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Mar 25 2012

Reason Rally Report

The Reason Rally was great, though not perfect. First the good: Greta Christina, PZ Myers, Hemant Mehta, and Jessica Ahlquist were all great. Tim Minchin, Jamie Kilstein and Eddie Izzard were freaking brilliant. As was Paul Provenza, who was the emcee.

Hemant was one of the first speakers and he gave a rousing talk encouraging atheists to run for public office. He then introduced Jessica Ahlquist and presented her with a check for more than $62,000 for her scholarship, about $9,000 of which came from the sale of our Evil Little Thing shirts. That actually made me choke up, as did Jessica’s speech that followed. What a remarkable young woman. I can only wish that I had that kind of poise and grace at 16 years old.

Greta gave her standard barnburner of a talk, drawing on the material in her new book expressing the many things that atheists are justifiably angry about. And PZ, in a white cowboy hat that seemed as out of place as a milk bucket under a mule, gave a similar speech about his favorite sin — wrath. But everyone near us thought he said “rap,” which caused me to utter a prayer: “Please let PZ do a rap, please let PZ do a rap.” Alas, he didn’t. But that would have been so memorable if he had.

The stand up comics were all amazing. Eddie Izzard was actually the weakest of the three of them, believe it or not. Minchin did several of his best songs, including Storm and Fuck the Pope. And Kilstein did another of his patented righteous rants that was just incredible. I can’t wait to see the video of that one. That was a highlight of the entertainment segments for me.

Now, the bad: Way too many speakers. Way, way too many speakers. Most of them had a few minutes to speak at the most. And several of them did the standard protest rally speech, the kind I absolutely hate. I hate chanting. Hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. I hate call and response even more than I hate chanting. And when Elizabeth Cornwall had everyone shouting things at Congress, I couldn’t have cringed any harder if Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter made a sex tape. That kind of thing just makes my skin crawl.

And I kind of felt bad for Dan Barker, though I think his wound was largely self-inflicted. Dan is a great speaker and a great guy, but he likes to do some really cheesy anti-religion songs. Unfortunately, he did a few of them shortly after Tim Minchin performed and the contrast was as stark as it could possibly be. The effect was like an open micer following George Carlin on stage. Why he attempted to pull it off is beyond me.

But that hardly was enough to distract from the awesomeness of the event, nor was the wind and the rain. It never poured really hard or hit thunderstorm level, just on and off rain showers. And it started getting really cold toward the end. I almost wore shorts, too; glad I didn’t.

And yes, there were protesters there, including the Fred Phelps ghouls. Nate Phelps gave a terrific speech in which he condemned the barbaric views of his family. The sense of sadness that he expressed seemed entirely authentic to me:

“My heart goes out to the millions who see and hear the cruel message of my family. A message that is met with tacit approval by too many in this society. A message that seeps into their hearts. A message leaving them to wonder why a creator made them gay just so he could punish them. It’s a terrible, terrible waste.”

I didn’t even bother to go over near the protesters because, for me, that isn’t what this day was about.

Oh, and Greg Graffin was a very bad choice to sing the national anthem. They should have asked JT to do it. If there’s an atheist who can sing better than him, I’d like to hear them.

I heard many people say that there was an official estimate of 20,000 people there, but I don’t buy that. There weren’t that many. The Huffington Post says it was 8-10,000 and that seems a far more — yes — reasonable number to me. I’ve covered a lot of rallies over the years and there’s no way there were 20,000 people there.

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  1. 1
    Ophelia Benson

    Jessica – I know, right? She got people standing up to applaud her not once but twice at CFI’s Moving Secularism Forward. Nobody else got that even once.

    I bet every last damn one of us was remembering what goons we were at 16.

  2. 2
    Brett McCoy

    Sad I had to misas it, and I live in the DC area. I hope this becomes an annual event.

  3. 3
    Didaktylos

    if Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter made a sex tape

    Please, Ed – I’ve only just eaten, give me a chance to get some of it digested before you come out with the verbal emetics ;-).

  4. 4
    NoVaRunner

    Sadly, my family and I arrived too late to see Jessica. Hopefully I can find her talk on YouTube.

    I didn’t mind the number of speakers, although you’re right, many didn’t have very long to speak. And I’m with you 100% on the chanting. Bleh.

    Also agreed on the size of the crowd–I think it could have been closer to 20,000 if the weather had been better. Perhaps the total number of attendees was close to that, but not all at once–people probably came later and left sooner than they would have on a sunny day.

    Kilstein’s bit before Bad Religion came out was epic, although a bit, er, mature for our seven-year-old. It’s hard to keep a kid’s ears covered when you’re busting a gut laughing.

    All-in-all, though, a great day, lots of fun, and I hope it happens again soon.

  5. 5
    Modusoperandi

    Do you know who else liked to rally? That’s right. Hitler. I rest my case.

  6. 6
    Comradde PhysioProffe

    Sounds pretty cool! And yeah, at 16 years old, I was a fucken dumpster fire.

  7. 7
    Rieux

    Ditto on Nate Phelps. He was terrific, even with below-average stage presence.

  8. 8
    Who Knows?

    Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter made a sex tape.

    You fucker. I didn’t need that image in my mind.

  9. 9
    grahammartinroyle

    I thought at first that I would have liked to have been there but, having seen a couple of videos of the event, I’ve changed my mind. I couldn’t see any stalls offering deep fried babies!

    Seriously, I would have loved to have been there, rain and all.

  10. 10
    Gretchen

    Thanks for the run down, Ed. I was disappointed not to be able to make it, because some people I expected to be powerful and/or entertaining, and in some cases I was curious about what they’d say. Like Eddie Izzard– he talks about religion all of the time in a way that makes it clear that he’s a non-believer, but I’ve never heard him speak on atheism or secularism per se. Was the whole thing recorded? I mean, by a professional?

