Jon Stewart just wants everyone to calm down. At his "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., last weekend, Stewart showed the country, with a crowd of more than 200,000, that Americans are better people than what the 24-hour cable news networks show us to be.
"The image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false," Stewart said. "It is us through a fun-house mirror, and not the good kind that makes you slim and taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass like a pumpkin, and one eyeball."
Memphis can take a lesson from that. The Bluff City is no stranger to political insanity, from election scandals to consolidation debates, from an ex-mayor gone wild to Bill Haslam confirming in our town that he's ready to pass out guns. Memphis, at least publicly, seems far from a city that is able to get along.
But now, at least for one day, a different type of activist was in the spotlight, one that is finally not so silent thanks to the spotlight of Stewart. For that day, the "sane" were in the spotlight with costumes and heavily ironic signs.
The signs in Washington ranged from funny ("Down with this sort of thing") to polite ("Is my sign blocking your view?") to friendly ("Jump rope with a Muslim" featuring two Muslim girls and, you guessed it, a jump rope) to somewhat political ("If you don't believe in government perhaps you shouldn't run for it"), but most shared a common theme of awareness. Attendees knew the rally was held as a rebuttal to the Tea Party rallies, to the Glenn Beck rally of August, and to the overall insanity that this silent majority felt was getting way too much attention.
It was that idea that attracted seven Memphians to make the trek to D.C. to see the rally in person.
"This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Andrew McCracken, a 27-year-old University of Memphis graduate student. "We had to come here and see this."
In a discussion after the rally, the whole group echoed that sentiment. While some felt the rally could have benefited from a more serious tone (Stewart's concluding speech was a spot of seriousness in an otherwise festive and comical event) and others lamented the appearance of Kid Rock, the group overall made it clear that Stewart's vision, not Glenn Beck's, was the one they preferred.
"I think it's really interesting that this rally faced the Capitol," said Memphian Oscar Mathews, a veteran, a naturalized citizen, and a graduate student at UT-Knoxville. "Glenn Beck faced the Lincoln Memorial, looking toward the past. Today we faced the toward the future, toward where the change is being made."
In Memphis, about 20 people gathered in Overton Park to listen to the rally via an Internet stream hooked up to a car radio.
The event's organizer, Bob Huddleston, a local business owner, said many more people planned to attend their satellite event but were otherwise committed. To what? To events of service, events of purpose, like Race for the Cure and GreenUp Memphis.
"In order to do something, we all have to think of ourselves as part of the same community," Huddleston said. "It's all about how we get along on a day-to-day basis and try to make things work."
So there is sanity. It's already here. Contrasted to former Mayor Willie Herenton's posturing and race-baiting and to the wingnut weirdness of the Charlotte Bergmann campaign are these sane and fearless Memphis plus the seven in Overtton Park — a small-business owner and his friends — and a host of other civically minded people who were too busy making a difference to stop and draw attention to themselves.
Seems like a pretty good group to put in the spotlight. So ... sanity restored?
"I don't know if it was restored," McCracken said, "but it was definitely affirmed among a lot of us. This gives us a chance to take patriotism back home. We know there are a lot of people out there who want things to be better but don't have to step on other people to get things done."
Memphian Douglas Gillon is a freelance writer and a political activist.