NOVEMBER 3, 2004 (11-25-04)
"As democracy is perfected, the office of President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."
- H.L. Mencken, 1925“This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it -- that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”
- Hunter S. Thompson, November 1972
Alone in my apartment, John Kerry looks at me from a tiny television set, delivering the words I hoped never to hear: I'm sorry, friend, but it's over.
There are days that will remain fixed in my memory for the rest of my life: My high school graduation, my wedding, September 11, 2001, and a number of others best kept private. November 3, 2004 has likely just been added to the list.
It's hard now to conceive of the small place politics occupied in my mind when the Presidency of George W. Bush began. It's not that I didn't care; I had an inkling that the machinations brought to bear against Bill Clinton in his second term were overblown, and paid attention as best I could. I cared about our foreign policy, but in a broad, NPR sort of way, lamenting the damage being done around the world but woefully short of any solutions or even real culprits, murky as history was to me at that time.
By 2000, I had come to the conclusion that the greatest threat to our nation was in fact the system itself. No progress could be made towards the achievement of goals outside the status quo until there were more alternative voices in government, thus my vote for Ralph Nader. For the record, I still believe that. But in the aftermath of 9/11, that threat was swiftly overtaken by a far greater one: The re-election of George W. Bush.
Beginning with the anti-war march on Washington in October 2002, my political involvement took a sharp step towards the center of my everyday life. I began to donate to campaigns, march, scan blogs, read books, and to generally get myself up to speed on whether or not this administration was the historic threat that I perceived it to be. And as I've stated elsewhere, it is.
Along the road to November 3, I only barely realized the vast expanses of mental real estate that my studies were staking out. Thoughts on history, ethics, science, psychology, arts, all contained at least trace elements of my political deliberations. It wasn't until John Kerry looked out at me with those sad, sad eyes at 2:00 on that Tuesday afternoon that I realized a part of me was dying.
Hope is a contagious thing. To hope in solitude is to hope either desperately or sporadically, when one has time. But in the community of true believers I have frequented over the past two years, hope begets hope. One hope feeds on another until yet another hope is created, and therefore anything that touches the community becomes hopeful. It's a rare example of community at its best. I say that because it was community that ultimately led to the re-election of George W. Bush.
I have spoken elsewhere about the "Us & Them" mentality. It's the inherent danger of tight community, and much to my chagrin, it has now created the stark 49%-to-51% divide shown in the November 3 elections. There is no shortage of community in the United States, and that, in fact, is the problem.
Along the way to Election Day 2004, I did something that not a lot of people were doing: I attempted to speak to both sides. I posted on bulletin boards and blogs that were not entirely left-leaning, trying to lay out reasonable arguments for my stance against George W. Bush. These were met with the predictable flamings, but also with deafening indifference from those on the right. Minds were made up, any statement made against the President was tainted with the stink of “The Liberal Agenda”, seemingly the most vile insult imaginable.
What surprised me, though it shouldn’t have, was the response I got in attempting to reason to the left. The Red and Blue State Theory, it would appear, has supplanted racism in our culture as the easy way out for those wishing to cast broad generalizations about what’s wrong with the country. Any, and I mean ANY attempt on my part to suggest that Texans were not all a bunch of drooling idiots was met with name-calling, profanity-laced derision, and utter contempt. If I had replaced the word “Texan” with the word “black” in every response I’d gotten, you’d think it was Alabama circa 1964.
On every side in our national debate, Us is Us and Them is Them and never the twain shall meet. Right-wingers speak frequently of “lost values”, and one they may have left out is the very real value of true debate.
It is possible for me to go on at great length about what role this particular iteration of the Us & Them phenomenon has played in bringing us to the place in history we now find ourselves in. But there are so many far more qualified voices that have already weighed in on the issue, and to be honest, such talk isn’t really going to change anything. Because the war in this country is not between the right and the left, being that those terms have lost most of their original meanings over the last 20 years. The war in America is between the nationalists and the rationalists.
Merriam-Webster defines nationalism as “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” Yep, that pretty much covers it.
The modern Republican party is built on nationalism. In the words of Al Franken, modern Republicans love their country the way a 4-year-old loves his mommy. “To a 4-year-old, everything Mommy does is wonderful and anyone who criticizes Mommy is bad.” This would be fine, except that nationalists are also reluctant to separate the government from the country. If our government does something that is bad, unethical, or immoral, you cannot criticize it because that means criticizing America. What this leads to is intentionally ignoring any fact that reflects badly on the government.
