Feature or bug?
October 24th, 2012
Not long before the nominating conventions, I decided to ignore as much of what remained of this year’s presidential campaign as possible. Having paid attention during the previous four years, I knew for whom I was going to vote, based on people’s actions and their responses to events as they occurred. Nothing that would happen during the campaign, in its bubble reality of imagery and rhetoric, was going to change that.
I don’t read a newspaper. I watch very little television. My most regular source of daily “news” is public radio, to which I listen sparingly. I turn it off whenever a commentator or “analyst” comes on to tell me what to think, or when the announcer warns me I am about to be treated to the opinions of eleven housewives in Duluth, or when I hear the word “polls” or the names “Cokie Roberts” and “Mara Liasson.” The radio is silent a lot, these days. I avoid speeches and events. I found something else to do instead of watching “the debates”, although I could not resist tuning into the vice-presidential contest because of my affection for Joe Biden. On that occasion, I was treated to a split screen image. On the right was Paul Ryan, squawking animatedly. On the left was Joe Biden, grinning wolfishly. “Go get ‘em, Joe,” I said, and turned it off.
From this experiment in controlled obliviousness I have garnered a degree of tranquility. The anger and anxiety I have experienced in previous campaign seasons has been replaced by a sense of equilibrium and wonder that I ever should have involved my emotions so intensely in something which does not really touch me and over which I have no control. Who’s winning in Ohio? If bad things happen in Azerbaijan, will that impact the Florida vote? What did the GOP candidate’s surrogate say when somebody told him about something somebody said about something that happened somewhere? What will Obama do to counter what somebody said that somebody says he has to say something about? These things, about which I might at some other time have felt so passionately, have drifted off to a distance and dwindled to near invisibility.
What filters through to me, unavoidably, from the roar created by billions of dollars feeding the media? First and foremost, nastiness. The nasty, accusing voices of the commercials. If I were walking down the street and heard an actual person speaking in such tones, I would be embarrassed for that person and a bit frightened, and of course I would be enticed to listen by the drama of it, and I would keep my distance. That is the way our political culture chooses to present itself to us: a nasty, frightening stranger muttering imprecations.
Coupled with the nastiness, meaningless gamesmanship. The incessant reporting about the horse race and the purported political implications of this or that or the other, the interpretation of everything in terms of the candidates’ jockeying for position. It crescendoed around the time of the debates. Who “won”? What did candidate X “have to do” to “win”? The answers to these questions that I saw proposed in the media almost invariably had little or nothing to do with the substance of what was said by the debaters (let alone the substance of anything taking place in the real world), except insofar as a statement by one or the other could be characterized as a “gaffe” or a “mistake” (never a lie). Romney was aggressive: he wins. Obama was feisty: he wins. Uh oh,
the uppity nigger Obama was too feisty: five yard penalty for roughing the rich white guy Republican. Was belated feistiness enough to overcome the “momentum” created by early aggressiveness? Would it backfire? Meanwhile, my co-workers and friends who watched the debates seemed to have done so in the same spirit as I bring to Sunday afternoon football. How was their team doing? Nice play! Ooh, bad fumble. It would be unfair to say it didn’t seem to matter that people’s lives might depend on the outcome of the process of which the debates were a part; but this reality remained well in the background, related only tenuously and distantly to the collective experience of what was going on.
No wonder there are “undecided” voters, this late in the season. I think the explanation is not that they are so stupid that they find it difficult to choose between Mitt and Barry. It is at least in part because they are reluctant to foul themselves and to play the game. They have better things to do than get involved with the empty sports of ill-favored strangers. The irony is that they are the ones who decide close elections. I’ll leave it to you to worry about whether that’s a feature of our system, or a bug. You’ll probably want to answer one way or the other, depending on whether your team won.