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Michigan represented at the Rally for Sanity in D.C.

A rally-goer holds an angry sign

A rally-goer holds an angry sign /Chris Baker

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Many rally participants stayed in the city after the events for some sight-seeing

Many rally participants stayed in the city after the events for some sight-seeing /Chris Baker

The "fake" rally signs made for one of the highlights of the day, with most signs tending toward gentle, resigned humor

The "fake" rally signs made for one of the highlights of the day, with most signs tending toward gentle, resigned humor /Chris Baker

The drive to Washington, D.C. to attend the Rally for Sanity and/or Fear this past weekend was in itself an insight into the position Michigan finds itself in comparison to other states. As I crossed the border into Ohio, the quality of the road surface immediately improved, and each successive state revealed another well-maintained stretch of highway. The smoothly traveled miles through Ohio were marred only by an amazing array of deer carcasses left untended – an item of maintenance Michigan appears to be more diligent about. Our roads may have giant craters you can lose your car in, but they aren’t the charnel house I found myself travelling in Northeast Ohio. If you had asked me before the trip if I felt that such a trade-off were worthwhile, I’d have laughed you off. Consider me a new believer – I found Ohio’s roads as grisly as they were interminable to travel through. I’ll take a bumpy ride over constant grim lessons in physics and the impermanence of life any day!

Arriving in the D.C. area, I noted a remarkable quantity of Michigan license plates both on the freeway and in the parking lot of my hotel. I spoke with one of the drivers, Jay from Kalamazoo. He told me, “It was a long drive, but I felt like I had to come. The political conversation in this country has become an insult to people who need real governance rather than reality-show drama.”

That seemed to be the common theme among the other Michiganders I spoke with at the hotel – long drive, goofy politicians, we’re here to make a statement (this coming from a diverse group of people who traveled from as far north as St. Ignace). My fellow travelers were largely young, but there was a range of generations represented, from the youngest I spoke with, 9, to the oldest, 66.

At the rally, many of Michigan’s delegation were identifiable (as were many other states) by their local college and professional sports team sweatshirts. It seemed that people were as eager to be there as they were to advertise where they came from. For the first time I’ve witnessed, Michiganders wore their Detroit Lions shirts with pride rather than muted shame. People on the subway and at the rally reacted with a wry acknowledgement of Michigan’s wayward footballers that drew laughs from the very friendly and talkative throngs of people.

That steady respect seemed to extend beyond an appreciation for our team that never wins – Michigan has got a sort of cred as having graduated from the school of hard knocks with a good GPA and, more importantly, a smile. Susan, 52, of South Carolina, summed it up best, “Michigan, as a state, has lost more than any other, but you’ve all picked yourself back up and kept trying, and that says a lot.” 

I don’t know about Michigan being the “biggest loser” in this economic downswing, but we are certainly perceived to be. Common themes among people I spoke with included the collapse of General Motors, optimistic impressions of General Motor’s incipient turnaround, fear of the Detroit mythology (one rally attendee warily asked, “You aren’t from Detroit, are you?” as he checked his wallet pocket – I pretended he was joking), and amazing misconceptions about the amount of snow we get. One hapless young man asked me if we have sunlight still, mistaking our winter/summer cycle with that of Alaska.

Grand Rapids seems to have at least been moderately effective at a national level in its recent branding push to slate itself as a city for the arts. Most people I spoke with perceive Grand Rapids in a positive light, with many people having heard of our numerous public works of art but not a single person having heard of Artprize and only a slight few confusing our city for the “place where they make cereal." Durston, from Kansas City, asked about the movie industry and mentioned Ben Stiller, “Have there been a lot of other movies shot in Grand Rapids?”

Leaving the rally for the long drive home, I’m glad I was able to come and lend my number to the hundreds of thousands that traveled to D.C. to make a statement. I am proud that Michigan made such a strong showing, and it was comforting to discover that our countrymen both see our struggle and respect us for the aplomb with which we confront it. No one I spoke with could name our governor, we don’t have any scandals or disasters on the national radar, but they know us for quiet dignity and perseverance through adversity. Sounds like Michigan to me.

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