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Sanity/Fear Rally: What Did It Mean?

Jon Stewart event could define a generation, BU students say


BU alums Douglas Ely (CAS’09) (from left), Morena Zelaya (CAS’08), David Yi (CAS’08, SED’08), Jessica Taylor (CAS’08), and Meagan Clark (CAS’08, COM’08) with their rally sign. Photos by Tom Vellner

With aching feet, sunburned faces, and throats sore from trying to be heard in the contained mayhem of a throng estimated at about 250,000 people, BU students and alumni who attended Saturday’s Washington, D.C., Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear were upbeat, but undecided about whether the day will be remembered as merely a hell of a party or an event that defines a generation.

The day’s carnival-like proceedings, carried out under a nearly cloudless sky, did pack a deeper message, says Justin Koch (CAS’12), who decided he’d attend when Jon Stewart first aired his call to sanity on an episode of The Daily Show in mid-September. To Koch, in Stewart-ese the word sanity means “for us to be more discerning. Sanity is being able to discern between terrorists and someone who’s simply a Muslim.”

Stewart’s rally was countered satirically by Stephen Colbert’s announcement of the March to Keep Fear Alive on a subsequent episode of The Colbert Report. The two events were later consolidated into the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, with a new combined logo.

“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” Stewart, appearing humbled, told the heaving crowd at the rally’s close. “Sanity will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you.”

Stephen Colbert (left) and JonStewart take the stage before thousands of rally-goers.

“I’ll tell my kids some day about the speech Jon Stewart gave at the end,” says Liam Skehan (CAS’11), like Koch a political science major in BU’s study abroad program in Washington D.C. Koch’s classmate George Sousouris (CAS’11) says he too believes the rally could go down as a defining moment.

Aside from Stewart’s concluding remarks, which rally moments will resound long after Father Guido Sarducci’s (aka Don Novello) hysterically inclusive benediction fades? Just getting there was an adventure that won’t soon be forgotten. Koch, Skehan, and Sousouris started the day with a descent into Washington Metro bedlam. The city was under siege from rally-goers gravitating toward the Mall toting sane placards (“My Religion Is Awesome and I Bet Yours Is Pretty Cool Too,” “It’s Democracy, Not an Auction,” “I Like Turtles”). Then, in a nod to Halloween, there were the thousands who came dressed as folks from Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell in her witch days, jaunty Minutemen, and Uncle Sams of both genders to Statues of Liberty, Mad Hatters festooned with teabags, and even the occasional Chilean miner. One wheelchair-bound rally-goer bore on her lap a sign that read: “It Could Be Worse.”

“After six trains passed us, we just bailed and walked, and finally got a taxi,” Sousouris says. The trek took hours. But that was part of the experience, he says: “If we were able to just waltz up to the front, it wouldn’t have been worth it.”

The three were rewarded with a succession of paired performances by Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples, Colbert and Stewart in an ironic, almost Woody Guthrie–esque, sing-along ditty “The Greatest Country in the World,” and Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) in a “Peace Train”/"Crazy Train" collision with Ozzy Osbourne. Irony was the rule of the day, with a headscarfed woman bearing a “Fear Me” sign and Colbert’s ceremonious presentation, to CNN’s Anderson Cooper’s black muscle T-shirt, one of three “Fear Awards.” Stewart told the shirt, “Please give my regards to Anderson’s bulging pectorals.” 

Despite being nearly unable to move, with those attending pressed practically shoulder-to-shoulder from the Capitol to the Washington Monument, “everyone was polite,” says Koch, who aspires to a career in public policy. Attendees could be heard commenting that the mood of the rally felt similar to that of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, which drew an estimated 1.8 million people. Even those lined up for the Port-a-potties maintained an orderly calm, as did the seemingly endless, dense queues for bottled water, hamburgers, and hot dogs. Throughout the three-hour event, rally-goers cheered the people climbing trees to catch a glimpse of the stage, even as those daredevils were ordered to come down by a low-key and surprisingly sparse police force.

“The whole event bucked the trend of fear mongering,” Sousouris says. It was just very positive.” Stewart walked a fine line between humor and making sure that he’d be taken seriously, he says, agreeing with his classmates that Stewart’s speech at the end gave legitimacy to the entire event, even though Stewart welcomed the crowd by acknowledging that he didn’t quite know why they were all there.

