'Restoring Sanity' Means Reclaiming the Mantle of a
Principled Progressive Struggle With a Diverse Base of People
By Barbara Ransby
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert provide much needed comic
relief from the current sad situation we find ourselves in.
Given the tens of thousands of folks who showed up for their
"Rally to Restore Sanity," on the Mall this past weekend,
many others share this view. Unfortunately, despite the
therapeutic effects of a good laugh in the face of lunacy, we
are not going to joke and jive our way to a better social and
political situation. There are also two seriously troubling
things about the Stewart and Colbert rally.
First of all, why was the Stewart and Colbert rally so white?
I looked through hundreds of photos online, with funny, witty
homemade signs, but I counted only a handful of Black or
Brown faces, and by a 'handful,' I mean about five. That is
obscene. Does that mean the fan base is as white as Glenn
Beck's, albeit white people with better commonsense and
better politics? But lily white nonetheless. Or does it mean
that "moderation" is just not the galvanizing slogan that
most struggling Black people want to hear these days.
Unemployment, foreclosures and the so-called war on drugs,
and its corollary mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders,
have hit Black and Latino communities hard and heavy. Growing
anti-immigrant policies from Arizona to Georgia (where
colleges just barred undocumented students) have created a
sense of urgency among the Latino population, citizens and
Another explanation is that movement-building requires
deliberate, conscious and methodical outreach to communities
and organizations often excluded or marginalized in the
dominant body politic, and who might be understandably
skeptical of a mass gathering convened by two lone white men,
however liberal or progressive they may be. In a
predominately Black city like Washington, with such enormous
poverty and homelessness all around, how can a progressive
mobilization be so devoid of a Black presence?
And secondly there is the content of the rallying cry that
our two humorous heroes chose as their banners: embrace
sanity, combat fear, and celebrate moderation and civility.
Uhmm, to embrace the tepid and temperate tone of the day, "I
guess I kinda sorta agree with that, mostly." But this is not
a "kinda sorta" moment. I am convinced that standing in the
middle of the road is not going to get us anything, except
maybe run over by a big Mac truck with a Confederate flag on
One of the great lines of the old labor movement, and of a
popular movement song, was "which side are you on?" This was
echoed in the Civil Rights protests of the 1950s and 60s.
During those historic decades of struggle against racial
tyranny and White Supremacy in the South, young activists
would approach would-be supporters and ask -- "are you with
us?" Middle class people living comfortable lives were forced
to "choose sides" and "take a stand," because lines had been
drawn, breaking the routines of business as usual.
Ultimately, this challenge created new bonds of unity,
understanding and solidarity that transcended generations-old
lines of division between northerners and southerners, Blacks
and Whites, middle class and working class people. All this
to say, polarizing a debate is not always a bad thing. It can
help to clarify and illuminate an issue. It can force people
to think carefully and soberly about their own moral compass,
and ultimately side with the position which is the most just
In our visceral response to craziness and meanness of the far
right we have vilified, or perhaps just devalued the great
integrity of embracing strongly-held convictions. It is not
wrong to have strong views or ideals. The substance and basis
for our ideas and ideals is what we should be judged for.
Compassion, equity, inclusion, self-determination, and
freedom are not dirty words. And the ideals of feminism,
anti- racism, anti-imperialism, and socialism have
represented some of the most humane and noble human impulses
of the modern era. We don't have to hide or apologize for
being a part of these traditions, even though like all
traditions, they were not perfect; nor do we have to reduce
our convictions to the "politics of niceness."
The One Nation march organized largely by union groups and an
alliance of progressive activists on October 2 got a lot less
press and fanfare but brought out a much more diverse crowd,
and a crowd whose members had no confusion about which side
they were on. They were on the side of the oppressed and
downtrodden, the left out and left back, the locked up and
locked out. It was a rally about building a movement for
social change and human progress.
So, while at the end of a long week of meetings and picket
lines, debates and defeats, I settle in to watch Colbert and
Stewart make fun of my enemies. It is a way to restore my
sanity. It is not the route to building a movement.
[Barbara Ransby is the author of 'Ella Baker and the Black
Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision']
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