Sanity rally: Now that we are all friends, what do we do?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – One thing to be said for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Restore Sanity and/or Fear Rally today in Washington: they didn’t pull the transparent trick that Glenn Beck did last month with his Restore Honor Rally.  Beck, the right-wing talker, used his supposedly non-partisan rally to rather blatantly sling a right-wing political agenda. Natch.

Stewart and Colbert stuck to their word, unfortunately. While their three-hour show drew a buoyant and decidedly non-Republican crowd to the National Mall, they didn’t even come close to sending any overt or covert political message. Indeed, the whole spectacle, while immaculately produced, was sort of amazingly content-free.  So tightly scripted, and so scrupulously determined to avoid even oblique political references, the performances -– which included a poetry reading from Sam Watterson, and songs from the O Jays, Cat Stevens, Tony Bennett,  The Roots, Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, along with lots of schtick from the two rally stars—at times seemed like an extended and not very funny version of Stewart’s rather unremarkable stint a few years back as host of the Oscars.

The implicit message, one supposed, of this rally is that given the obviously liberal and often courageous and confrontational on-air attitudes of the comic duo, a “sanity” rally in these concluding days of an historic mid-term campaign would somehow be a push-back against two years of frothy, if not lathered-up, conservative resistance to the Obama administration and everything it stands for.

Not much luck.

Only at the very end of the rally, after many had left, did Stewart venture into more political territory, but primarily by attacking the media and decrying what he characterized as a moment of frenetic paranoia. “These are hard times,” he said. “Not the end times.” He blasted the media, especially, cable news for irresponsibly stoking false controversies and needlessly dividing the American people.

“The press can hold a magnifying class to illuminate issues,” Stewart said his rather solemn ten minute closing statement. “Or it can use that glass to set ants on fire… if we amplify everything we hear nothing.”

A true enough proposition. But somewhat naïve or disingenuous to recur to the most routine sort of conventional wisdom —that all passionate pundits are essentially the same, that the only difference between left and right is labels. At least that allusion created some sparks.

Otherwise, it was a somewhat tedious couple of hours from a dais that had little if nothing to do with both the fundamental and sometimes irrational fears and the dampened hopes for sanity that currently roil the American psyche. Nor was it all half as funny as almost any random half hour of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

The crowd, nevertheless, seemed not disappointed at all, and content to just enjoy a mild day among a throng of fellow-thinkers.

Video footage from LA’s Rally to Restore Sanity. Story continues after the jump.

By late Friday night and early Saturday morning, hours before the onset of the rally, hundreds, thousands and then tens of thousands converged on the mall, jamming Washington’s sidewalks, the Metro, busses and crashing local cell phone networks.

While the official theme of the rally was a non-partisan, if not overtly non-political appeal to “sanity” –- to calm and reasoned discourse—there was little doubt that the event was populated primarily by Democrats, liberal Democrats.  A light-hearted and almost carnival-like atmosphere prevailed, consistent with an event organized by two comedians, but the signs and placards definitely tilted left of center.

“We the People, Not We the Corporations…Less Hannity More Sanity.. We Have Nothing to Fear Except Fox Itself” were typical of the hand-painted signs that blossomed among the field of thousands.  A plethora of liberal activist groups ranging from those favoring marijuana legalization to those pushing campaign finance reform were on hand to wave the flag, leaflet and recruit.  Others held up signs supporting Obama and praising his health care reform.

Yet, there were also signs, echoing Stewart’s repeated plea that this was all just a “clarion call to sanity” asking those attending to “Chill It” and “Bring it Down a Notch.”

Herein, though, resided the fundamental irony of this odd event.  While it rather reasonably if obliquely mocked the spittle and hyperbole that mars much of current political discourse and over-heated and superficial media coverage that has a direct stake in stoking ratings-friendly partisan wrestling matches, most of these rally-goers come from a constituency that is facing a very likely political bloodbath in less than 72 hours. 

Bringing it down a notch, keeping things calm, cool and cerebral, has been among the traits that have most irked and discouraged President Obama’s Democratic base for the last two years.  With that much-talked about “enthusiasm gap” firing up the Tea Partiers and fueling a probable GOP electoral surge over the Democratic barricades, this final weekend of the campaign might have been much more appropriate for a rally demanding that those political forces considering themselves “sane” -– compared to more frenzied conservatives — ramp things up instead of downshifting. And it might have been more logical, more sane, to have the President himself and not two cable comedians lead the charge.

And while the massive crowd exhibited considerably less of the extreme political theater that has marked more militant and partisan events, such as the anti-war rallies, this rally was still indisputably if unwittingly redolent with a slight whiff of self-righteous smugness, something organic to the central organizing principle of the event.

If those here are “sane,” then by extension those not attending or sympathizing just might be insane -– plain crazy.  Not only does that contradict Stewart’s “Can’t we all get along?” message, but it might also alienate precisely moderate, or “low-information” voters who might see this event as a mass display of Democratic snobbery.

