Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity/and or Fear

Yes, I made the pilgrimage from North Carolina to DC to attend the 'Rally to Restore Sanity/and or Fear'. It was quite the experience. I will say upfront that I will likely not do another rally of this size again. Don't get me wrong, the people were generally very nice and friendly, but any time you get several hundred thousand people crammed into one area, even the size of the National Mall, it gets a bit crowded. But aside from the shuffling crowd, difficulty seeing the screens at times and the very long metro back to the car I did enjoy the show. More on the show in a moment.

Before I attended I had come across a handful of articles, mostly proclaiming the problems the authors saw with the Rally. I was rather surprised actually by some of them. Now I never paid much attention to some of the various Tea Party, Second Amendment and Glenn Beck rallies that have been staged on or near the Mall the last year or so. At least not beyond noting their existence anyway. So maybe I missed all the pre-rally analysis and criticism leading up to and immediately after the events. But it sure felt like this event was under the microscope from the moment it was announced. What was even weirder was the strange arguments against it, especially before it had even happened.

One theme was the lament that Stewart and Colbert would ruin their 'brand'. That somehow leading a rally would magically transform them both into political pundits and make them unable to ever return to the comedy side of the street. Why? The rally was aggressively non-partisan and was promoted as pretty much an extension of the Daily Show/Colbert Report franchise. Nobody should have really expected either man of turning serious all of a sudden. In fact several weeks earlier, in an NPR interview, Stewart clearly stated that he had looked at Beck's 'Rally to Restore Honor' and had seen that as a great framework for the kind of thing that he and Colbert did already. And they wrapped it around the theme, also a constant on The Daily Show, of stepping down the rhetoric and the volume so we could actually exchange ideas.

The conservative media, of course, went with the old standard of considering any gathering that hinted at compromise or discussion as nothing but a bunch of cowardly liberals who didn't understand the real world. I've always found this to be shortsighted and ignorant. It goes back to the schoolyard philosophy that 'Strength' is the most important factor in the world. But their definition of strength has no room for strength of character or conviction. They usually define it as simply power to force or dictate to others. A view that 'Us or Them', 'Our way or the highway' and never admitting you're wrong are somehow admirable qualities. The truth is that, just as parents teach their kids, it takes courage and strength to admit to a mistake and teamwork does make you stronger. Bullying a weaker opponent is not strength, it's merely cruelty. And you attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. So it's not surprising or at all illuminating that the conservatives who's careers rely on volume over substance would miss the point of a Rally for Sanity.

But the comments that struck me the oddest were from liberal activists who seemed to be completely unsure what to make of it. They wanted to fold it into a box labeled 'Protest', but it didn't fit. And for some liberals the idea of reasonable compromise was almost as alien as it was to the conservative fringes. Of course they didn't see themselves as 'extremists' even if they rejected the same calls to reason that the far Right ignored. I read two such articles on Huffington Post.

The first was by Mike Elk, a self described 'Labor Journalist' who spent the first few paragraphs describing how much of a Progressive rally it was and that "it is thus vital for progressive media outlets, including labor publications, to adequately cover the event." Apparently this is because any 'Progressive' event absolutely must be all about social justice and the rights of workers. I'm quite sure there are a lot of events that are somewhat progressive that do not focus on labor rights. So why get so worked up here? He then launched into a longwinded lament about how he and a number of journalists from other "major labor publications" were denied formal credentials to cover the event. Keep in mind that lack of formal credentials in no way bars them from covering the event, it's public after all, they just wouldn't have access to the press tent with internet access and power feeds. Inconvenient, but hardly crippling for a journalist. Yet he droned on and on about how important the labor movement was to progressives and how this denial was such a slap in the face to the labor movement. Huh? Whine much, Mike? Even when he stopped consoling himself for this insult to his pride and that of every blue collar working stiff he continued to rip into the rally. Apparently since this was only 'entertainment' then the whole thing was obviously just a Comedy Central plan to boost ad revenue. Thus Stewart and Colbert were just smiling shills for corporate America. I admit his leaps and bounds of logic, and I use the term loosely, are dizzying to read. The deeper you get the more snotty his narrative becomes and drips with scorn for the show's white liberal elites and their "slack activism" and tossing in digs at how The Daily Show lampooned a union that hired outside people to do the picketing for them during a wage dispute. And even though Mr. Elk notes that he agreed in this case, he can't get over how the show has 'refused' to cover major labor struggles. Let me get this straight, you are upset that The Daily Show, on Comedy Central, is not sending people out to cover labor rights struggles? When have you ever seen them do serious journalism? They are not a news organization, Mike! That's why they are on Comedy Central. Mr. Elk seems to be unable to reconcile how a show that uses humor to point up hypocrisy and political illogic doesn't do investigative journalism. If nothing else, Mr. Elk's article is an entertaining read, though I doubt that was his intention.

