I attended, though I don’t really remember, all the big marches on Washington in the 1960s. My mother was still in her twenties for the first one, and she had somehow heard that the black church on 34th Avenue in Corona, one neighborhood away, was sending a bus. I sort of remember the Reverend Johnny Bell, but not the bus ride or the rally itself.
The Rally to Restore Sanity, on October 30th, was different from those forty years ago, but was in some ways surprisingly similar, I imagine. Social networks built both, though it wasn’t Facebook and iPad apps that put my mother together with the Rev. Bell and his bus, as they put iflit and me together with her friend from choir and our daughter’s ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend and her cousin. We would have taken the latter-day church bus, sponsored by the HuffPost, but for wanting to stay over Saturday night.
The fundamental differences between then and now showed themselves in other ways. In 1965, I’m pretty sure we mostly hung out, unable to hear the speeches through an underpowered audio system whose speakers were too far away. Yesterday, we sat politely on the mall lawn and watched the proceedings on large screens (“Where were you?” “Third pair of Jumbotrons back”) with speakers that could be heard everywhere. The Capitol appeared just behind our Jumbotron, partially blocked by the enormous speakers.
It was a lot like watching TV—in fact, it was watching TV. As befits our post-modern self-reflective age, the rally was filmed, televised, and broadcast—to the rally. Our experience was mediated, in other words, by the broadcast medium that was showing us—as well as the rest of the world—our experience. Thus does modern culture bootstrap itself into our collective consciousness, and it’s fitting that the rally was put together by arguably the most post-modern and self-reflective of all the stars in the media galaxy. There were a few clues that we were live at the rally; we heard some helicopters before Stewart referred to them onstage, for example.
It was also fitting that the rally was started with a set from the Mythbusters, who began by conducting some scientific measurements, largely having to do with timing a crowd wave as it cycled from one end of the mall to the other. (Needless to say, their entire set can be found online.) One experiment involved starting the wave from both ends at once, from which iflit and I learned we were less than halfway back. We hadn’t known that and in fact everyone in our area faced sideways for it. We weren’t clear where the other end of the rally was. At one point, we heard a huge cheer behind us; a woman nearby speculated that it was the Park Service opening up more of the mall. Of course we can’t know how big the crowd was, but the various estimates I’ve seen, from 215,000 to 284,000, don’t, as far as I can tell, include the crowds sitting on the steps of the various national buildings that circle the mall, nor do they include the large number of people on some of the side streets, which were closed to traffic. So the actual crowd total might well have been even larger.
The only boring song was the one by Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples (and I resented the way she commandeered over the closing musical number, not least because several other people on stage, including at least two of the 4Troops had better voices. I thought their rendering of the national anthem to be about the best I’ve ever heard that song done.) Speaking of the music, the only truly sour note in the whole rally, for me, was the inclusion of someone who endorsed the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, an implicit endorsement, it felt, of a fealty to an irrational ideology of exactly the sort that I went there to oppose.
If there’s a rally like this a decade from now, social networking will dominate it far more than it did this one. In fact, the nearly complete failure of phone and data networks will make this one seem more like those of the 1960s than the 2020s. But where is it on the half-century timeline of ever-diminishing political optimism? After the crazy tea party rallies of 2008, is it crazy to hope we’re on the cusp of a turn toward sanity and reasonableness? Can social media draw the rational centrist 60 percent of the country out of their shells, into the polls, and into, finally, the center of the politcal debate? I doubt it. But for one afternoon, it felt like anything, even sanity in the polity, was possible.