“Poppycock,” exclaimed Marie Fein, a 27-year-old New York office worker who came to D.C. on one of the free buses provided by The Huffington Post (which carted in an estimated 10,000). “This rally is going to help fire up millions seeing it on TV and let them know they are not alone out there, that there are so many others of us who are going to vote Tuesday to end the Tea Party craziness. Most people are sane and they will indentify with us.”

That was hardly a universal conviction, even among the ralliers. “Look, this is going to make people feel good for a couple of hours, including me, but in itself it isn’t going to change much,” said a D.C.-based union organizer who didn’t want to be named.

“The moment this is over, I’m going to be phone-banking all afternoon and night. What counts is not how many people we have out here on the mall today. What counts is how many people we get into the voting booths on Tuesday.”

The word “vote” was never mentioned from the stage.

Marc Cooper is an Associate Professor of Professional Practice and the Director of Annenberg Digital News at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

More coverage on the Rally to Restore Sanity:
Washington, D.C. – Sanity rally: Now that we are all friends, what do we do?


End of Sanity

The orange ribbon was tied neatly around my rearview mirror.

Through the mirror I saw the face of an acquaintance in the backseat. I was giving her a ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

When she noticed the color of my political views above the dashboard, she offered her own: “We can’t live in the midst of our enemy. Disengagement is the only sane thing to do.”

“I disagree,” I said simply, avoiding a political debate I wasn’t ready to win fully. I knew I would find out some more truth for myself, that weekend, on my planned trip to Gush Katif.

I had to go to the Gush before it was too late. I had to see what all the contention was about. Friends of the family hooked me up with an 18-year-old named Ayelet, who was doing her national service in the emergency dispatch station in Neve Dekalim, the most urban Gush settlement.

Before sunset heralded in Shabbat, Ayelet and her friends took me for a ride around the Gush. All I could see through the car window were red roofs, palm trees, and the thick blue line of the sea. The place looked like an Israeli Malibu.

Our first stop was a huge nursery filled with thousands of plants.

“I can’t believe they’ll close this,” I said to Ayelet. “They’re even uprooting nature.”

“It’s very sad,” she sighed.

I didn’t take the conversation further because it clashed with the upbeat green life around me.

We ended the afternoon on the beach, the same beach where soldiers occupied the deserted seaside hotel they had evacuated a week earlier. But I hardly noticed them. Instead I watched men play matkot (beachside racket ball), kids splash in the water and a couple snuggle on the sand. The waters looked bluer than those that met the crowded Tel Aviv shore, and much more peaceful.

That evening, as we walked to the family hosting us for Friday night dinner, we passed couples pushing strollers — smiling; kids running in the street — carefree; teenagers wishing us Shabbat shalom — cheerfully.

At dinner, the topic of disengagement hardly came up, and I was annoyed because I had questions: How do you feel? Do you think it’s going to happen? What are you going to do the day of?

But I couldn’t bring myself to break the serene air with such painful talk.

So I looked around me. Hundreds of books lined the walls, china filled the cabinet. There was no sign of anyone leaving, or wanting to leave.

Walking home with the clear skies above us, and the special Shabbat silence enveloping the Gush, I pressed Ayelet.

“I don’t see how they’re going to clear the Gush out.”

“Me either.”

“People are happy here. They have built their homes here, their livelihood. What are they going to do? Drag people out of their homes? Put them into buses, like cattle? Pack their stuff?”

“It seems so. The army will bring special containers and pack for them.”

“How can they do that?”

“It’s devastating.”

The next day, I had lunch with another family. Pictures of Rav Kook, the father of religious Zionism, adorned the walls of their home. This time, the topic of disengagement came up, but with an air of dismissal.

“God will help us,” said the father.

He and his wife had never left Israel, on principle. I tried to picture what it would be like on the fateful day: What would they do when a soldier knocked on their door — if he didn’t already break it down — and hauled them out against their will?

But I shut off the vision. I decided to give the residents a well-deserved break from the topic of “disengagement,” and they inspired me to do the same for myself. I took a nap for the rest of the Shabbat afternoon.

Finally, on my way out of the Gush, I gave people a ride to Tel Aviv. Shlomi, a handsome 21-year-old who had just finished his army service, sat in the front seat, wearing jeans and a tank top. He lived on a Gush farming community.

Trying to be nonchalant, I asked, “How are people so relaxed?”

“No one wants to think about,” he said. “No one can digest it. It’s like if someone you love is going to die. You don’t want to think about and plan their death.”

The woman I had driven to Jerusalem had said it was sane to evacuate the settlers. Now it was clear to me how it will be one of the maddest things Israel could do. Gush is one of the sanest places in Israel I had ever visited. The people are healthy and happy. They love life and they love Israel.

But maybe that’s what Israel is learning to disengage from: tranquility, joy, health, beauty, idealism, strength and bravery. By uprooting these families, Israel is uprooting the very emotions and values we need to win the fight for Israel — and to remain here, forever.

On my way out of the Gush, driving the three-minute stretch of potentially dangerous road, I looked at my orange ribbon. And I understood even more why it was there.

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at