Around 215,000 people (CBS) gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Saturday for The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear held by satirists Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. The rally was a call for moderation, reasonableness and sanity on the part of Stewart, with Colbert playing counterpoint, encouraging fear and divisiveness.
“I thought it was a great experience. I was skeptical to begin with and didn’t know how many people were going to be there, and I didn’t really know how enjoyable it was going to be,” senior A.J. Shule said, “It was nice to be out there with so many people who were kind of the same thinking that I was—not necessarily sharing the same political views, but the same opinion that maybe discussion is better than yelling at each other.”
Stewart called for exactly that kind of mentality in the press: “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats but those are titles that must be earned [….] The press is our immune system. If we overreact to everything we actually get sicker—and perhaps eczema.”
Hundreds of thousands of people traveled to the National Mall on the day of the rally, including multiple groups of students from Knox. On the day of the rally itself, the D.C. Metro was filled with people, and lines for Metro tickets extended through stations, leading some to seek other means of reaching downtown, such as cabs.
Once the National Mall was actually reached, rally attendees were met with walls of people stretching the entire width of the Mall and reaching all the way from the stage near the Capitol to almost as far back as the Washington Monument. Because of the size of the crowd, cell phone circuits were overloaded and many people were unable to meet with friends at the rally. People stood packed together side by side to catch a glimpse of the stage or Jumbotrons set up by Comedy Central (the network that broadcasts both Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and Steven Colbert’s “Colbert Report”).
The rally itself focused on exactly what it claimed it would: sanity. The buzzwords of the day were sanity and reasonableness, as trumpeted by Stewart. Stewart gave out awards to people (such as Armando Galarraga) for reasonableness, while Colbert, playing the part of the fearful opposition, gave out ‘feary’ awards to people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Anderson Cooper’s tight black t-shirt worn at the scene of natural disasters.
Throughout the rally the two comedians and all of their guests remained remarkably on message – touting sanity and reasonableness on the one had and highlighting the absurdity of people’s fears on the other. In one of the day’s highlights, Stewart brought Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) to the stage to play his song “Peace Train,” which was countered by Colbert presenting Ozzy Osbourne to play “Crazy Train.” The rock-off, a musical metaphor of the conflict between sanity and fear, ended with the O’Jays singing “Love Train.”
Since The Rally to Restore Sanity was held in response to Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally and was taking place just three days before the Nov. 2 election, many assumed that the rally would be a left-wing call for voter turnout. However, neither specific candidates nor the election itself were mentioned during the entirety of the three-hour-long rally. This is not to say that Stewart failed to respond to divisive rhetoric; rather, he chose to couch his response in his own terms of sanity and reasonableness: “I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies,” he said.
Junior Elizabeth Cockrell, on her perspective of what drew people to the rally, said, “There were a lot of people there who shared in ‘let’s just open a discussion,’ and that was the important thing to them, and that was important for me.”
It was clear to both Shule and Cockrell that the message of the rally was important for the Knox community.
“As a Knox student, it spoke to me in the fact that a lot of debates that we have on campus here have a tendency to be very polarized with extremes on both sides, and I think we fall into the same problem of just yelling at each other rather than talking with each other, and so I hope that people here can learn a little bit that maybe it’s not just a media problem, maybe it’s more of a social problem,” said Shule.
As it stands now, it is hard to say what success for the rally actually means and whether it will affect the political and social climate of the country as a whole. In his closing speech, Stewart said, “We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day.”
“I think it was a good message to show that there was this large group of people who were driving, you know, hundreds of miles, 18 hours, to share this message,” Cockrell said.
In the end, Stewart concluded his speech with his take on the success of the rally, saying, “Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you.”