This past weekend I travelled with 20 new friends, mostly from my housemate’s NGO “Operation Groundswell“, to the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington DC. You can see my photos here. The trip itself was quite an adventure – friday morning we left, were interrogated at the border, went to a new england bluegrass festival in Maryland on Friday night, and I think I slept a few hours on an easy chair. Saturday we put together our costumes and drove from Betertton to the Suburbs of DC, where we caught the overcrowded metro into downtown. We arrived quite late – about 2pm, and it wasn’t until about 2:30 that we (after almost completely losing each other), found a place where we could both hear the rally and see a screen. The only part of the rally I really cognized was the closing speech, which I highly recommend you watch, or at least read these excerpts from wikipedia. To me, the most moving lines of that speech were these:
This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or 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. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke.
I am more than a little interested in eschatological thinking – in the idea that we live (and perhaps all have lived) and the “end of history” – and that securing a future relies on securing a new history, and new foundation or non-foundation to move either “forward”, or perhaps orthogonally to the direction in which we today proceed (which is, if you hadn’t noticed, is straight towards catastrophic climate change). But Stewart is right – there is nothing about our times, technically, which is anything but a hard problem. We have the technology, we even have the political wherewithal to understand how we should implement it given current political structures. But what we don’t have is sanity, which can be easily translated into “What we don’t have is a form of intra-social communication which does not serve the interests of short term capital over the survival of the species”. The hardest problem, therefore, is how do we get that? How do we get a way of communicating with each other on a democratic level that can allow us to implement some form of workable solution? While not a complete answer – largely because it ignores the deep differences in value between Washington and the rest of America, in other words the corperate control of government – a call for Sanity might certainly be an important part of moving towards a solution.
Back to the rally itself, the atmosphere in DC was wonderful – over 200,000 people, few cops, very festival-like – some who had been compared it to burning man. There were many excellent signs, like “I’ve always wanted a sign”, “I can be persuaded by logic and facts”, and my favorite (held by another in our group) – “This is like totally our Woodstock!”. In fact, many people stopped us who had been to Woodstock to comment on the comparison (roughly – yes, except with less mud, and much less free love).
During and after the rally, wespend many hours wandering around, being exposed to hundreds of thousands of Americans who presumably agree with Stewart’s critique of the mainstream media fear production machine, which is not the same as but at the same time not terribly distant from more radical critiques of capitalist media. This can’t help but make me a little hopeful that people are decent, and not completely insane. These are people who, if I’m reading the zeitgeist rightly, are averse to getting embroiled in emotional causes – but at the same time who can be persuaded by passionate and reasoned arguments. And I am confident that, if the opportunities are presented and the context is fair, reasoned argument does lead to something like the general moral and political positions I hold: authority needs justification, we should move towards more genuine forms of democracy, public-relations is an attack on the ability of people to think for themselves, and that imperialist foreign policy is a major cause of war and instability and inability to deal with climate change.
At the same time, however, Stewart’s clarion call for “Sanity” has encouraged me to question the way I present my ideas. I try to do so fairly, as objects presented for inspection by whoever cares to respond – but in practice the dynamics of power and interpersonal feelings can make mere assertions more like assaults, and can thereby break down the basic conditions for reasoned discussion, emptying assertions of the validity they could otherwise gain by being in public and verifiable by others. This is not to say that fundamental divides do not exist (they do), and sometimes these divides are such that they inhibit productive dialogue. But such deep differences of principle are the exception rather than the rule.
Furthermore, Stewart’s call against fear has encouraged me to further my critique of groups which I support, but who sometimes engage in actions which do little but alienate those who don’t already agree with them. Perhaps those of us who insist on radically critiquing contemporary society have on them a burden to do so in a way which does not allow them to be easily dismissed as crazies. I do like the idea of “This person isn’t Hitler, but…” signs. Maybe:
“Netanyahu’s not Hitler, but I’m still pretty sure the Oath law is racist”
“Am I crazy because I think not mitigating global warming is a crime against humanity?”
“Lots of armies commit crimes, including ours – are we ok with that?”
Perhaps these aren’t great sign ideas – but in general I think the call for Sanity conforms with my intuition that we should put more facts and arguments into our slogans and songs. If we want to reach out to those who don’t already agree with us, we can’t convince them other than by appealing to facts, logic and values – and we can’t do any of those things if they are not listening to us.