Merriam-Webster states that rationalism is “a view that reason and experience rather than the nonrational are the fundamental criteria in the solution of problems.” What this means is that even as much as we love our country and would like to believe that our government was doing the right thing, if we are confronted with the fact that it is not, we must criticize those in power and set them on the right path. Because we love our country, and we want it to be the best country it can be.
But look at what I just did there. Even in explaining the difference between two ideologies, I have drawn up a map of the U.S. that appears to be black & white, or rather, red & blue. The fact is that for most Americans I know, those distinctions are not either/or. But the choice between the two has been made unavoidable.
We can take some instruction from the Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis, who said, “The nationalist is untroubled, he knows or thinks he knows what his values are, his, that's to say national, political; he is not interested in others, they are of no concern of his, hell--it's other people (other nations, another tribe). They don't even need investigating. The nationalist sees other people in his own image--as nationalists."
Think about that for a moment. Why is it that both the “left” and the “right” are so assured about the immobility of the other’s position? Because their own position is just as immovable. They cannot bring themselves to wear the other’s shoes even for a moment, so alien is the person on the other side.
The implication of this is that in America, professed rationalists are prone to tendencies of non-rationality. What would create this state of affairs? To find the answer, we need only flip on our television sets, tune our radios, and read our newspapers. We are told that there are two sides, here are the representatives for each, now pick which one you are.
Again, this is not new information. The transformation of our media into a bipolar echo chamber has been well-documented by the occasional astute journalist and debated to the nth degree throughout the blogosphere. Daily Show host Jon Stewart went so far as to walk into the lions’ den on CNN’s Crossfire, and beg of the hosts to “please…stop. You’re hurting America.”
It was exactly this state of affairs that forced my Nader vote four years ago: the lack of real choice, of a side that did not exist as far as the established media outlets were concerned.
How does all of this bring us to the election of George W. Bush? As I stated just before the election, a frankly rational look at the policies, positions, and actions of this President would not lead one to the conclusion that he is a conservative. He increases the size of the government, behaves in a fiscally irresponsible manner, and believes in sacrifices of personal liberty and privacy for national security. The conservatives of old would likely suffer cardiac arrest to discover that this man is now the bearer of their tattered standard.
But what can be done? The party anoints, the propaganda begins, and now to criticize George W. Bush is to criticize your own side, the alternative to which is being…Good God…a Liberal!
The same happens to the other half. Despite my complete disgust for the incumbent, I felt well within my rights to take a critical look at the man who would unseat him for the other half of America, and found him to be flawed well beyond my liking. In my travels through the world of the left, I found myself to be one of the only people making such an admission, though there were more on the left who were unafraid to criticize their man than on the right.
Indeed, I had a rather heated online exchange with a New Jersey man who suggested to me that the fact that I didn’t understand why a citizen should sit down and shut up about their leaders was exactly why I shouldn’t be allowed to vote. This from a resident of a state which did anything but sit down and shut up in the face of a different King George over 200 years ago.
In years past, I would have repeated my 2000 vote, given my choices, opting to send a message that there should be—must be—a third way. My reasons for voting a Kerry/Edwards ticket are well-documented and I still believe in them, but I don’t feel good about it.
The evidence that this country is sinking into a dark age in its history is mounting by the day. Moderate voices in all branches of government are being forced out in favor of nationalist, or “neocon” rubber-stampers, eager to act without repercussions from the citizens of the United States for the next four years.
It’s not the first time such things have happened. The abuses of Ulysses Grant, Joseph McCarthy, and Richard Nixon, among many others, have passed into the realm of head-shaking history, noteworthy in comparison to other histories, but ultimately dead to most modern eyes.
I am concerned, however, that the re-election of this President is different. Unlike many Democrats, I have reasons for this that have less to do with him being a Republican, and more to do with facts.
One fact is that this President’s party enjoys a majority in both houses of Congress. Historically and Constitutionally, Congress is the prime check on excesses of Executive power. But when those who control the Congress abdicate their responsibility to keep watch on the Presidency, as they did in the run-up to the war in Iraq, there is no check left but the Supreme Court. And of course, the President is the man who determines the makeup of that court. There is little doubt that the next 4 years will bring the retirement of at least one, but possibly three Supreme Court justices.
But all of this is a policy paper, a small selection of issues to be played and replayed over the next four years. That’s not really what I want to talk about.
