individuality and their common national bond. As usual, the sign-bearers had a way of distilling what it was all about. One, as usual, got it best: “We are all in this together. Let’s act like it.”

Image credits: Stewart and Colbert: Via The Huffington Post.

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