Madness is rare in individuals — but in groups, political parties, nations, and eras it’s the rule. — Friedrich Nietzsche
By 9:30 a.m., we’d been standing on the grass at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for 45 minutes. The numbness in my toes concerned me. Fortunately, the sun was keeping my head warm and, as the crowd packed in tighter around me, the autumn breeze was becoming less and less of an issue. I was willing to endure a bit of discomfort in exchange for being part of a push for civil discourse, or, as the host of the event called it, a “Return to Sanity.”
Personalities who spew their thoughts on everything from nuclear proliferation to the font on our currency are not of interest to me. The only talking heads I pay attention to are those who mock such pundits. I have family who follow Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity and friends who revere Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. I steer clear of all news analysts; I only catch preposterous excerpts when my two favorite satirists, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, poke fun at them.
It so happened that when Jon Stewart (of The Daily Show on Comedy Central) announced his plans to hold a rally in D.C., David and I were in the process of scheduling a trip to our nation’s capital so that we could attend his great-aunt’s 90th birthday party. The rally was the weekend before the big shindig, and as David’s second cousin had invited us to stay with her for as long as we liked, it was a no-brainer.
The day of the show, David and I stood our ground 50 feet away from one of the many Jumbotrons and 100 yards from the main stage. We waited and watched as an estimated 250,000 people vied for a clear patch of grass upon which to stand. Among the sea of unfamiliar faces pushing by, I saw one I recognized. I flung my arms skyward and shouted, “Mark!” When he didn’t answer to the sound of me shrieking his name, I bellowed my friend’s less common nickname: “Maus!”
At least half a head taller than everyone around him, Mark had no trouble spotting me once he turned his head in my direction. He forded across the rushing current of people, and soon he and his friend Kate were exchanging hugs with us. We spent some minutes marveling at the odds of finding each other in such a huge crowd 3000 miles from home.
“I didn’t know you were going to be here,” I said.
“My company is doing the webcasting for Comedy Central.”
“That’s rad. Hey, did you guys happen to see a 60-foot dragon on your way in here?” Kate and Mark shared a strange look before shaking their heads. “No? Apparently, my friend Kip hitched a ride on the thing; it’s a Burning Man ‘mutant vehicle’ called Abraxas — it’s an old bus they transformed into a huge, fire-breathing dragon. I think they’re doing some parade through town before driving into the area,” I explained. (I would learn later, when we crossed paths with the great beast just blocks from the mall, that a flat tire had disabled the dragon.)
Once done catching up, we turned our attention to the signs parading by: “Nah, dude, it’s cool” was followed by “Talk rationally to me, baby” and “I love being right so much I change my mind when I’m wrong.” One of my favorites was a large white board on which — in giant caps — was printed, “THIS FONT IS BIG.” These are my people, I thought.
Mark had purchased a knit cap that had the word “Hate” with an X over the letter e embroidered on the back. That pretty much captured the sentiment of the day: light-hearted mockery of everything that was wrong with the world. It frustrates me when people freak out before they have all the facts or when they determine something is “good” or “bad” based solely on the political party behind the proposal. That’s one of the reasons I’m registered “Independent.”
I suppose, if I had to classify myself, I would use the word “liberal,” which is defined as one who is “open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.” The origin of the word is the French liber, for “freedom.” I support the concept of civil liberty. Another word I’d use is “moderate.” I’m irritated by anyone who takes too extreme a position on anything, be it politics or diet.
After a prickly sensation had come and gone in my toes a number of times, Jon Stewart took the stage. Several fans climbed trees or mounted Porta Potties (yuck) to get a better look. I thought it had been crowded before, but now people had packed in so tight that my view of the Jumbotron was limited to a small hole between the necks and heads of those I was pressed against. For just a moment, my excitement was tempered by the awareness that I had been standing for three hours and would not be able to leave my slot in the crush for at least another three hours.
I’d found myself at the center of large crowds before — raves, concerts, festivals, sports events. Even the audience at the symphony was rowdier than this one. I marveled at the respectful, silent attention that was prevalent. When the show ended, like a school of sardines, everyone turned at once. Despite the probability that, like me, everyone was cold, tired, and hungry, we all remained patient and orderly as we wormed our way to the street in search of some place warm to sit and eat.
On a few occasions throughout the day, I’d witnessed people brought to the brink of frustration, only to catch themselves and smile, as if to say, “I can do this. I belong here.” Such a smile was met with encouraging nods as we continued to push each other to be as civil as possible. For all of our overwhelming reasonableness, however, as we shifted from foot to foot and rubbed our arms for warmth, I noticed more than a few stop to admire the sign that read, “My feet hurt and my butt itches.”