By far the least reasonable aspect of Saturday's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear was riding the D.C. Metro. Usually one of the most convenient and efficient public transportation systems in the nation, the Metro was clearly not prepared for the "billions" of people that Steven Colbert observed at the rally. Beyond that, it was all good spirits and cheer.
The much-hyped rally was indeed as entertaining as any rally the National Mall has seen. Hundreds of thousands of people descended upon the nation's capital
in all manner of reasonableness, whether rallying to restore sanity or marching to keep fear alive — clowns and grim reapers, tree climbers and Christians, activists and aliens, liberals and conservatives, young and old alike. Though perhaps not the most racially diverse crowd, in my observation, the crowd was uniformly polite, friendly and upbeat. (I also have a sneaking suspicion that most rally-goers were of the more liberal persuasion.)
And in these simple observations lies the significance of this event.
In divisive times, such a grand coming-together is a symbolic and political act. In my opinion, the very apolitical script of the show — and it was basically a three hour sketch comedy show, with not so much as a suggestion to vote — masks the very real political nature of the event. In the face of so much fear, uncertainty and political gridlock, the collective laughs of 200,000 people send a pointed message: we politely request to exit the Crazy Train. This much was clear in the communal gasps of horror and disbelief when Colbert audaciously interrupted Yusuf Islam's acoustic rendition of "Peace Train" to introduce Ozzy Osbourne (Colbert's reference to the man formally known as Cat Stevens as "Joe" was one of the more priceless moments of the show).
In fact, a rally of such modest aspirations ("Your presence is what I wanted," Stewart remarked) nearly became a radical expression of political will in its very modesty. Especially in the inevitable comparison to Glenn Beck's rally to "restore honor" and the rise of the Tea Party movement, this was about a return to the middle, something deeply missing from our polarized political discourse. It seems an unfortunate commentary that holding moderate views is now in many ways more extreme than following a party line.
And yet, as much fun as it was, as necessary as it was to reintroduce some civility into our national politics ... could it have achieved more? Admittedly, it did not aim to do anything more than celebrate reasonableness and the necessity of compromise.
But did this rally fail by its very reasonableness? I could not help but think that given Colbert and Stewart's capacity to bring 200,000 or 300,000 people together, we could have rallied for much more — perhaps a significant change in the system that Stewart so aptly identifies as "broken."
Stewart's closing speech (watch a clip below, filmed from my position in the crowd; apologies if the amateur filming makes anyone nauseous) certainly ended the whole event on the right note. Though it only bordered on the overtly political, his commentary was the consummate plea for sanity. At the end of an afternoon of entertainment (though the Roots played far too long and Sheryl Crow hardly knew the words of her duet with Kid Rock), the sincerity of his speech definitely touched a chord with the crowd, who seemed to be waiting for something meaningful to cheer for.
Whatever one's commentary on the rally — and nearly everyone I talked to at the event thought it awesomely reasonable — the point is that it has gotten us all talking. And more evenhanded, insightful discourse is truly what this country needs.