The DC Rally to Restore Sanity — from an Intimate Distance
November 1, 2010 1 Comment
Halloween, our cultural pagan fun, shrewdly conscripted by our wise Christian ancestors. Here in Washington DC, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert convened a Saturday rally of liberal fun-seekers, serious people tired of being so relentlessly serious.
I don’t have so much a point to make as an impression to paint.
When I first heard about the Rally to Restore Sanity, I thought, being a right-of-center thinker, great, more insufferable malice directed at America, more liberal condescension, more reasons why liberals bubble up in their self-perpetuating righteous cocoons because they’re convinced they get it and ordinary Americans don’t. Wearisome.
And another thing. I went from liking Jon Stewart to deeply disliking Jon Stewart after his performance on Crossfire in 2004. His smug lecturing of Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson — gee guys, I’m just a wee comedy show but you’re supposed to be serious journalists and “stop hurting America” — sounded so passive-aggressive self-aggrandizing, such a deceptive ambush with comedy as cudgel. Repeatedly mocking the manifest civility of Begala on the left and Carlson on the right, Stewart purported to be the arbiter of journalistic integrity, the guy who actually got it. But he denied any responsibility for such journalistic integrity himself, being just a wee comedy show. Or maybe he just thought he was that much smarter.
Late in the segment, just before a break, Tucker Carlson said, “I do think you’re more fun on your show. Just my opinion.” To which Stewart responded, astoundingly, “you know what’s interesting, though? You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.”
See, that was awkwardly aggressive, and not funny. I didn’t watch him thereafter.
I had some baggage about the Rally to Restore Sanity.
Then my friend Kathy Nester told me she’d be coming to the rally and could she and a friend crash at my place, which is a ten-minute walk to the mall where the rally would be held. Absolutely, I said. Kathy, and two of her amazingly engaging friends who became my friends, Felicia and Gwen, had stayed at my place during President Obama’s inauguration festivities in January 2009. I didn’t attend any of the festivities with them — I was still misty-eyed over John McCain’s loss — but I got to experience, vicariously, the enormous historic thrill of that inauguration.
If Kathy told me she was coming to meet with a secret cabal bent on eliminating skinny white males with blue-green eyes, and needed a place to crash, I’d have said absolutely.
To know Kathy is to love her. She’s a wacko liberal (as to her I’m a wacko conservative) doing public defender work in Jackson, Mississippi. She was just recently admitted into the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers, an honor reserved for the very best in the profession. We’ve known each other for over 20 years, since law school at the University of Texas, and life in that interim has been a bit of a roller-coaster for me. From 1989 to the present, Kathy has been a steadfast friend.
She’s actually done the To Kill a Mockingbird thing, in reverse. The story is told in Harry Maclean’s book, The Past Is Never Dead. Though a wacko liberal, she vigorously represented James Ford Seale, the former Klansman who brutally murdered two 19-year-old African Americans, Charles Moore and Henry Dee, in 1964. A jury convicted Seale in 2007, but Kathy persisted. There are neutral rules designed to prevent show trials long after the offense, when witnesses and evidence are old, gone or compromised, and Kathy pressed these rules most effectively. A Fifth Circuit panel agreed with her and overturned the conviction. Only when the full Fifth Circuit — all 18 active judges — agreed to rehear the appeal (which is very unusual), and th
en split 9-9, did the conviction get reinstated. By a tie vote, Seale, now in his 70s, will die in jail. Kathy asked the Supreme Court to hear the issue, but they declined. Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia said they should have.
Mississippi leads the South in prosecuting Klansmen for racial murders in the 1960s. In the most gut-wrenching and complex narrative of the South, Kathy’s personal sympathies could not be clearer, but she nevertheless devoted her considerable skills to a Klansman, very nearly successfully. It is perhaps the most honorable representation I’ve been privileged to witness in my own 20 years as a lawyer.
Kathy is why lawyer jokes are very funny but not very true.
While she was here for the Jon Stewart rally, Kathy and I argued, at times yelled at each other, and then resolved to figure out where we had misunderstood. And I thought to myself, this is hopelessly complicated, the human exchange, and our only hope, and it helps tremendously when the humans love each other.
How deeply I would wish for every liberal to love a conservative, for every conservative to love a liberal. Without this very human dialectic, we’re deeply ignorant. We never gain any insight into how the other person thinks, what buttons send them spiraling into pre-rational realms, how precisely they are able to hear us but not listen to us, and vice versa.
We know this ideological sliver we know because it is perpetually reinforced by all of our other fellow occupants of the sliver. And we think we know why the other side is stupidly or treasonously wrong because, by dang, everybody I know says it’s so. It’s obvious. If I were Earth Emperor, the first two things I would do would be to stop genocide, whatever the cost, and to ensure that everyone understood the fraudulence of obvious.
Hegel said we know least that with which we’re most familiar. I tagged this notion 27 years ago, reading by a kerosene lamp in Kakamega, Kenya. But I didn’t really understand it. I’m beginning to.
Our brains are hard-wired to love a comfort-zone. Neural processing is vastly complicated. And when we can put something into a category that has already been processed, how eagerly we do it. We cease to examine what we know, because, well, we know it. It’s in the comfort zone. And that familiar thing sits in our brain, unexamined, and drawing unto it every pittance of fact and experience that reinforces its luxury to grow fat and unexamined.
We’re configured, for the sake of efficiency and longevity, to presuppose that any strangeness has already been processed, that we can put it “over there.” We instinctively decline to engage the strangeness on its own terms because that would open up an exhausting new neural processing. We default to the categories we (think we) know.
Unless we love the other that is strange. Then, in Martin Buber’s phrasing, I-It becomes I-You. Our brain proceeds much less efficiently, and much more humanly. We then crave understanding, the very thing we eschew when we’re processing efficiently.
It is neither liberal nor conservative to crave this understanding. It happens only in concrete human relationships. You know it when you feel it.
Liberals came to this rally for as many reasons as there are human motivations. Conservatives understandably suspect these motivations because it all looks like liberals saying wearisomely again, we’re so tired of trying to elevate you, and by the way, we have a sense of humor and you don’t. Some rally participants doubtless felt this way, but most did not.
Yusuf Islam, who used to be Cat Stevens, who used to be Steven Katz, participated in the rally’s elaborate train metaphor, with his signature song “Peace Train.” When I was too young to be desperate, I played a Cat Stevens vinyl over and over, and I heard the lyrics I wished to hear. And I survived. I thanked him directly for that on a Fort Worth, Texas radio station back in the 1980s. It doesn’t matter to me that he’s flirted with fatwas. That is the way our brain works.
It is difficult for me to trust Jon Stewart because he poses as perpetually insincere, and because he was a dick in 2004. But he closed the rally with a tone that sounded, at least initially, very much like sincerity, leavened a little by the comic’s anxiety. With these words I strongly agree:
The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen, or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous flaming ant epidemic.
If we amplify everything we hear nothing. There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume.
Indeed the media thrive overmuch on manufactured conflict. And to be sure, the left and right name-calling has become absurd.
If liberals came away from this event resolving to police their own (with an exhortation to conservatives to do the same), then it was a tremendous success.