Thursday, November 04, 2004

A Couple of White Guys Sitting Around Blogging

Yesterday I received an email about the election from a friend I’ll call Basically Brilliant Bob. He asked for my comments. That’s kind of like Sonny Rollins asking you to sit in with him—you can’t say no and you damn well better be on your game. Here’s hoping I was….

Bob: Many people saw this election as a battle between the pre-modern (Bush) realm of religion, belief, tradition, faith, and certainty against the modern (Kerry) world of reason, science, and technology.

George: Do note that it’s the Moderns who see it this way. Also, the Moderns are the ones most likely to rationalize themselves out of fighting, for not only do they tend to be the peaceniks, but they also trust reason will be enough. So they don't fight, since they figure they could talk themselves out of the problem, or at least talk the pre-moderns to their position.

Bob: From this perspective, our country is deeply divided, yet even with this great polarization, no one feels like there is going to by a civil war or even civil unrest. How can this be? My theory is that even though there are people on each side that are passionate, the vast majority of Americans are really apathetic and don't care about a system on which they have little personal effect. In fact, less than 50% of the possible electorate even bothered to vote (this number includes all people over the age of 18). On one level, this high level of apathy and indifference is a good thing: since no one really cares, no one thinks it is worthwhile fighting other people over the election. On the other hand, the strong level of apathy and indifference, especially from the vaunted youth vote, points to the failure of our nation to instill a sense of civic duty in all Americans.

George: The apathy issue will always be with us since we have consumerism as our shared narcosis. There's some great old Ellen Willis quote from 1975 or so that I can't quite remember that goes something like this, "The Ramones were stuck with the American dilemma - pissed off enough to know something was wrong, but comfortable enough not to know what to do about it." Even our punks have to work up a stage rage.

Bob: Moreover, since so many young Americans get their news from late night television and The Daily Show, they have become accustomed to mocking all political figures, and even if The Daily Show is left-leaning, I believe that the ultimate effect is to leave people confused and cynical. I know, I enjoy the show too, but I see its corrosive effect on my students and fellow watchers.

George: There is the whole "satire freezes us in cool" argument that people like Mark Crispin Miller have been pushing since the 1980s and the rise of Letterman, and it has its allure (both the cool approach--all of politics is just to be laughed at--and that such humor leaves us unable to do anything, literally helpless with laughter). But I also think that's blaming the doodle for the mess that takes up most of the page. It's the mainstream media that is most to blame, not for any political leaning but for its self-serving corporate agenda and desire to make itself the story (and thereby define each story--its love of memes like Gore the exaggerator or Bush the likeable dummy).

Bob: The opposite argument to the polarization argument is the one that says that since Kerry did not come out against the Iraq war, he just represented Bush-lite: less filling, tastes good.

George: True enough: what might the election have been like if there was an anti-war candidate: Kucinich's values in a real candidate's body. (Sorry, Dennis.)

Bob: I actually favor this take, and I also feel that the demonization of Nader by both sides proved that without some serious change in campaign finance, we will only be able to pick between the lesser of two corporate-sponsored evils.

George: Even truer: not once during the campaign did anyone really bring up how frightfully money-driven our political system is. I soured on Nader (who I voted for in 1996 and 2000), largely thanks to Eric Alterman's incessant yet convincing hammering upon him. Note that Nader got so much of his money from Republicans--that's how bad the system has become. Our one great voice for finance reform actually got much of the monetary muscle for his campaign from the supporters of the ideals he most disagreed with. That is, the Republicans could afford to pay for alternate candidates to Kerry. That's truly twisted and disgusting. And I won't even get to how McCain, the author of the meager campaign finance reform we did get, also left his dignity at the door to help get Bush re-elected.

Bob: Furthermore, without a direct attack on the use of religion for political purposes, we are all in for a long disappointment.

George: As James Wolcott pointed out on C-Span this weekend, that's the untold story--how much similarity there is between Bush and Kerry. How both had to out-religion the other (a game Bush wins without trying, of course, cause even the Catholics wanted to ex-communicate the pro-choice Kerry). As Wolcott said, a presidential candidate couldn't say, "I'm an agnostic." He'd be out of the race faster than Bob Graham was.

Bob: American politics has been dominated for the last thirty years by a simple strategy: the Republicans trick the Democrats into fighting elections on cultural and "moral" issues, at the same time, they fuel corporate welfare and tax cuts for the wealthy. How do they get away with motivating people to vote against their own best interests: Simple, the Democrats offer the people no real choice. The Dems have become weak Republicans: I will never vote for the lesser of two evils again.

George: It seems you end with Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? thesis. That's compelling, but many have picked at it from both the left and right (so I won't go through all those arguments). Still, until we get Instant Runoff Voting as a start and real campaign finance changes to follow, it will always be an issue of the lesser of two evils. My great theory is that no matter how well-meaning someone is, each step up the ladder of power means leaving behind a bit more of one's soul (see Nader and McCain, both honorable men with very different ideals, who seem less and less ideal the longer they stay in the national spotlight). If that's true for those two, it's even more true if you're an ex-cokehead who is currently mainlining Jesus as your juice.

I guess then it's the whole power thing that needs to be re-thought, which is why I wish we could get beyond two parties. But guess who has the power to do that? The two parties. We're shit out of luck.


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