Rallying for America’s soul


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WASHINGTON — “What’s Up, America?” read a yellow sign above a crowd of more than 200,000 on the National Mall on Oct. 30.

Other signs proclaimed what was, in fact, up: “Does this sign make my butt look fat?” “Real Americans 4 Twister” “Obama: Pro-Raptor?” and “If You Want My Vote, Play Nice” all bobbed over a mass of people laughing, chatting, and waiting for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear to begin.

The rally was billed as the one true sign of generational ineffectiveness, of a younger populace more interested in celebrities and entertainment than politics. But Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central stars and hosts of the enormous event, used their usual mixture of humor and political commentary to convey a surprisingly poignant sentiment: American media and partisan attacks have undermined the sense of mutual humanity in our nation’s politics.

After two and a half hours of musical performances (featuring the Roots, John Legend, and Ozzy Osbourne, among others) and typical Comedy Central shenanigans, Stewart and Colbert shared the keynote address in a mock debate.

Colbert, fully in character as a fear-mongering hyper-patriot, cued montages of TV news stories about terrifying events and factions in the America. And Stewart, speaking alone on stage after a choreographed defeat of Colbert’s ideology, appealed to everyone to rise above those exaggerated differences.

“We live in hard times, not end times,” Stewart said, pausing for cheers. “And we can have animus but not be enemies … Where we live, our values and principles form the foundations that sustain us while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.”

Fox News said the speech amounted to a “liberal earful.” But the midterm elections were never mentioned at the rally, and it wasn’t a partisan rally. While many of attendees’ signs displayed a left-of-center political bent, Stewart and Colbert made jabs at media figures across the ideological spectrum for Hitler comparisons and overzealous bravado.

The crowd listened with rapt attention to a speech that, at its core, was about respect for one’s fellow humans regardless of their politics. And it was a crowd that also defied expectations — predictions of a uniform crowd of spoiled, apathetic 20-somethings were completely uncorroborated.

The crowd did have many college students, but it also had a large population of middle-age and older individuals and representation from every ethnicity. Of the 563 people I (unscientifically) polled, 89.1 percent of eligible voters were planning on voting or had already voted in this year’s election — fully 50 percentage points higher than the 2006 midterm’s turnout, according to George Mason University’s United States Election Project.

In short, this was a crowd of educated, enthusiastic folks.

It’s too early to tell if the rally will have any effect — and there’s no way, as far as I know, to determine the effect of a rally more about rhetoric than policy. Still, as I stood there in the late-October sunshine, immobilized by the crush of people around me, I couldn’t help but consider the idealistic assertion that everyone, fundamentally, wants the same things: happiness, safety, and identity. We just disagree on how to get them and whether we can acquire these things without denying them to anyone else.

This doesn’t amount to an apology for destructive policies and those who knowingly further them (something Stewart did not state to the fullest). I have no qualms with considering former Arkansas school-board member Clint McCabe, who posted a hateful screed about gay teenagers on Facebook, a danger to those in his community and a despicable bigot. But McCabe, and everyone else I disagree with, is still human.

That was the point of the rally — and it’s a lot nobler than a bunch of teenagers attending a free show.

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