Monday, July 25, 2005

George W. Bush has been, without a doubt, the luckiest American President in history. A character as bumbling as any ever played by the beloved Jimmy Stewart, apparently as earnest but without the charm, W. has stammered and stumbled through the almost complete transformation of the American economic and political landscape, blithely unaware, it seems, that for all but a percent or two of the population, most of whom happen to be his closest friends, the change is for the worse.

His winning streak began on 9/11, a day of loss for the nation. The American people demanded both revenge abroad and assurances of security at home, a patently impossible combination of just the sort politicians love: perfect for their theater of the absurd, rife with opportunities to primp and prance and pose, reciting soliloquies to freedom and democracy, while backstage all manner of skullduggery’s afoot. The audience will forgive them the shoddy production values, we all want so badly to suspend disbelief these days.

So we’ve spoiled them. W’s troupe has come to expect alligator tears or riotous laughter on cue, and standing ovations when they flash their handy “Mission Accomplished” sign, and for the most part we’ve delivered. But some of the scenes in this splatstick comedy aren’t so funny. With every roadside bomb, Abu Ghraib, or Valerie Plame, the protagonists look a little more like the villains and the plot threatens to unravel. In fact, the outing of Valerie Plame is the Überscandal that should bring down the house, not merely because it exposes W. and his administration as petty, vengeful neo-Nixonian super-scoundrels, but because the paper trail leads right up to the President himself, and will prove once and for all that he knowingly misled a traumatized nation into an unnecessary war that promises only to exacerbate the violence they fear.

Will the Plame affair turn into another Watergate, then, forcing the President to step down or face impeachment? The Democrats are licking their lips, but it’s highly unlikely. The fear that has led to this tolerance for bald corruption in exchange for lies about safety and security is more powerful than any outrage that might be generated by this latest and greatest of scandals. No, our charmed President will bumble through the rest of his term, blinking like a deer in the headlights, and scamper off to Crawford in the end to clear his beloved brush for the remainder of his devil-may-care days. And if, before he has a chance to exit stage right to wild applause, the plot should begin to unravel, one of his trusty stagehands will surely shout “fire!” creating a panic and clearing the house, but leaving the players onstage unscathed, to have the last laugh.

Monday, July 18, 2005

I was sitting in a little restaurant in Back Bay the other day. At one point all of the patrons were talking on their cell phones simultaneously. There was a young couple sitting across the room, facing each other, both talking animatedly into their phones (to each other perhaps—who knows). Others were sitting alone doing it. At a nearby table, one visibly irritated man without a cell looked at me and blurted, “what?” It took me a moment to realize that he wasn't speaking to me, but into a tiny headset, repeating the mantra of cell phone abusers everywhere: “What? What? What did you say? What?” Especially on trains (remember, despite security concerns, the T will soon go wireless) and in crowded public places “what” seems to constitute close to 95% of cell phone conversation. After awhile it sounds like the quacking of agitated ducks. If, like Rip Van Winkle, I had just awoken from a ten-year nap, I’d have thought the world had gone barking mad.

So the new trend is to ditch the phone for a headset. We have come with startling speed to accept as perfectly ordinary people walking down the street, both hands free, hearing voices no one else hears and barking nonsense. This used to get you burnt at the stake, or in more genteel times a trip to a padded room where you could go quietly crazy in private. It takes the virtual into another dimension. Holding a phone at least gives the speaker some surrogate object, a prop, while with a headset he is somewhere completely virtual. He imagines himself into a space between here and there for which he needs no surrogate object. The man at the table was both/neither at the table and/nor not at the table, like Schrödinger’s cat with wifi. Should he be quizzed in a week’s time about his actual whereabouts during the conversation, my guess is he would have no earthly idea. And real people all around him are either unseen, or obstacles. Reality becomes an irritant, an inconvenience at best, the white noise to be tuned out. That’s the thing: the colonization of real space by the virtual seems to always degrade the former. After all, the Nowhere of the latter can be reached from nearly anywhere.

But what is most aggravating about cell phones is that they allow the user to constantly reassert the priorities of self over that of the nameless, faceless mass of humanity around him. There is in a public space a certain rhapsody, a communion of souls, which is as important, I think, for developing the sense of empathy necessary to function and enjoy life in society as the sense of self-reliance. The shrill of mobiles ringing on the metro, and the shrill of the one-sided conversation we are so often then assaulted with smacks of protest against our existence, that is, the existence of a we in which we lose for a happy moment our very selves.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The celebrity reality show craze has already crossed over into politics, and I’m not talking about C-Span. Last year millionaire Mitch Daniel, running for governor of Indiana, aired his own reality show. Hand -held cameras followed him around the state as he visited Hoosier hamlets far and wide, kissing babies and pressing the flesh. You could watch the orgy online anytime, or catch the hour-long TV version once a week. Daniels, who had no prior experience in elected office, made minced meat of the incumbent.

