I wasn't sure whether the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear would turn out to be an Earth to Philly type of event, but I wound up going down to find out. Prior to Saturday nobody seemed to be sure what exactly it was going to be, though my colleague Will Bunch apparently decided early in the week that it was a largely pointless exercise in 'slacktivism.'
The joke of it is, it may well have been that. But it was also many other things. And I'm glad I was there, because as fun as the onstage entertainment was, the real theater was in the interaction of the many attendees.
Although I got a great kick out of the many humorous signs (more on that soon), I wasn't there to further my own cause. I had gone back and forth on whether to attend and had missed the opportunity on two different buses that filled up while I vacilated. Then Weaver's Way announced a second bus, and I wound up going down that way, seeing people I knew from unexpected places. (Shout-out to longtime Dumpster Diva Ellen Benson, impressario Todd Kimmell and the team from Philly's Peace Advocacy Network.)
And that was a harbinger of the rally itself: People came from all kinds of constituencies with a full spectrum of intentions to an event that was, in essence, a DIY rally.
There were certainly people there to protest protesting, to be walking props for the satirical ideal (with signs like "Down With Toilet Seats," "Each Word On This Sign Is Spelled Correctly," "2,4,6,8... Rhyming is Hard" and "I Support This Sign").
And of course many signs specifically mocked Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party protests ("I Want My Country FORWARD," "Refudiate Insanity," "I'm Mad as Hell At People That Are Mad as Hell " and a black man holding a sign, "REPEAL Civil Rights - I was HAPPY at the Back of the Bus!"). Over-the-top protester Fred Phelps also got plenty of hommage, with the widely reported "GOD HATES FIGS" as well as others I saw including "GOD HATES FOG," "GOD HATES SIGNS" and "GOD HATES FOX News."
But there were others, including people who took the call for sanity seriously and trumped irony by being forcibly non-ironic, like the 50- ish guy holding the sign saying, "Not Stoned, Not Slacking, I Work. I Vote" or the plaintive "PLEASE Bore Us With the Details."
Moreover, there were also many groups using the gathering to non-ironically advance their cause among a huge group of people likely to be somewhat like-minded - including a large contingent equating sanity with stopping global warming (and an even larger one equating it with decriminalizing pot). Obviously this happens at other rallies, but if, say, a Free Mumia group shows up at an End the Iraq War rally, they know they're piggybacking on the larger cause. Here there was no hierarchy, because the open-ended theme made everyone, or at least a great many people there, feel equally invested and equally welcomed.
And that's one of the hard-to-pin-down positives of this event: Above all, it celebrated pluralism and to some extent enacted it among the many kinds of people there.
What's that? They were all one kind, young-to-middle-aged white liberals? Not so. Though the skin complexion was probably on average whiter than American society, I personally saw plenty of people of every ethnicity or cultural heritage I could imagine. And more to the point, there were people on the mall counter-protesting - yes, protesting against "sanity."
Actually, of course, they were countering what they rightly figured would be some of the lauded discussion topics, including Obama, health care and taxes. And given the theatrical nature of the protest, they adopted ironic guises and signs that performed a kind of bait-and-switch.
I saw at least five of these folks, and the one that I remember best was sitting, holding a sign saying "Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them... Matthew 6:1." I chuckled at the obvious reference to spotlight-hogging televangelist-types and tea-party Jesus-praisers - then looked at the crowd merrily snapping photos of each other's signs, and back at the guy with the Matthew sign, who I now saw was trembling somewhat, as though he didn't exactly want to be there, but felt he had to. And I thought about the whole day a little differently then; I could see it, if not as he did, from a different angle that was closer to his.
While there was indeed a narcissistic edge to all the sign-showing-off, there was also a framework where people found themselves situations like this, in which the quick, easy pigeonholing of other people as "like-minded" or "insane" was subverted by the interface of irony and plurality.
Some people obviously wanted this 200.000-strong gathering to be something else: More political, more activism-spurring, more partisan, more epic. And I will admit Jon Stewart did somewhat fall into the error of false equivalency he's previously satirized. But in addition to having a great, fun afternoon with creative, well-behaved (more than one person remarked to me "I couldn't believe how nice everyone was") people, I was more than once put in the position of thinking outside my own box. And from where I see it, that's worthwhile.