Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Man, That Sucked: The Rally to Restore Sanity

I don’t think anyone knew how big it was going to be. Arianna Huffington definitely didn’t. She generously offered to transport the sum total of New York’s liberati—signs, costumes, iPhones and all—from one baseball stadium parking lot to another in what ended up being 200 buses.

I actually saw Arianna herself while I was waiting in the freezing early October morning. She was surrounded by a bubble of people filming her with digital phones and camera and moving through the shivering, huddled masses like I imagine French aristocrats used to do, smiling and waving as if she was totally used to being surrounded by admirers at six in the morning. “Thank you!” some of the masses yelled at the queen bee of the bloggers.

Those thanks would seem somewhat premature hours later, as it became apparent how late to the rally we all would be. The plan was for everyone to show up at Citi Field (nee Shea Stadium) at 5:30 am and for the buses to leave at 6:00. This did not happen. Instead, 10,000 people stood around in a gigantic swarm for two hours shifting from foot to foot and wondering what the hell was going on. When the group of people surrounding me finally got within sight of the idling buses they finally snapped and ran through the yellow police tape like refugees fleeing across a border. “Come on! Let’s be adults!” a Huffington Post volunteer shouted through a megaphone. But fuck that—our hands were numb and the buses, the warm, warm buses, were right there.

When we were actually on the bus, half-asleep and half seized with that dumb earnest glee that afflicts the young and politically active on their way to a protest, the human gridlock of Citi Field seemed like a bad dream. We drove along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway while those boroughs were sluggishly waking up to the weekend, then switched to the great emptiness bordered by factories that is the New Jersey Turnpike. I woke up from a nap with my head against the window and discovered the highway surrounded by an astonishing wall of trees in the middle of changing colors—impressionistic swaths of yellow and red that make you forget there’s such a thing as a 24-hour news network. That was the high point of the trip.

The low point came about five minutes after we staggered off the bus in DC, when it became apparent that DC’s Metro wasn’t going to be able to accommodate tens of thousands of people all trying to get to the same place. The underground station was packed wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with out-of-towners hopelessly trying to figure out how to use the machines. A couple of transit workers kept telling people to step aside, to make room, but how was that going to happen? There was no empty space of tile to step aside to. The rally itself, by the way, had been going on for maybe an hour at this point, and the New Yorkers—tired, hopped up on rest stop coffee, and sneering at DC’s pathetic excuse for a mass transit system—were nervous about missing…

Wait, missing what? What the fuck were we even there to see? A half-dozen comedians pretending to be—or mocking—newscasters or politicians, or something? The Roots and John Legend playing in a venue with terrible acoustics? A bunch of smug liberals smugly parading their liberalism and their predictably ironic signs? After getting three hours of sleep, waking up in the middle of the night, and taking two subways and a bus over the course of a nine-hour trip, did I even know why I’d come?

Clearly not. You have to be willing to suspend your cynicism for a few hours to get involved in a political event like this. You have to believe in the power of the people, that signs and slogans can influence policy, that a bunch of blue-staters getting together will change anyone’s mind about anything. Because otherwise what we have is just the world’s largest and most boring Halloween party, with strangers milling about and taking picture’s of each other’s jokey signs, most of which were all about the futility of signs. “SIGN” said one of them. “MEH” said another.

Worse than the ironic signs were the earnest ones. It was supposedly—according to Stewart, anyway—a “non-political” rally, but anti-Tea-Party and anti-Fox-News messages abounded. A fresh-faced volunteer from Media Matters asked me to sign a petition against Fox News with the ultimate goal, I guess, of forcing them and their sociopathic blonde television hostesses off the hair. Other people made puns: Fox News=Faux News; “The only thing we have to fear is FOX itself.” What wit these clever kids have!

As supposedly and convivial as the rally was, the overall message was one of negativity. The Left—at least the bits represented in Washington DC that day—is anti-Fox-News, and anti-Tea-Party, but what are they in favor of? They want certain people not to be elected, but that's about as far as their ideas go. The Tea Party has dominated whatever passes for the “national political conversation” so thoroughly that the candidates they run against almost don't matter. What are the positions of Chris Coons, Christine O'Donnell's opponent? Who cares, as long as he's not that insane woman. These elections are not about pursuing a liberal agenda, but about stopping the conservative agenda, or at least slowing it down. And isn't that kind of a problem?

The Glenn Beck Right has Christian ideals and libertarian ideas, and as bizarre as that mash-up is, at least it gives them a sense of purpose. Ban gay marriage, ban abortion, abolish the EPA, abolish the income tax, build a giant fence along the border, eliminate foreign aid, wrap schoolchildren in flag-colored clothing and allow (force) them to pray in public schools. And repeal the 17th Amendment, for some reason. However contradictory and repugnant you think those goals are, at least they're something to rally around.

The John Stewart Left has—what? Irony? A shield of Not Giving A Shit? A bouquet of opinions on how the current media climate is destroying America? The people on the Left who have actual policy ideas are the people on the “fringe,” the actual Socialists and Communists and Anarchists who want to nationalize health care and probably a bunch of other industries, dramatically increase taxes on the rich and the upper middle class, and (at the very far end of the spectrum) dismantle capitalism itself.
These things will never happen in America, and you're sleepwalking if you think they will. So the people at the rally, no matter how hard they secretly think dismantling capitalism isn't such a bad idea, content themselves with protesting not policy and actual events, but the media's coverage of policy and events. John Stewart's speech was all about not paying attention to the polarizing, often flat-out hateful rhetoric of the talking heads on both ends of the cable news dial, but he didn't say who we were supposed to be paying attention to.

Or that's what I heard Stewart's speech was about after the fact. I didn't actually hear a word he said, or a word anyone said, because I was too far away from the stage. After walking three miles from RFK Stadium to the National Mall (skipping the clusterfuck that was the Metro), I discovered that the Rally to Restore Sanity was half over, and the fenced-in area of grass in front of the stage where the comedy sketches and half-serious speeches were audible was overflowing with people who had arrived hours in advance. I circulated around the edges, getting my sign photographed and sharing the tea I had brought in a thermos. (My personal cause for the day was the tea was a beloved beverage, not a set of political beliefs. I found some kindred spirits in the group advocating for pancakes, french toast, and other breakfast foods.)

There was a big musical number at the end, then the lucky people who had heard and seen whatever was happening on the stage spilled out onto the street, turning several blocks into a human traffic jam. Some people headed for the bars for after-rally drinks, some no doubt took their costumes to Halloween parties, and those of us who had to ride the Huffington Post back to New York began our long trek back to the buses. I assume pretty much everyone at the rally plans to vote today, probably for Democrats who are going to win in a landslide. How many of my fellow sign-holders came from swing districts where their votes would mean something?

I guess we'll find out tomorrow, or the next day, whether or not a larger-than-expected gathering of the Left means that the election will be better than predicted for Democrats. My short answer is no. What the Rally for Sanity taught me was that you can have a large gathering of hundreds of thousands of people without having a coherent message for what that gathering represents--“We don't watch Fox News!” is not good enough. Despite the numbers, it's pretty clear why there's an enthusiasm gap these days between the Left and the Right. The Left thinks the right is sort of a joke and sort of stupid, while the Right thinks the Left are pure evil bent on destroying America. More and more, I'm starting to think exactly the opposite is true.

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