November 2, 2010
Back to the Mall
“Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?” Twenty-five years ago Back to the Future was released. As a kid I wore out the trilogy’s videotapes (surely one of the greatest Hanukkah presents ever) and watched the town square of Hill Valley take shape and change through the years, from the Old West to the 1950s, 1980s, and the “future” year of 2015.
This weekend I found myself in my own déjà vu experience, minus the flux capacitor. Back on the national mall for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, I stood just a few hundred feet from where I stood less than two years before at the Inauguration of President Obama. Not much time had gone by, but the world around the events couldn’t be much more different.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not addicted to joining large crowds or attending rallies on the mall. The first trip, for the inauguration, was the product of a dare made by me and my cousin while breaking the Yom Kippur fast. In a haze of bagels, lox, and a rapid rise in blood sugar, we decided that if Candidate Obama won we would drive across the country to watch him become President Obama. The second journey was, appropriately, much more reasonable and sane: an excuse to see my friends and girlfriend on the East Coast. Oh, and the opportunity to see Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert didn’t hurt.
In hindsight, both trips seem equally improbable, and both events equally profound.
At the inauguration, I felt inspired. It was amazing to feel anything considering the below-freezing weather I’d been standing in since before dawn. Our journey there had taken us on a hasty road trip through the South, through Memphis and Alabama and Mississippi, before turning to DC. A last-minute idea, I could have sworn we’d hopped into a DeLorean instead of a rental car.
Watching our 44th President, and first African-American President, be sworn in to office, felt like a conclusion to the story of images we’d seen in the South. A car parked outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, with “DC or Bust” written on its window. The beautiful administration building at Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, where bullets aimed at James Meredith, the first African American student to enroll, missed and left holes in the marble columns. An empty room in a hotel in Crawford left as a shrine to the blues singer Bessie Smith, who died there after being refused admission to the nearby hospital following a car crash. Strangely enough, our room in that hotel had been rented in a previous age to Sam Cooke, whose old song became an anthem of the 2008 election: “It’s been a long, a long time coming, but change is gonna come.”
As I listened to President Obama’s speech that day, history felt real and alive in way I’d never experienced before. The country had chosen hope, and the President’s call to service, “A willingness to find meaning in something greater than [ourselves],” resonated strongly with me. Just a few months later I responded to that call by applying to work at the Progressive Jewish Alliance, following in the footsteps of my great-grandparents who came to this country seeking progress and from whom I trace my values.
But the rancor and anger that arose after the inauguration was a surprise to me, like getting in your bed only to realize you’re in the wrong house in an alternate reality you weren’t expecting at all. As far as I know, no one has messed with the space-time continuum to cause this shift, but it seems that over the past two years many people have, well, rejected sanity. It’s impossible for me to see the unrest of the past two years, the marches, the rallies, the fear, the screaming, without recalling my trip through the South, without recalling the images of what a torn country looks like. It’s not the same, I know, and things are very different, but I also know now what it means to live in a confusing and polarizing time.
If there’s a moral to the story of Back to the Future that I can draw from — and I’m going to ask you to humor this just a little bit longer — it’s that our future hasn’t been written yet. As Doc would say, “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.” And as best I can explain, that’s what the Rally to Restore Sanity was all about: choosing a better future.
People of every creed and color gathered, mainly just to stand and laugh together. Judging from those around me at the rally, every imaginable demographic was represented. On our right was an older mustachioed gentleman in a tweed suit; on our left, two Muslim moms with their baby. There were strange and surreal moments, all very funny and very, very, reasonable (except for Kid Rock, what was THAT about?). The crowd, too, was reasonable, even when passing through the narrow exits at the end.
My first time on the mall I was surprised to feel called to service. My second time I was surprised to feel proud and patriotic.
Some might see Stewart’s rally as an endorsement of apathy, as an invitation for everyone to exchange their beliefs for cooperation. This was not so. “We can have animus,” Stewart reminded the crowd, “and not be enemies.” At the end of the day, the rally was a celebration of our differences and a call for civility during hard times.
In a sincere turn (the whole thing though, was sincere beneath the satire), Stewart said, “Our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done – not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.” I couldn’t agree more. In my work at PJA I am sustained by the values of a Jewish story that came to America and — over and over again, across many social movements — animated the basic principle of treating others well.
At the rally, I felt proud to be working for progress. I felt humble to be engaged, in my tiny role, in carrying forward the idea that all are created equal. In times like these we have to choose and proclaim our density. I mean… our destiny. Let’s make it a good one.
Cory Fischer is the Communications Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.