The other post that stood out to me was by the leader of the activist organization CODEPINK, Medea Benjamin. She pulled no punches and immediately dove into making sweeping generalizations and heaping insults on the "slacktivists" who she saw as  Stewart and Colbert's primary audience. Essentially she seems to have little but derision for anyone who isn't actually in the trenches of the protest movement. Taking offense at a statement on the rally website that said that Stewart was looking for people who've been "too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs)." Just like Elk, without the ego driven whining, she makes the mistake of expecting The Daily Show and the Colbert Report to be something they are not and railing at both for her own lack of understanding. Stewart doesn't invalidate the aims of CODEPINK and other activist organizations. His view is not that the cause isn't worth fighting for, it's that the manner of the protest is likely to drive away at least as many prospective supporters as it attracts. In other words, the more outlandish the stunt to get attention, the crazier you will seem to the public. Now this view is arguable, but it's still a valid critique.

During the Rally, one bit had Stewart and Colbert again arguing Fear vs. Reason, this time with montages of outrageous statements and over the top punditry from the entire spectrum of cable news. The following week, while the Fox folks simply pretended the Rally was just a publicity stunt with no actual value, several liberal hosts lashed out. Why? Because they had been included in some of the montages. But what most irritated them was that they had been lumped in with Fox and they felt that they were not equally at fault. This is a good reminder of the other side of the equation. Journalists and hosts who figure that as long as they are no worse than the guys across the street, then they shouldn't be expected to be responsible. One of the protesters was Keith Olbermann, who I generally like and often agree with. But if we are to be honest, he is also sometimes guilty of excessive hyperbole, such as his comments after Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in January. I remember thinking at the time that many of his points were pretty thin and strained. While I will firmly maintain that Keith is far more even in his demeanor and fair in his reporting than most of the Fox luminaries, it shouldn't mean he's above reproach for his missteps.

Look, both shows certainly lean liberal-progressive, despite the declarations of Stephen Colbert's conservative character, but they aren't really news shows. They aren't Woodward and Bernstein. They fill the same niche as the likes of Mark Twain and Will Rogers did, by commenting on the absurdity of politics and those who report on it with a sharp wit. And like Shakespeare's often present Fool, who used humor to disguise his dangerously accurate observations of the vain and powerful. So judge them for what they are, not what you wish they were. As for the meaning of the Rally itself, Jon Stewart summed it up quite succinctly in his brief but direct moment of seriousness, which I am appending below. It is well worth a read. As he notes, the media and the mountain of pundits and self proclaimed experts did not create our problems, but they make solving them so very much harder. We work best as a nation when we stop yelling at each other and start talking to each other. That's when problems get solved.

Jon Stewart's closing remarks:

"So, uh, what exactly was this? I can't control what people think this was: I can only tell you my intentions.

This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear--they are, and we do.

But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus, and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country's 24-hour, political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

There are terrorists, and racists, and Stalinists, and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned! You must have the resume! Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Party-ers, 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.

The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker--and, perhaps, eczema. And yet... I feel good. Strangely, calmly, good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us, through a funhouse mirror--and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist, and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead, and an ass shaped like a month-old pumpkin, and one eyeball.

So why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle, to a pumpkin-assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable--why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution, and homophobes who see no one's humanity but their own?

We hear every damned day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. The truth is, we do! We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don't is here (in Washington) or on cable TV! But Americans don't live here, or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done--not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.

Most Americans don't live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

(Points to video screen, showing video of cars in traffic.) Look on the screen. This is where we are, this is who we are. These cars. That's a schoolteacher who probably think his taxes are too high, he's going to work. There's another car, a woman with two small kids, can't really think about anything else right now... A lady's in the NRA, loves Oprah. There's another car, an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car's a Latino carpenter; another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan.

But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief, and principles they hold dear--often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers'. And yet, these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze, one by one, into a mile-long, 30-foot-wide tunnel, carved underneath a mighty river. And they do it, concession by concession: you go, then I'll go. You go, then I'll go. You go, then I'll go. 'Oh my God--is that an NRA sticker on your car?' 'Is that an Obama sticker on your car?' It's okay--you go, then I go.

And sure, at some point, there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder, and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare, and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst!

Because we know, instinctively, as a people, that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together. And the truth is there will always be darkness, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land. Sometimes, it's just New Jersey."

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