Laughing our way to understanding

The Thinker by Rodin

How many people yesterday attended Comedy Central’s Rally for Sanity and/or Fear on the mall yesterday? The U.S. Park Service no longer estimates crowd sizes. Newspapers reported tens of thousands but I think it is more likely the crowd exceeded 100,000. CBS News estimated 215,000.

I can say as someone who tried to attend the rally that plenty who wanted to attend the rally must have simply given up. My wife and her friend managed to get the rally but I eventually bailed. I-66 going into Washington was largely a parking lot, almost all of it due to people trying to get to the Vienna metro station to attend the rally. Getting to the metro station and finding parking was only part of the problem. There were also half hour to hour queues to get Metrorail tickets, and then more waiting to actually get on a train. As often happens at these events, people at stations further down the line found trains too packed to get on. They had to take a train to the end of the line simply to get a seat to take a train back into Washington.

We had two electronic flash passes but our friend who was from out of town had to buy a ticket. So I loaned her mine and went home to watch the rally on my computer. That way at least two of us would get there on time. I probably got a much better view at home anyhow. Glorious fall weather, a super friendly crowd and the light comedic touches by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert kept the event fun, reasonably short and mostly apolitical. The only ones being skewered seemed to be the most egregious examples of the right and the left.

The real purpose of the rally was hard to figure out. In some ways, the rally seemed unique. Has our nation’s mall ever been used for a large, comedic event before? I could not recall a time, unless you consider most political rallies to be unintentional comedic events. The event was covered without commercials and participants were encouraged to contribute to the Trust for the National Mall, as well as not to trash the mall, which is what typically happens after rallies of any size. It was also hard to figure out the point of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on August 28th, which was clearly smaller than this event. Both rallies seemed a little surreal. At Beck’s rally, Glenn Beck tried to momentarily morph into an apolitical figure. At yesterday’s rally, Jon Stewart’s closing monologue also seemed surreal: serious but with a touch of comedy, almost a sermon about how we must all learn to live with each other.

Generally, comedians simply try to make us laugh, collect a few quick bucks and move on. It is easy to forget that comedy can help us understand and frame real issues by looking at them in a different way. All humor is based on some contrast with reality. Comedy can, if only for a moment, be like opening a small window in a stuffy room and letting some fresh air come through. As it turned out, that was the purpose of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. It was an attempt to tell the nation that our polarization is beyond the dangerous phase. Jon Stewart’s message was to let us know that it has reached a toxic phase where it is destructive to all who seek to make this country a better place. As Stewart eloquently put it (in words that are likely to endure), “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

Some will doubtless question Stewart’s credentials to diagnose our national problems. But if not Stewart, then who? Stewart’s political leanings are well known, but he is always civil. Moreover, Walter Cronkite is dead. As Stewart noted, between barrages of negative ads, endless highly skewed talk shows and 24-hour news channels, who can cut through all the noise? Stewart and Colbert did, at least for a little while, to at least some of America (principally a younger crowd).

The rally had its lame moments, but at least for a few hours it did succeed in focusing a critical mass of people on our national dysfunction and warn them of the seriousness of our problem. Sufficiently high levels of disunity and chaos feed national dysfunction and in one case triggered a civil war. Nowadays, it opens windows of opportunity, not for America, but from those countries and movements glad to clean our clocks. While we argue about tax cuts and health care for all, China is mastering clean energy technologies. It seems to have bought controlling rights to most of the world’s precious minerals, and is attempting to blockade our access to them. Massive disunity like we have now serves no national interests and further weakens us as a nation.

Short of totalitarianism, there is no way Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Tea Partiers or any political movement will ever fully succeed. Even if success were possible we would become a sterile, monolithic culture stripped of our fundamental freedoms. We have gone dangerously awry but through comedy, Comedy Central is making us aware that while we can laugh about our national problems, it really is not a laughing matter anymore. As Stewart noted (and as I noted in this blog post), however much we might not want to get along, if we are to be a functional nation we must find a civil way to do so anyhow. This is not facilitated when extremes on either side characterize the other side in dehumanizing terms.

While I am a liberal, sometimes I see liberals cross the line. I found Keith Olbermann’s most recent special comment disturbing, not for its untruthfulness, but for the visceral hatred that Olbermann so obviously feels for weird but disturbing Tea Party candidates. I could be wrong, but I have yet to hear any Olbermann special comments that are not dripping with a similar tone of animosity. The common factor is outrage. Yet it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable, to separate a person’s position from a person’s character. Neither Sharron Angle nor Sarah Palin are bad people because they disagree with me. It is their policies that I think would weaken our country. I wish politicians on both sides could learn basic civility. It was never a problem for the late William F. Buckley. However, these days vitriol seems to pay. It works as well for Keith Olbermann as it works for Rush Limbaugh. Both are banking on their ability to outrage, as well as entertain. If Olbermann did not flush with rage and anger regularly on camera then it’s unlikely he would be earning his very comfortable salary.

The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear gave us a few good laughs, kept us entertained, but also opened up a conversation on civility and moderation that is long overdue. Some people have had enough. Moderation is driving more genteel movements like The Coffee Party. We need to stop closing our ears to each other, and try listening with an open heart instead (and I count myself as one of these people). We must try to listen with empathy and figure out what meta-causes are driving this animus.

For social conservatives, I really doubt that the size of the federal government is what gets their blood boiling. It is likely something far more basic, like the enormous social and technological changes happening all around them that seem so unstoppable, and thus uncontrollable. If that bothers you then why would you not, like Bill Buckley, do your best to holler, “Stop!” For liberals, the animus is probably not health care for all, but values rooted in a sense of community, compassion and wanting to see those values emulated by our government. Some may ridicule us for “feeling their pain” but for many of us, we feel their pain because we lived their pain.

We will never be a wholly united country, nor should we strive to be. Disagreements are natural. What is unnatural is near total polarization, which is where we are now. When this happens, genuine dialog becomes impossible. Stewart and Comedy Central may be our Don Quixote tilting at windmills, but at least they are trying to foster a climate that encourages moderation and civility. That is not worthy of laughter, but is worthy of our applause and thanks.

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