Restoring Sanity

Although the Rally to Restore Sanity was, strictly speaking, neither a rally — it was more of a comedy/concert/show — nor terribly restorative of sanity –there were an unusually large number of people with bonkers things to say — it was a hoot. That said, I worry that many folk were lured there in the expectation that they might actually be part of a movement to restore sanity: I spoke to dozens of people, and for all but two, this was their first rally. I fear that their hopes will be swiftly dashed. There’s unlikely to be a new wave of sanity breaking over Washington any time soon.

So how to think about this? One of my favourite pieces is by a writer I’ve just been introduced to by Joe Costello, Mark Ames, whose fine piece, Rally to Restore Vanity, is a powerful dissection of the event and its absent politics. On the other hand, Arianna Huffington has more complementary things to say. My take, also at the ahem Huffington Post, is below.

And, incidentally, if you’d like to hear some back and forth about this, I’ll be interviewing Arianna Huffington in a couple of weeks here in San Francisco (and I’ll post the podcast when it becomes available). If there are any questions you’d like me to ask Arianna, about restoring sanity or her book Third World America or anything else, leave em in the comments.

Polite Laughter on the Mall

Hundreds of thousands came. Theresa Floyd, a 19 year old student and poet, flew from California to try to make the world “marginally better”. Wassim Shazad, a 36 year old brick shithouse of a former-Marine drove four hours from North Carolina, to take aim at racial stereotypes of Muslims in America. For nearly everyone I spoke to, this was their first rally.

As rallies go, it was a little unrepresentative. It began, for instance, exactly on time, and just before the cameras went live, a little overture played over the sound system: Robbie Williams’ Let Me Entertain You. Philadelphia funk ensemble The Roots kicked off for half an hour, followed by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, TV’s Mythbusters, who performed a series of experiments on the crowd.

People were encouraged to stomp together to create a miniature earthquake (it worked, a little), or to propagate a crowd wave to the back of the assembled masses which took 54 seconds to travel the length of the Mall outside Congress. One of the oddest experiments, and I fear we’ll have to watch the Discovery channel to find out the myth they were busting, involved getting everyone to make a range of sounds simultaneously, with noises ranging from ‘laughing like a mad scientist’ to cheek-popping, to polite laughter.

And then Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert took to the stage for a two hour show with a list of guests escalating from Ozzie Osbourne to R2D2. The proceedings ended with a serious bit, though, when Jon Stewart took a couple of swipes at the media. “We live in hard times, not end times. 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.”

There was a ‘yes we can’ moment too. Americans, Stewart pointed out to one of the loudest cheers of the afternoon, “work together to get things done every damn day”. He used an unusual metaphor to explain what that cooperation looked like. The view on the jumbotron screens switched from the Mall to an overhead view of cars funneling from eight lanes to two. Although the people in their cars might be of different religions, political orientations, and intensities with which they love Oprah, Americans can somehow get along, letting each other in, and narrowing down in a civil, moderate and reasonable way. Yes, We Can.

Trouble is, as any game theorist will tell you, there’s not much about road-traffic cooperation that rises to the level of reasonableness. Once folk have agreed on some foundational things like where they’re going and what side of the road to drive on, the rest is basic courtesy. It’s a stretch to call it ‘reasonable’.

Reasonableness is, however, genuinely under threat. The Tea Party understands the US Constitution as a divine document. In so doing, they pine for a pre-Enlightenment politics where God – not reason – is the ultimate arbiter of political life. To put it in Stewart’s terms, they’re arguing about which direction to drive and whether it’s bad to run over pedestrians. That’s a threat to the possibility of cooperation.

It took a lot of political work to make a world that could cradle the moderation everyone came to Washington to celebrate yesterday, yet there was palpable distaste for taking a political stand. In fact, the undercurrent wasn’t one of defending the politics of reasonableness so much as of mourning its impotence. For instance: Jon Stewart invited Kid Rock to sing “an amazing” song that was “so apropos to this situation”. The song was ‘Care’ and the lyrics went: “‘Cause I can’t stop the war/ Shed the homeless/ Feed the poor… /the least I can do/ Is care.” So although Americans get things done every damn day, it’s the small stuff. The bigger problems are just too, well, big.

But perhaps I’m asking too much. Perhaps the politics can and should come some other time, and not from Comedy Central. Two people who thought so were friends from Washington DC who held signs saying “Down with this sort of thing!” and “Careful now!”, a reference from a British TV comedy called Father Ted that confused a few rally-goers. They didn’t want their employers knowing they were at the rally, so let’s call them Bill and Kylie.

“Some people were disappointed that Stewart didn’t ask people to vote or that there wasn’t more politics. But Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert recognize that they’re entertainers,” said Bill. “And that’s pretty cool.” This wasn’t Bill and Kylie’s first rally – they’ve been to several this year, most recently the One Nation Working Together rally organized by the Democrats and large unions at the beginning of the month. And neither Bill nor Kylie are shy of politics. “I’m a socialist”, said Bill. “I’m getting there,” said Kylie.

I suspect that it’s through Bill and Kylie’s brand of political understanding, rather than Kid Rock’s, that change will happen. Yes, the punditocracy is bad, but pointing out its failure is hardly going to change it. Yes, civility is important, but that’s not the same as political engagement. Pining for ‘sanity’ during the rise of the Tea Party is like talking about who leaves the seat up when the house is on fire. What Comedy Central offered on the mall was laughter in the dark, but it was impotently polite laughter. Perhaps that’s what the Mythbusters wanted to understand.

8 Replies to “Restoring Sanity”

  1. Amazing. Precisely my thoughts on this ‘rally’. Interesting to watch. Needed, in a way. Not particularly useful.

    According to conservative forums though, not much has changed.