Both students and alumni expressed surprise at seeing so many older people at the rally. “I expected a much younger crowd,” says David Yi (CAS’08, SED’08), who works for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington. Not only was the rally speckled with 50-somethings, who could be overheard reminiscing about the Vietnam War protests of the ’60s, but there were octogenarians plodding along the lawn with walkers and canes. Yi was one of 20 BU alums who came from as far as Missouri for the event. The day began for them with a prerally party at the apartment of Jessica Taylor (CAS’08), who works in public affairs for General Electric. “We had pancakes, pumpkin muffins, and adult beverages,” says Taylor. The group arrived late and wedged themselves into a spot with a view of the rally on a JumboTron screen.

Taylor went to the rally with “no expectations,” she says. Koch wondered beforehand how political the event would be (not at all, it turned out), and found the message to be the opposite of political: “Avoid the tendency to demonize our opponents,” as he puts it. “Avoid the tendency to state our opinions loudly.” (One sign at the rally screamed in ominous lettering, “Non-Judgment Day Is Near.”)

Both students and alumni interviewed felt African Americans were underrepresented. “I expected more diversity,” says Taylor’s friend Douglas Ely (CAS’09), who teaches seventh-grade science in St. Louis, Mo. Koch and his friends agree that black faces in the crowd were sparse. Koch says that at the rally he had to remind himself that Daily Show and Colbert Report audiences are skewed to the Northeast and California, and the crowd at the Mall was made up of their fan base.

As well as being remarkable for its sanity, the rally was also conspicuously lacking in vitriol toward anyone. “I anticipated a harder jab at the media in general,” Ely adds, noting Stewart’s and Colbert’s gentle digs at archenemy Fox News and at National Public Radio, whose avoidance of the rally was mocked in an in-absentia acceptance of a “Fear Award” to the network by a seven-year-old girl. “Are you afraid?” Stewart asked. “Nope,” the child said. “This is fun.”

The rally got an across-the-board thumbs-up for its smooth production level. “All the musical support really added a lot,” says Ely. The day’s comic moments began with Colbert’s rising to the stage from a subterranean hole, where he had been cowering in fear that no one would come to the rally. “I think you’re okay there,” said Stewart, after which Colbert exploded forth waving a Chilean flag. And for the most part the antics were well scripted and clever until the poignant conclusion—a still-vibrant 84-year-old Tony Bennett crooning “God Bless America.” According to Taylor, “The writing kept people engaged for three hours; it was really well produced.”

One omission noted by many rally-goers was the lack of any specific mention of the midterm election just days away, or even the use of the words “election” or “vote.” Meagan Clark (CAS’08, COM’08), who works in DC for the Academy of Educational Development, says she “was surprised there was no talk about getting out the vote.”

“Some people were saying that the rally had diverted people who should’ve been out canvassing neighborhoods” for their candidates, Skehan says. But Koch thinks the obviously calculated omission freed the proceeding from any political taint, and the get-out-and-vote message got across in Stewart’s calls to engagement, and to patriotism.

William Skehan (CAS’11) (from left), George Sousouris (CAS’11), and Justin Koch (CAS’12) in front of the lit-up Capitol building.

Perhaps a call to action was best conveyed in Stewart’s closing words, which the BU students believe will resonate for years: “We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness.”

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu. Tom Vellner can be reached at tvellner@bu.edu.


10 Comments on Sanity/Fear Rally: What Did It Mean?

  • Anonymous on 11.01.2010 at 9:01 am

    Let’s be honest people who showed up to this event were mostly college students and hippies from back in the day. This show was a comedy act. Where was the intellectual speeches on how to restore “sanity”? I also noted in this article that someone noted “Stewart’s and Colbert’s gentle digs at archenemy Fox News and at National Public Radio.” I believe on CNN with Larry King Stewart said this rally is not about ideology but rather coming together. How does making “gentle digs” at Fox news, a TOP news channel, solve anything? More importantly, how did this rally put forth any solution to fix the problems in Washington? This whole rally sounds like it was a free rock concert and comedy show, which is ultimately why so many people showed up.

  • Anonymous on 11.01.2010 at 9:06 am

    Fear Mongers or Tea Toddlers?

    The Tea Party, which really began with the president bid of Dr. Ron Paul, was unfortunately dubbed a right wing movement when it gained the support of a few neocons from the Republican party. But as we see in Alaska today even incumbent Republicans are being rebuked by the Tea Party which really wants to our government to be fiscally conservative and mindful of its fiduciary duty not to amass debt in our good name and then debase the value of our life savings in order to pay it off. At the core of this is a sound fiscal policy based on sound money that cannot and should not be printed out of thin air to fund unconstitutional wars and bailouts and unsustainable popular entitlement programs that get incumbent congressman re-elected term after term after term after term.

