Saturday, October 2, 2010

This Troubled Land: A Brief Political Memoir [Alternative Title: "It's The Government, Stupid."]

My first decade on this planet was the turbulent 1960's. Folk Music: Guthrie, Seeger, Dylan, Baez; Viet Nam; Civil Rights; Protests; Riots; Political Assassinations; Rock n' Roll...

1970: Tin soldiers and Nixon coming...

The '72 election saw the emergence of my political consciousness (I was 12 years old at the time). I became excited about McGovern; I truly felt that we were at a turning point in American history. My politically conservative father told me that a McGovern presidency would ruin the country. I learned to keep my instinctive Leftism quiet.

The summer of '73: I was glued to the Watergate Hearings on T.V. Until John Dean testified, I was certain that no President of the United States--not even Richard Nixon--would involve himself in such criminality.

August 1974: Nixon's resignation and the malaise of political disillusionment. The hand-off of the Oval Office to Ford and the subsequent pardon of Nixon had a very bad smell.

1975: The United States withdraws from Viet Nam. I meet refugees from the South who fled with U.S. troops.

1976: I became excited about Carter's candidacy and announced to my father that I wished to volunteer at his local campaign office. My father grounded me. I learned again to keep my instinctive Leftism quiet.

1977: When the Carters strolled hand-in-hand down Pennsylvania Avenue after the Inauguration, I felt a new day was dawning.

1980: Three years into the Carter Presidency, I had concluded that Carter was all symbolism, no reality: a Democrat who talked Left but governed Right. The malaise of political disillusionment returned. When Ted Kennedy announced his insurgent run for the Democratic nomination, I supported him (I still wear my blue and white "Kennedy '80" button from time to time). As I watched Carter pull the levers on the Democratic Party Machine to undermine Kennedy's bid, I registered as an Independent. In the General Election that Fall, I voted for third party candidate John Anderson.

At the time, I thought it inconceivable that the American people would actually send a B-movie actor and detergent peddler to the White House, but send him they did. The malaise of political disillusionment turned to cynicism (in the popular meaning of that term). I welcomed the rise of Punk.

1984: The Democratic Party nominated good old Fritz Mondale. Mondale was a great, old-style liberal, but it seemed obvious to me that he was unelectable. It was as though the Democratic Party was in denial that the 1980 election ever took place.

During the 1980's, I began to work out my libertarian thinking. I characterized my politics then as "fiscally conservative, socially liberal." My instinctive Leftism was tempered by an equally instinctive distrust of government. By the end of Reagan's second term, any promises that his Administration had made about "getting government off the backs of the American people" were undeniably empty. Under Reagan, the size of the Federal government mushroomed; his Administration was filled with criminals and he appeared to be increasingly out of touch with reality.

1988: The Democratic Party nominated Michael Dukakis. I so wanted Dukakis to offer an alternative to Bush, Sr. But when he unveiled his campaign slogan as "competence," I knew he had no ideas. My cynicism began to evolve into Cynicism: a Hellenistic ethical stance that holds human society deeply suspect, if not in contempt.

1990: My politics could be summed up in the phrase: "A pox on both your houses."

1992: A nominal Democrat, I voted for Jerry Brown against Bill Clinton in the Pennsylvania primaries. I voted for Clinton against Bush in the General Election because the thought of Republicans in the White House for 16 consecutive years nauseated me. But I wouldn't trust Clinton as far as I could throw him.

1993: A pivotal year in my political maturation. In February, I watched with horror as the Clinton Administration presided over the slaughter of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. It was crystal clear to me from that moment on that Clinton was another Democrat who would talk Left and govern Right.

Later in the year, a friend invited me to see a film called "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media." My immediate reaction was a combination of perplexity, anxiety, and hopelessness. If Chomsky is correct, I said to myself, the game is over. At that point, however, I was deep into Tolstoy, reading everything I could get my hands on. I then began to read Chomsky's political writings. Now that I was introduced to openly anarchistic political thought, I was able to see how subtle forms of anarchism had always attracted me: from the lives of Diogenes of Sinope and Jesus to the poetry of Walt Whitman and his spiritual heir Henry Miller. There was no turning back. I was a Left Libertarian and remain one to this day.

In 2000, I voted for Ralph Nader. I did so in Pennsylvania confident that Gore would win the Commonwealth and that my protest vote would not result in a George W. Bush presidency. I was no fan of Al Gore--beholden as he was to the Clintons--but the thought of W in the Oval Office made my ulcer burn. I regarded him then, and regard him still, as an imbecile son of privilege.

My calculation about the results in Pennsylvania was on the money. As it turned out, however, the Bush family did not need Pennsylvania as long as they could steal Florida. I watched the theater of the corrupt unfold over "hanging chads" and scoffed. The Democrats put up a tepid resistance in the courts and the Supremes voted along party lines. It looked to me as if everything was proceeding according to plan--for both parties. This is how Washington works.

I did not allow myself any outrage over the fraudulent results of the 2000 election. After all, how much damage could W really do? I predicted four years of farcical bumbling, some great Saturday Night Live skits, and then W's hasty retirement to work on his Presidential Library.

9/11 and W's "bull-horn moment" were not on my radar. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the psychopathology of American political life became only too apparent. The Culture of Fear that white Americans have been nursing like a bad seed throughout the country's history bloomed once again and bore its bitterest fruit since McCarthyism. The present reality of this country (the Orwellian States of Amnesia) has never been so deeply opposed to the invisible Whitmanian republic that I hold in my heart.

And now, as Barack Obama mysteriously enacts Bush's third term, nothing surprises me. What will be, will be. I take no pleasure in the death of the American republic and the rise of the National Security State, but I am nothing more than a spectator. In 2005, I began to read Tacitus in earnest. There is some cold comfort in knowing that others have found themselves in similar straights. And cold comfort is better than no comfort at all.

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