Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity & US Holocaust Memorial Museum

A thought-provoking juxtaposition of events yesterday: first, my friend Brian and I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Anger, the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally on the mall, and then we went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Mobs at Metro
The faux rally turned out to be a fairly massive event. Estimates put attendance around 215,000 people (way larger, as many people have pointed out, than the Glenn Beck fest a few weeks back). The Metro was so overwhelmed by the time we reached Takoma at noonish that, after two trains came by that could not possibly accomodate two more passengers, we rode the Metro four stops in the other direction to the end of the line so we could actually get on a train.  We were not alone in this – at Glenmont, the train remained packed. We chatted for a while with a nice family from Fairfield, Iowa, who were in town not for the rally, not for the Marine Corps Marathon the next day, not for any of the other massive events, but for an aunt's 90th birthday party. The logistics of their family gathering was significantly more complex due to Metro delays, but they were taking it in amused stride.

When we finally got downtown, the scene was impressive: a sea of people, many costumed and holding signs. A wave of nostalgia for me: from 4th of July events as a child to protests in high school and college, the mall is the geographic center of my political understanding. I once traveled in a caravan of three vans of many women and one man from Colorado to DC for the huge 1992 March for Women's Lives pro-choice rally. While I'm a much more disaffected political participant these days, I still believe that's my failing as a citizen, that the passion for organizing and demonstrating and letting your voice be heard is vital. When we let our passions wither, part of us dies as well, and our society suffers.
Sea of people
This rally, however faux, brought out many of the folks I consider my people: liberals with a sense of humor. Yes, the crowd was overwhelmingly white, and presumably reflected the demographics of the Stewart/Colbert audience. But how could you not like some of the signs like these?:

"A Cup of Calm the F#ck Down"

"Tea Parties are for Little Girls
and Imaginary Friends"
"All We are Saying is
Give Cheese Some Pants"

"My friends, do not be afraid of people. Luke: 12:4" and
"I couldn't think of anything. I just wanted to be on
the Internets" (wish granted!)

"Get off my Lawn, Hippies!"

"Even My Sign Chooses
Not to Yell"
 And people reacted to the sentiment of the rally. It was a super, super polite crowd. There was no finger-pointing or ranting, except the dynamic on stage with Sanity v. Anger, play anger. I spent a lot of time weaving through the crowds, partly because I almost immediately got separated from my friend, and partly because I was looking to get close enough to hear. I'm not sure anyone expected quite so many people, and the jumbo-trons and speakers didn't reach all of us. But milling around through signs and Halloween costumes, without fail, people said “excuse me” and “pardon me.” No one glared or elbowed me for trying to squeeze by. I didn't see any drunken rage fests. Just folks out with signs listening to some comedy and music on a sunny day in fall.

 Some people were so dedicated that they climbed on top of fences and even the port-o-johns so they could see. 

People on the rooves of Port-o-johns. 
Icky, I say, but dedicated.

Of the events themselves, I can only report on bits of the Stewart/Colbert conversation (“all Muslims aren't terrorists, Steve. There are Muslims that you like and admire.” “Name one!” “Kareem Abdul- Jabbar!” - or something along those lines) and other scatterings gleaned in the crowds. I heard part of a Kid Rock song. I sadly missed the battling appearances between Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) and Ozzy Osbourne.  Those of you watching at home probably saw more, but I'm glad I was there in the crowd.  

When the events wrapped up at 3pm, and I finally reconnected with my vanished friend, we proceeded to the Holocaust Museum. The mother of our Iowa friends on the Metro had talked about going, and it turned out, Brian had never been, so rather than struggle on the Metro again, off we went.

It had been at least a decade since I had been there. The Holocaust Museum is, obviously, not a place where you go for a lighthearted day, a point they make as they pack you into an elevator to start the exhibit on the 4th floor and say, “We hope you have a meaningful visit.” There is no “nice day!” for genocide. I warned Brian on the intensity level (not that he was expecting sunshine), but it's difficult to convey how affecting the museum will be.

The beginning of the exhibit talks about how Hitler was, at the start, an disgruntled corporeal in the army, a nobody that no one would have predicted to rise to such frightening power. There seemed to be little chance he would such a vile force in such short order. He got there first by way of political maneuvering, until he finally consolidated enough legal power so he could really dig into terror and violence after he was appointed Chancellor in 1933.

And what, largely, did the Nazi party feed on? Rage and racism and fear. Anyone who follows, say, the immigration debates, or the insanity of folks up in arms about, say, homosexual marriage, will recognize many of the tactics of singling out a group upon which to pour all angers and frustrations. Everything becomes a threat to Good Decent People and someone else's fault. In Germany, the Nazis blamed breadlines on the Jews and communists.

The old guard politicians of Germany at the time did not take Hitler seriously until it was too late -- something to consider in our current political climate. No, no, I'm not trying, Colbert-like, to Keep Fear Alive and suggest anyone is the next Hitler. As the Rally to Restore Sanity website points out, "the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles."  That doesn't mean that I'm inclined to agree much with, for instance, the politics of Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck though, and I find the museum, like the rally, emphasized the importance of speaking up.

I'm not, as noted, particularly politically knowledgeable, however. I find the political process of manipulating people a creepy exercise riddled with aggravation and overlooked and/or flawed logic, and intensely frustrating. I tend to avoid political conversation as unnecessary conflict for which I am, anyway, ill-armed. I was raised in a household split between the Democratic and Republican parties. Issues were not discussed and hashed out so much as put aside. Disagreement was considered inconvenient disharmony.

What is so profoundly affecting about the Holocaust museum is that it makes a very clear connection between how that political avoidance and apathy allows for the evilly-opportunitistic like Hitler to extract a devastating toll on human lives – the absolute horror of the camps, persecution, death, despair. Hells seemingly unimaginable were instead systematized, a conveyor belt of how best to destroy a culture, demoralize and humiliate and terrorize, and kill with all possible efficiency.

I won't talk about the many, many deeply disturbing stories and photographs and facts on display. It's a hard place to walk through, and an important one.  If you haven't been, go. 

I am going to tell you about where I lost it, both the first time I visited the museum, and again, when I got to that exhibit again yesterday.

The shoes.

There is a room full of shoes worn by concentration camp victims. There is something so human, so ordinary and personal about shoes, worn leather and frayed laces.  Everyone knows the phrase, "if you want to know a man, walk a mile in his shoes."  To see so many empty shoes, knowing that their owners took them off and walked on to their deaths, rippled through me in ways I still can't quite articulate.  There are so many shoes in that room, so many individuals gassed out of existence, and those shoes are but a tiny fraction of the people killed.

It may be another artifact or phrase or photograph will bring it home for you. For me, it was the shoes.

The museum was closing by the time we were leaving, and in fact, many of the last video exhibits, including the videos of survivors, were already turned off on the last floor.

We walked back out into the slanted light of a fall day, and saw the remains of the crowds, people with signs and costumes, now heading off for the Saturday night Halloween parties or to prepare to run the Marine Corps Marathon today or just sit at home with friends and family. We are lucky here, right now, despite our bad economy and other crises, that we can come together, share laughter and commentary, music and merriment and play, that we can be reasonable and yet still, in our numbers, be heard.

So here's my summary of takeaways for the day:

Don't rage. Don't hide. Learn what you can and listen carefully. Pay attention and when you smell bullshit, say, very, very, politely, without rage but with clarity and action, that it is bullshit. Well, maybe use a more polite word.  But you know what I mean. 

Also: go do what I can't do this year in Maryland, having registered too late after my move. Go vote.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --

Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.
--Martin Niemöller

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