Thursday, November 4, 2010

Don't Be a Douche: CS!!! at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear

The Rally to Restore Sanity has come and gone, and, contrary to headlines that make me want to stab the internet in the face, it was a thoroughly sane afternoon on the National Mall. Jokes were made, signs were hoisted, and cringe-inducing peace 'n love anthems were played by a lineup that was unintentionally awkward and then just awkward. I had a semi-nice view of one of the ten or so JumboTrons arrayed down the mall to make up for the fact that only a tiny fraction of the 215,000 attendees could see the stage itself. Nevertheless, my face was set to shit-eating grin for the majority of the afternoon, as I enjoyed the beautiful weather and hilarious bits from never-more-on Daily Show and Colbert Report cast members.

There are of course some who didn't share my enthusiasm for the event. The Daily Beast's Peter Beinart even went so far as to say that Jon Stewart "blew it." Beinart in particular called out the Stewart for picking a giant, easy target and adopting a condescending tone that seemed to dismiss the many legitimate things that America has to fear. The New York Times' David Carr was more measured but still critical. He said he preferred Stewart in "his regular seat where he is less reasonable, less interested in obvious targets and less willing to suggest that all political ideas and movements are like kindergartners, worthy of understanding and respect if only the media would get out of the way."

But hey, these are the opinions of a bunch of "career journalists" and "New York insiders." I think it's high time for the perspective of a semi-competent amateur. Looks like a job for Jordasch.

Because we're idiots, my fellow rally-goers and I arrived on the Mall a healthy fifteen minutes before this hundreds-of-thousands-strong rally began. This was due to a combination of poor planning, poor Metro service (not totally their fault), and not-poor-enough beer pong playing the night before. But any poor spirits that might have accompanied m e as I hopped off the Metro at the Smithsonian stop were immediately quashed by the bevy of hilarious signs and completely irrelevant Halloween costumes (someone dressed as kitten mittens) that greeted me. You would've had to be thoroughly Scrooge-y (or Bill O'Reilly) to be in a bad mood as the event began.

The Roots opened the event on a high note with an upbeat set that sounded surprisingly good despite the acoustics (or, uh, lack thereof). John Legend's appearance, though, was an early indication that the event would be just as ambiguously political as pundits expected. He and the Roots performed selections from their collaborative album, Wake Up!, a selection of socially conscious funk anthems from the 70s. The songs themselves weren't bad, but there was just something odd about performing a bunch of protest songs at an event that wasn't protesting anything except, well, being a jerk. I'd say the songs clashed with the overall tone of the event but, at least as of this point in the lineup, there was no tone.

The first appearance by Stewart was predictably funny but didn't help matters. He welcomed the 4Troops vocal quartet, who performed a rendition of the National Anthem so cheesy and over-the-top that it would make Glenn Beck cry even harder. Much like the patriotic chest-thumping during Colbert's visit to Iraq in 2009, the straightforward sincerity of 4Troops seemed at odds with the self-awareness of the event. Tony Bennett's suave, subtle rendition of "America the Beautiful," which closed the afternoon, was much better.

Stephen Colbert debuted at the event via satellite from his "fear bunker," supposedly thousands of miles below the Mall. After some cajoling, Stephen agreed to come onstage and made his entrance via a mine-crash-rescue-esque pod that came up from the side of the stage. After groaning through the openers' awkward social polemic, it was refreshing to see the reliably silly Colbert run around the stage in a cape chanting, "CHI-LE, CHI-LE!"

Appearances by the Daily Show correspondents were similarly apolitical; Aasif Mandvi and Samantha Bee made a show of counting every single one of the rally's attendees and having them identify their racial identity. Jason Jones and Wyatt Cenac, reporting from the same spot at rally as if the event were both a failure and a success, respectively, elicited laughs but kept things on an unideological keel. They also lobbed the first grenade at the media, which, as it would later become clear, was the event's only real target.

Indeed, when the rally did start to get "on message," it ended up doing what the Daily Show and Colbert Report do best: show clips of Fox News and MSNBC correspondents saying stupid crap. Colbert would exhort everyone in the audience to be as scared as possible, roll a montage of the Today Show telling us to be afraid of our TV remotes (because they have poop on them), and everybody would laugh.

And that was about it. Stewart hadn't intended on stirring up any righteous indignation and, indeed, there was none to be found. But where there's no fire, there's also no smoke, and the day ended without any kind of real political purpose for the rally being laid out; there wasn't a surprise exhortation to vote blue (or red), or a call to "vote the bastards out."

Stewart acknowledged as much in his final speech, which took up the last fifteen minutes of the event. His main target again was the media, but he managed to subtly widen his net to include any American who calls his coworker a Socialist (or a Nazi) while arguing about politics at the office: "We can have animus without being enemies." And, in a conversation with a fellow Charge-Shot!!! writer, I applauded the rally for making a big deal about what has sadly ceased to be common sense: don't be a douche. It's every freshman RA's hall rule, and it still works damn well.

But in refusing to apply his message to a practical or electoral purpose, Stewart didn't blow it, but he did miss an opportunity. A universally acceptable message (or maybe no message) is probably what accounted for the event's fantastical turnout, and "cable news sucks" is certainly something we can all agree on.

Maybe, though, he could have taken it one step further. If we could all benefit from being a bit more patient with our peers, couldn't we cut our representatives similar slack? We are facing the biggest economic clusterfuck since the depression, and I'm willing to give my government a little longer than 22 months to get us back on track. Maybe it takes, I dunno, a career.

And, while we're at it, can't we all take a step back and realize that our politicians can't turn water into wine, regardless of the time frame? The global economy is a deadly complex thing, and one Muslim socialist in the White House can't wreck it (or fix it) on his own. These aren't concepts that fit into a soundbite, though, and you don't get to 215,000 by deliberately lecturing your audience about the reality of electoral politics. You need to aim for the cheap seats.

But however obvious the rally's message actually was, it was nice to hear it shouted (or maybe submitted respectfully) from such a large platform. I know I'd be perfectly happy if, in fifty years, we're known as the generation who just tried to get everyone to be nicer to each other.