  2. I very much resent Stewart’s implication that true left rage is equivalent to Tea Bag rage…..I am sick of everyone doing that, really.

    The red-baiting was not particularly helpful, either….I am not a true Marxist, but, he wouldve very accurately predicted the fate of this laissez fare Capitalist society. And the neolibcons are making it worse.

  3. RE: Coming Interview With Arianna Huffington

    Reason will confirm, that any proposition that begins with a false premise MUST inevitably lead into the domain of wrongful thinking.

    Let’s just take two common examples for clarification.

    Humanity has divided the ONE Intelligence into, sense of touch, clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy and ESP. These divisions are all illusory.

    Not too dissimilar is the illusory and arbitrary stratification of American society. And here’s why.

    In 1787, 55 suits gathered in Philly to revise the Articles of Confederation of the then existing 13 colonies. They represented and economic elite of about 100,000 in a population of about 3,000,000. NOT A SINGLE GRASS-ROOT REP WAS THERE! They immediately sequestered themselves behind closed doors and established what we know today as the American system of government. They agreed that government should not only protect big business, but promote it. This defines a plutocracy!!!

    Historically therefore, from its its inception, America was conceived, established, and developed by plutocrats and their satraps. (Why the big hullabaloo then, in the Supreme Court ruling in the case, Citizens United v Federal Election Commission – to name just this one example???).

    America has ALWAYS been a society, where there were the owners of the means of production and distribution, and those who worked for them – REGARDLESS OF THEIR TITLES AND/OR SALARIES!!!

    The so-called middle class is an illusory division, no different from calling America a democracy, or referring to have-nots as the third world !!!

    This bountiful planet was provided by the One Intelligence for adequate human life. Market forces is about degradation and human death – too often by a thousand nicks.

    But their day of judgment is at hand (as predicted), as we witness its genesis in the east (Japan), now engulfing the west, as they stubbornly refuse to SHARE the world’s resources based on co-operation, justice and synthesis.

    The exit sign looms large before market forces – the forces of evil!!!

  4. I don’t know about ‘true left rage’, but there is no Tea Party rage (yes KDelphi it’s Party not Bag). There is, Tea Party passion. Tea Partiers do believe in the Constitution as Raj says. They believe in the Founding Fathers’ (at least the vast majority of the Founding Fathers) principles of a small Federal government. Tea Partiers are not racists, although I’m sure there are a small number of racists in the Tea Party, like there are in any group of people. I am not a representative for the Tea Party or a member for that matter, but I do agree with a number of things they stand for; compassion, honesty, integrity, freedom, small government, helping my fellow man (in the U.S. and abroad), responsibility and accountability, against a global government, freedom of religion not freedom from religion, freedom of speech and freedom to agree or disagree with any person or party, freedom to discuss different view points and perspectives while still respecting the person you disagree with (and a number of people I passionately disagree with politically are still friends of mine), free market combined with enough regulations to deter and when necessary punish corruption, government not taxing everything that moves and everything that doesn’t move (as Hillary Clinton bragged about on her previous overseas trip), not becoming another failed unsustainable socialist entitlement nation (I think the financial problems in Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain are just the beginning of the unsustainable European socialist/partial free market experiment).

  5. Yeah, um… SClay, you forgot to mention that they ride white horses and rescue kittens from very deep wells.

    I think someone’s getting a wee bit starry-eyed about that one-hell-of-a Tea-Party. If all those glorious and noble stand-fors were at the core of Tea-Baggery (y’know, in reality), I’d be the first to go to the mat for ’em too, ’cause they’d be indeed, like, our exemplars, oh yes, the veritable shining beacons of light to guide our wayward and too-progressive selves through these dark times. But unfortunately (and obviously)… far from the case. Ask most of ’em what they stand for and they wouldn’t be able to come up with even a fraction of such a throat-lumping litany themselves. Much more likely you’d get a bunch of venomous, red-faced babble and a spatter of Cheeto-speckled spittle in your eye.

    And, ooo, wouldn’t it be terrible if we became “another failed unsustainable socialist entitlement nation?” Yikes. Makes me shiver. I guess us true Americans are waaay more comfy moseying along the path to becoming a failed unsustainable capitalist encroachment nation. (Just saying the word capitalism makes us feel so much better. Capitalism. Ah.)

  6. I appreciate your passion offbroadway. We obviously have opposing worldviews. You look through your glasses and I look through mine. I suspect both of our perceptions don’t always match reality. Thanks for your response and for helping me illustrate that.

  7. Raj, my question for A.H. would be: which would it be the first ten steps to adapt the political system ir order to organize it in a more cooperative way? Which differences does she find between developed countries and not developed countries about the previous ten steps?

  8. Raj,

    Perhaps you could ask Arianna if she thinks the progressive media could be doing more to bring about change by promoting and enabling organization.

    There obviously is an ever-increasing awareness of the most important issues (thanks to outlets like hers) and the facts around those issues – resulting in the requisite anger for action, but I think most people feel too isolated, possibly overwhelmed, to act.

    It is certainly in vogue to lash out verbally and in print (and with Jon Stewart) against the forces that sicken our society, but as you’ve said, we need to organize, get our hands dirty and take on power to effect significant change.

    I think if more top-tier progressive websites would prominently feature lists of action-based organizations surrounding the issues that are so relentlessly bemoaned therein, this would be a little more enabling than just knowing how bad it is out there.

    And, hey, with a nudge from HuffPost, it would certainly become more in vogue to do the anonymous, thankless work needed to really take it to the man.

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