Sunday, October 31, 2010

The User-Generated "Rally to Restore Sanity"

I had an inkling that Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" was going to be big a few weeks ago when I tried to make a hotel reservation in Washington, DC and found that no hotel rooms in the city were available this weekend (I had decided to combine a trip to the rally with some other business).

On Saturday morning, I realized that the rally would indeed be something unprecedented; at 9 AM, the inbound Metro Red line train was jam packed with rallygoers at the third stop (Twinbrook), even though nothing was scheduled till 12 AM. By the sixth stop, the train was having difficulty getting its doors closed, leading to delays.

The odd thing about the rally was that there were hardly any instructions as to what we were to do at the "million moderate march", other than to have some fun while engaging is a respectful discourse with other people and being willing to listen. Rallygoers were to make of the event whatever they wished. For some, it was a massive Halloween Party; for others it was a chance to express dismay at the rhetoric of Glenn Beck and Fox News. Whatever it was, there was a widespread feeling of wanting to participate in something historic.

On the train, collective coping behaviors emerged from the unexpected mass intimacy. When we got to stations where one or two riders needed to get off, other riders squeezed aside to make sure they could emerge from the train. Later, above ground, the crowd would make a special effort to part for rallygoers in wheelchairs and parents with children in strollers. Police cars and ambulances drove through streets packed with people because somehow the crowd recognized a necessity.

In the part of the crowd where I ended up, none of us could really hear or see the speeches or entertainment, but nobody seemed to care. We can watch Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on TV any evening, and we knew without watching what he might say. It was the rest of the crowd we were there to be with. Close to where I stood, a young man was trying to climb a tree to get a better view; there was already another fellow up in the tree. The crowd took notice, and began to cheer him on. Before long, there was a chant of "YES YOU CAN" that took hold of the crowd, and the fellow in the tree tried his best to help the climber up.

This morning, reading the press accounts, I was dismayed to see that much of the "mainstream media" seemed to miscomprehend the Rally for Sanity by focusing on the show rather than the audience. Whether the rally was 215,000 people or 420,000 people, the media's mistake is akin to reporting that YouTube is a site for stupid pet trick videos. The best way to understand the Sanity Rally's significance, in fact, is to make the analogy that YouTube is to Fox (or CBS, for that matter) as the Rally for Sanity is to almost any previous political rally. Finally, crowdsourcing has come to the crowd.

Nonetheless, when Jon Stewart began to speak at the end of the rally, the crowd suddenly became quiet and strained to hear. "These are hard times, not end times" we heard. There was something about the miracle of the Lincoln Tunnel, where cars strain to get through, merging from 20 lines or so down to two, and it somehow works even though the people in one car might be totally different from the people in the next car, the traffic moves forward concession by sensible concession, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land, it's New Jersey.

But we didn't need Jon Stewart to tell us that, we had discovered that by being pressed together in a massive crowd, and by learning how to get around anyway.
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