  11. 11
    Ed Brayton

    Gretchen-

    It would have been great to be able to meet you in person after all these years! There were two giant video screens showing everything, so I’m assuming that it was all recorded (no sense in filming it all if you aren’t gonna record it too).

  12. 12
    slc1

    Oh, and Greg Graffin was a very bad choice to sing the national anthem. They should have asked JT to do it. If there’s an atheist who can sing better than him, I’d like to hear them.

    According to ET’s description on his blog, he was, at one time, an opera singer so it is not surprising.

  13. 13
    slc1

    Re #12

    I meant JT, not ET. ET was a Spielberg movie.

  14. 14
    Wes

    And several of them did the standard protest rally speech, the kind I absolutely hate. I hate chanting. Hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. I hate call and response even more than I hate chanting. And when Elizabeth Cornwall had everyone shouting things at Congress, I couldn’t have cringed any harder if Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter made a sex tape. That kind of thing just makes my skin crawl.

    I wasn’t there (why can’t you guys have these during summer, when those of us in academia have more free time?), but if I had I would have had the same reaction you did. The only purpose that chanted catchphrases could conceivably have is to whip up a mob mentality. Crap like that has no place at a “reason” rally.

    I hope videos of Kilstein, Izzard and Mincin go up on the web soon. I love all three of those guys. Too bad you couldn’t also get Patton Oswalt, Dara Ó Briain and Sarah Silverman. That would give me a comedy-gasm.

  15. 15
    mikecallahan

    Thank you for the report. I would have loved to be there. It’s nice to get a report from an insider. Most articles online are written by christians who impart a tone a little unfair and balanced towards the theistic view.

  16. 16
    heironymous

    Crowd estimates – not everyone was there the entire time. People came and left. It may be that the total at any one given time was ~10K but many people stopped by and left…

    I was there and I fully acknowledge that I have no capacity for measuring this kind of thing. The Mall holds a LOT of people.

  17. 17
    TCC

    There are DVDs of the event currently for sale ($39). (I’m hoping the local freethinkers group will buy one that I can view.)

  18. 18
    Gretchen

    $39? Wow. From that page:

    Pre-order the DVD set now, at pre-production prices! Speeches, Interviews, and exclusive behind-the0-scenes footage will make this DVD set a must-have for anyone who attends, and especially those who don’t!

    Well, see, being short on cash was why I didn’t attend…

  19. 19
    Eamon Knight

    When I was 16 I was a goddamn fundamentalist (and not from childhood indoctrination, either), so Ahlquist is six kinds of awesome in my book.

    It really hit me how stupendous this event was when I got on a Metro train that was as crowded with Rally-bound folks as the train I got on the previous evening was with hockey fans. I managed to stumble across the Pharyngulite camp-out early on and spent the spent the rest of the day with them until we bailed about 5:00 for dinner uptown in Bethesda (any of you lot reading this: fantastic to meet y’all, tnx for making this Canuck welcome).

    Ed: don’t be such a wet blanket about chants and stuff. Yes, lets be rational, but once we’ve reached a conclusion (like: 12-odd years of faith-based lunacy is fucking enough and then some), then goddamnit lets be passionate about it! Lets shout and have a good time!

    These maunderings brought to you by two glasses of over-priced but decent Merlot at the convention hotel.

  20. 20
    dingojack

    Heh – even at the arse end of earth this was reported:

    With atheists on main street
    It was, one speaker said, their coming-out moment, The Washington Post reports. Atheists, non-theists, secularists and others who say they believe in reason, not God, gathered on Saturday for the first Reason Rally, where they pledged to stand up for their beliefs in a society that they say sometimes views them with scepticism and distrust. “God is a myth”, said Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists. “Closet atheists, you are not alone.” Despite intermittent rain, several thousand people gathered on the lawn across from the National Museum of American History to hear a roster of speakers, including comedians, activists and the first openly atheistic member of Congress, the Californian Democrat Pete Stark. “We’re here,” the crowd yelled in a chant led by Fred Dewords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason. “We’re godless, get used to it.” Organisers said the aim of the rally was twofold: to unite individuals with similar beliefs and to show the public that the number of people who don’t believe in God is large and growing. “We have the numbers to be taken seriously” said Paul Fidalgo, spokesman for the Centre for Inquiry, a group that promotes scientific method and reasoning and one of the organisations sponsoring the rally. “We’re not just a tiny fringe group.”
    SMH 26-03-2012

    Dingo

  21. 21
    iknklast

    Sorry, Ed, have to disagree with you on the national anthem. I haven’t heard JT sing it, so maybe he would be better, but this was the first time in a looooonnnnnnnggggg time that I’ve heard the national anthem sung without cringing. Nice and straight, like it’s written, no strange stylizing that has odd, abnormal tunes and high notes that hurt the ears. I cringed when the national anthem started, but I applauded when it was finished.

  22. 22
    johnwolforth

    “Too many speakers”. Yep, I get a little frustrated going around the web and seeing frames from videos of people standing at podiums. I would like to see more where there are circles of people, generating ideas, encouraging new leaders. I realize there are people who have really important things to say and I should listen. I also realize the old hierarchical structure is one of the things that religion has supported and that we need to change.

  1. 23
    In Which Other People Say Things Better « pervasivegoodness

    [...] Best summary in total? From Ed Brayton, right here. [...]

  2. 24
    Reason Rally Wrap | Legends of the Heathen Table

    [...] far as the negatives of the Rally, I feel that Ed Brayton really hit the nail on the head in his wrap-up: Now, the bad: Way too many speakers. Way, way too many speakers. Most of them had a few minutes to [...]

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