I said earlier that in watching John Kerry’s concession speech, I felt as if a part of me was dying. It is more accurate to say that I realized that I could never go back. I found I couldn’t remember what normal life looked like. Garrison Keillor wrote recently in Time magazine that after the election, we would all go back to mowing our lawns, drinking our coffee, & forgetting that politics existed for at least another two years. Not to disrespect the estimable Mr. Keillor, but I don’t think that’s possible anymore.
The NPR world of fascinating problems that, while serious, would eventually be resolved with minimal impact on your lawnmowing is simply not there anymore. We have entered the world of secret arrests, FBI case files on dissident journalists and bloggers, and airport interrogation rooms for passengers who wrote the wrong word on their laptops in front of the wrong person.
I want to go back. Back to when politicians were more silly than scary. Back to when you could laugh at those crazy evangelicals who really thought they could change this country into a theocracy. But in the words of our new and possibly permanent majority party, that is a very September 10th mindset.
As cartoonist Art Spiegelman said, we all knew on that horrible day in 2001 that the world as we knew it was ending. And in the months after the attacks, we kept our eyes open, knowing that we couldn’t go back, no matter how much we wanted to.
But what that meant to each of us was different. Some believed it meant that the time was ripe for joining forces, when the massive outpouring of sympathy worldwide could be parlayed into greater protection for our country, through cooperative efforts to catch terrorists inside our borders & the borders of our allies, while keeping more terrorists from getting in.
Then there were those who believed it meant that we were no longer bound by respect for those who disagreed with us on anything whatsoever. Other people, different people, could either be with us or against us. Cooperation was dead.
But now the discussion is over. Fear has emerged victorious, and now that the die is cast, history will unfold as it must. Bit by bit, 51% of the citizens in this country have allowed fear to be the new rationality. Which is exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted in the first place.
However, we 49% who are opposed to the nationalists have now also succumbed to fear, only we don’t fear the rest of the world, but our own government. Unfortunately, we have good reason.
The criticism, sometimes rightfully earned, of the Democratic party is that it equivocates too much. We saw an example of that on November 3, when John Kerry raised the notion that both sides want the same thing, and that we should all work together in peace and love and harmony for that.
Shut the fuck up, John.
It is as obvious as anything can be that many of those who gave George W. Bush his final push back into the White House do not want the same things as I do. I know many of them personally. And I blame them personally for everything that will go wrong for the next four years of this country’s existence.
It may sound as if I’m referencing some vast conspiracy. But nationalist mindsets are very rarely built actively. It is mental laziness that creates a true nationalist. The problem is, and has been for some time, that you’re not supposed to care. You’re supposed to watch the game, mow the lawn, meet at the water cooler, say “whaddya gonna do?”, get yours and go home. Any questions, just nuke ‘em all. The present administration knows that. That’s why they keep everything as void of details as possible. They know you’re not listening until someone says something that pisses you off.
My hope is that you will get pissed off. And that it won’t be about gay sex or prayer in school, but it will be about thousands of dead young Americans in Iraq, Iran, Syria, or wherever else we decide they need to die so that you can believe in vain that something’s being done to protect you. And that they’ve done it because they know you’re afraid that criticizing your government’s actions is criticizing the sacrifice made by those soldiers. Until that pisses you off, I have nothing to say to you.
It will happen, though. Because they’re running out of volunteers. They’re calling up 53-year-old men, borrowing from every branch of the military, and denying retirement to those they’ve got already. But they will run out, and when they do, they will come for you and your children. And it will be your fault. You can say that nobody told you, but 49% of the population will remind you that they tried. You weren’t listening. You didn’t care. And now it’s too late.
But there is still hope for the future. Dissent, like art, grows in the harshest conditions. The next four years may see the darkest days of American democracy, but the last three years has taught me that hope is contagious, and that once it takes root, there is no going back. No, we can’t go back to the days we remember. But as Kris Kristofferson wrote, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.
Above all, we must remember that this nation was born out of darkness. Those who saw its creation knew that it would face dark days again. Chief among these was Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. Two years before Jefferson was elected as the third President of the United States, Congress passed the Alien & Sedition Acts, giving the President vast powers to imprison foreigners and journalists who criticized the American government.
Of the Acts, Jefferson had this to say:
"A little patience and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt...If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake."
In these times, there is no shortage of talking. What matters is to whom you choose to listen. For myself, I choose to listen to those who know something about freedom. The rest of you…well, I told you so.