But ordinarily celebrity reality shows are a last ditch attempt to resuscitate a fading star’s career: check out “Chasing Farrah,” “Being Bobby Brown,” or “Britney and Kevin: Chaotic.” What unites these cyber-age freakshows is not only their second-rate celebrities, but that indomitable spirit that has swept America in recent years: making a virtue of failure and futility. This is the true nexus between celebrity and politics in America today.

Here in our home state, we may not be able to claim any stars of the Whitney or Britney caliber, but we do have Mittney, who is poised to bust a move on the national stage. Like his B-list celebrity counterparts in the reality TV business he has become adept at capitalizing on his failures in office, and hopes to parlay them into a big victory in 2008. I fully expect to see him at the dais at the next Republican National Convention in a tight bodice complete with cone bra and tassels, Bill Frist and Trent Lott his scantily clad back-ups, dirty-dancing to a sexed-up medley of Mormon hymns.

Golly, but politicians sure love a good old-fashioned fete. Aside from conventions, the next best thing to a fund-raiser is a terror attack. You can be sure Mittney kicked into high gear when terrorists struck London last week. The way politicians have so successfully exploited 9/11 for their own ends, it kind of makes you wonder whose side the terrorists are on. The London attack was a freebee for Mittney, who, playing state paterfamilias, announced a stepped-up (or at least more visible, and certainly temporary) police presence on the T, though there was no greater threat than usual. Late Sunday night on my way home from the movies, there were more MBTA police than passengers in the subway. Aside from feeling ever-so-safe with the additional security, riders were treated, every five minutes, to the soothing sound of Mittney’s smash hit, “Terror Attacks Is Whack.” His PSA for TransitWatch repeated ad nauseam on the T’s public address system.

Mittney has spent over $1.5 million so far this year on a publicity blitz designed to boost his national name recognition. He’s not really a governor, but he plays one on TV. He doesn’t care if it’s good press or bad press he gets, so long as his voice is in your ear and his name is on your tongue. Like Whitney and Britney, he may be washed-up, but at least you know his name.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Imagine an era when the literary critic Lionel Trilling could write: “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition…. [T]here are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” That’s from his 1950 collection of essays, “The Liberal Imagination.” Half a century later and what imagination liberals may have had has all but dried up. They’ve been relegated to waiting for conservatives (whose “impulses” Trilling likened to “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas”) to get tired and give up. Even if it takes another half century. With one Supreme Court Justice retiring and another sure to follow in the coming months, it may well be longer.

There’s no arguing there’s a lot wrong with the right, but these days the left is the province of “irritable mental gestures” that stand in for ideas. Remember ABB—Anybody But Bush? Pretty inspiring, eh? Part of the problem is that the left takes a lot for granted, and though loath to admit it, shares with the radical right an often unexamined teleology: the idea that history is an inexorable progression towards an end. While the right is obsessed with a cataclysmic final judgment followed by a universe in which nothing ever changes, the left tends towards a utopianism sans the sword: a world in which everyone’s equal, racial and class disparity are vanquished, and we all live in perfect harmony, amen. Counterintuitive as it is, given finite resources and competing interests, many on the left seem to believe this utopia is inevitable, even imminent. A foregone conclusion. If only Bush had been defeated we’d be halfway there by now!

The problem is, as we are forever finding out, Democracy offers no such final resting place. Far from promising to dissolve dispute it opens the door to ever more interests fighting over ever fewer resources. Democracy is the one form of government that encourages endless dispute. It’s a lot of work. And the work is never finished. The ground rules are about the only things that don’t change—in fact, they were written precisely to accommodate change. The democratic spirit is actually a habit of mind that must be learned and practiced by each new generation, and taught to the next so that they can negotiate for themselves change in their time. It requires trust—in each other, and in the future.

There is nothing inherently liberal or conservative about many of the issues we are debating these days: if our politics were truly secular, a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage, two so-called “wedge” issues, could easily cross party lines. The failure to articulate that the struggle is not between liberals and conservatives in a democratic society but between the democratic process itself and the totalitarian will to power is only the most glaring evidence of complacency among today’s Democrats. Now it looks like we’ll all be paying for their complacency for at least the next half-century.