No joking: Fear and sanity on the Mall

Of all the rallies held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in recent years, none truly sparked my interest — until Thursday night.

When Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Show announced he will stage "the Rally to Restore Sanity" on the Mall Oct. 30, I immediately began checking my calendar.

Naturally, Stewart delivered the news with much comical fanfare. He displayed the kind of signs he expected to see at the rally.

One read: I Disagree With You But I'm Pretty Sure You're Not Hitler.

The other: I Am Not Afraid Of Muslims, Tea Partiers, Socialists, Immigrants, Gun Owners, Gays — But I Am Scared of Spiders.

Stephen Colbert, the Stewart foil whose show, The Colbert Report, follows The Daily Show, countered with his own plans for Oct. 30. Colbert says he will lead "the March to Keep Fear Alive" on the same day.

"Shame on you, Jon Stewart," Colbert chided. "America cannot afford a rally to restore sanity in the middle of a recession. Did you even consider how many panic-related jobs that could cost us in the fear industrial complex?"

Underneath the humor are some pointed, serious observations that should grab everyone's attention.

Colbert is right to lampoon the fear mongering that has become too commonplace. Stewart rightfully takes a swipe at the anger-filled adages driving not just the far right, but the extreme sides of both parties.

In a more erudite but no less thoughtful lecture in Tampa this week, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch implored the audience to "rescue our public discourse from the lowest state we're in today."

The University of South Florida Phi Beta Kappa faculty and the city of Tampa brought Branch to town as part of a lecture series aimed at raising the level of intellectual discourse in the community. The need has never been greater.

Recently, I had a discussion about race and culture and history with some well-meaning, thoughtful residents in Pinellas County. One asked, "Why do blacks insist on calling themselves African-Americans? Why can't they just be Americans?"

I explained that I didn't think the designation reflected an anti-American sentiment. In fact, I argued, it indicated the pride blacks have in their heritage and their country.

I also noted the historical struggle blacks have had in determining how they refer to themselves — Negro, colored, black, Afro-American, African-American — and how that should indicate the latest nomenclature is just a part of that ongoing struggle.

Did I convince him not to view the term "African-American" with disdain? I don't know, but we were able to conclude the conversation without him calling me an angry black militant and me calling him a racist.

It can be done.

Branch, best known for his study of the civil rights movement, said we have to ask tough questions across the issues that divide us, even if we're afraid of the answers.

When we foster greater understanding, we can create a necessary union. We're not going to truly overcome our economic woes and societal ills until we come together.

In short, we have to restore sanity.

That's all I'm saying.

No joking: Fear and sanity on the Mall 09/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 1:05am]

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