Monday, November 1, 2010

are we capable of more?

Tomorrow is Election Day in the United States. Those of us who haven't already voted-by-mail (it's good to be an Oregonian) will cast ballots for measures concerning school and library funding, property tax adjustments and whether or not to completely legalize and regulate small amounts of marijuana. We will also vote for whom we want to represent us in the halls of power in our state capitols and in Washington, DC.

I am unimpressed by the Tea Party. They may win tomorrow (at least according to the pundits), but it will be temporary, the way all election outcomes are temporary. A recent editorial in the New York Times suggests that if the Democrats lose big tomorrow in Congressional races, it will serve them well when Barack Obama runs for reelection in 2012. The rationale behind this pap that passes for sophisticated political strategy is that we need a bad guy as a political focal point, something to rally the voters (and donors) around in anger and rage. According to this line of reasoning, if the Democrats become the enemy in 2010, that means Obama stands a better chance of looking like a hero by 2012, after the Republicans have had a couple of years to screw things up again (or more, depending on your outlook).

In short, thanks to a two-and-only-two-party political system, a dumbed-down American educational system, and our historic mythology of absolute, utter independence on both a collective and personal level, Americans are either unwilling -- or, more likely, truly unable -- to have a national discussion about anything that is more nuanced than good guys versus bad guys. Take away the white and black cowboy hats and an alarming number of us cannot participate in anything resembling real political discourse, which would include the many complexities involved in our most pressing national issues, and which would require the utmost patience to solve in the long term. American voters and politicians generally suck at thinking longer-term.

That's why I vote while holding my nose. Not because my vote only has so much reach (and realistically, it's not a lot); but because we are too big, too ungovernable, and too historically independent and short-sighted a nation to ever be capable of deeper, more thoughtful, and more patient political discourse -- and our current political system reflects that.

Here's a thought: if, assuming that a two-party system incapable of coalition-building simply swings back and forth between two parties, each taking its turn at being in charge for ten to thirty years, what's to stop anyone from voting contrarian? That is, go ahead and vote for the guy you don't want, help him get into office now and muck things up sooner, so that he can show his idiocy and get voted out again that much more quickly. It's a cynical tack, of course, but who cares? What does my vote really matter when I'm one of hundreds of thousands, or of millions? The only thing that can be guaranteed in our system is a real lack of continuity over more than a generation or two, before someone else takes control and changes course. If we can't change the system, why not just accelerate it a bit? The idea is that, by pushing the river just a little, we may live long enough to see at least some real progress before the next crop of dumb bastards steps in to mess it up again. Because the real truth is that, in addition to being undereducated about the political system and unable to form original political thoughts, most Americans are also unbelievably fickle. We are nation of Cecil B. DeMille crowd scenes, and if you don't believe me, go back and watch the videos from the Tea Party and Jon Stewart rallies, respectively, and see how each brightly-clad mob made their statement, their fantastic scene, for the cameras.

This past weekend I saw a performance of a stage adaptation of the Kurosawa film Throne of Blood, which was itself an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth. In Throne of Blood, the action is transplanted from 12th-century Scotland to 16th-century feudal Japan, and although the adaptation uses none of Shakespeare's lines it uses the visual and physical techniques of Japanese Noh theater to drive home the same point. The tale is a familiar one, with a lesson: absolute power corrupts absolutely, in one way or another, and leaves a messy trail of destroyed relationships and lives in its wake.

In the Japanese version of the Macbeth story, political power passes quickly and violently. Soldiers who support Washizu in his quest for ever-bigger spoils -- first the North Garrison, then Spider Web Castle -- ultimately turn on him when his corruption becomes too great for even them to bear. In the modern United States power passes peacefully -- albeit expensively, as zillions of dollars are spent on advertising instead of on solutions to the national crises of hunger, poverty, and racial and social injustice. We would rather not have to participate in -- or even see -- the bloodletting and self-compromise that is a part of the power game called politics. So, in exchange for electing others to do the dirty work (and paying them handsomely for their trouble) while we stay safely removed from the mess, we can sleep soundly at night. Or at least we get to tell ourselves that we can. So we vote, and get on with our lives, and ignore the great disconnect involved in the enterprise. And another generation of our nation's worst problems -- poverty, hunger, inequality -- go unsolved on our watch.


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