    This rally can and should serve as a spring board for the serious conversations, among all liberty loving Americans, that will be necessary as we make the difficult decisions about spending cuts, monetary policy changes and the roll of the Federal government in our lives. People should not feel disenfranchised simply because they can no longer get the government to print money out of thin air to fund their favorite entitlement program. I say this because I know they will and they will scream racism unless they realize that “no one” irrespective of race, gender or religion is entitled to anything in America except a huge helping of liberty pie. For it was liberty that set the US apart from other nations at its inception and it will be our new found respect for it that will keep America the bastion of liberty for years, decades and centuries to come.

    In letting our government at the federal and state levels amass large amounts of debt in the name of peace keeping, providing opportunity for special interest groups, and being a perpetual care giver for retired government employees and others who have learned to milk the system we have unwittingly enslaved ourselves with taxes.

    I could go on about the regulations that restrict everything from what we can eat to how we raise our children but you get the point.

    It is time to stop the insanity.

  • Anonymous on 11.01.2010 at 10:55 am

    sanity = misinformation?

    “Daily Show and Colbert Report audiences are skewed to the Northeast and California”? I think he just made that up. I’m from Minnesota and I know plenty of people who watch those shows. And I’m pretty sure that regional underrepresentation would not be the reason there were few black people there. There are black people in the Northeast and California, too. Maybe we could restore sanity if people weren’t ignorant about every region in the US other than their own.

  • Dave on 11.01.2010 at 12:54 pm

    To anybody who thinks this was somehow unimportant, or the most important thing ever:

    No. This was both a comedy/music show and a reminder, largely to the media, that people yelling loudly about their causes aren’t a justification for ignoring people who aren’t yelling.

  • Elena on 11.01.2010 at 1:30 pm


    You just said Fox News is a TOP news channel.

  • Anonymous on 11.01.2010 at 3:29 pm

    A someone who attended this rally and is neither an undergraduate nor an aging hippie, I can honestly say that it was an overwhelmingly positive experience and a potentially interesting model for dialogue in the new decade–and century. Most people who attended seemed to be curious about another way to communicate about politics, economics, culture and society than the vitriol that is put forward by partisan media outlets on both sides of the aisle. “Gentle digs” at Fox news, MSNBC and other news organs point up how ineffective it has been for Americans to talk past each other in the post-9/11 period.

  • Anonymous on 11.01.2010 at 3:36 pm

    Because Americans use public facilities, we’re taxed. This is the most effective way to fund schools, highways, libraries, and other public facilities that we would be nonfunctional without. While the Tea Party frames itself as a champion of working Americans who are overtaxed, it is funded by extremely wealthy people who live lives incredibly disconnected from working-class patterns. Voters who align with tea party candidates are working against their own interests; often they’re the ones who need public facilities that rely on taxes.

  • Anonymous on 11.03.2010 at 12:05 pm

    A step in the right direction

    I think Stewart’s closing remarks, “We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness” sums up what the whole rally was supposed to be about. Basically, for the U.S. to experience a breakthrough from the state it’s in, it’s going to need a new level of thinking where people’s different point of views are respected and understood and not simply rejected because it’s different.

  • Anonymous on 11.05.2010 at 4:51 pm

    The Tea Party; if what it stands for is NOT promoting opportunities for “special interest groups” (and we all know what you are getting at here) we will have monopolies of one sole interest group, aka those who support the Tea party…since we already know that those with money and political clout (and we all know who I’m getting at here!) will have the advantage at the onset of this radical government proposal, this seems like a very biased and wealthy viewpoint. Enslaving ourselves with taxes? I think you must’nt use any sort of public institutions whatsoever! Of course you don’t, because you wouldn’t really need to, now would you?
    “I say this because I know they will and they will scream racism unless they realize that “no one” irrespective of race, gender or religion is entitled to anything in America except a huge helping of liberty pie.” O, I’m sorry if we ask for compensation for the fact that we have not, nor ever will be, at an equal playing field! It’s not entitlement to want for equal opportunity, a leveling of the system. The way you write this would have me think that you think you ACTUALLY had an equal starting point as all these groups you just mentioned, which is either feigned ignorance or denial. WE have started out with disadvantages that are centuries old. You have a “for us by us” mentality. And the rest of us Americans (regular folk)…well, we won’t stand for that!

  • Anonymous on 02.28.2011 at 1:42 pm

    What was really about??

    From the pictures one of my cousins had< it looked like one bit college party. I thought I was looking at pictures from Saturday Night Live. There were portapottys that people had sat on top of and crushed down. HMMM. I did see lots of people< but it did not look like shoulder to shoulder crowd as was stated in this article. Who did this supposed to represent??

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