Monday, August 30, 2004

Let the Protests Begin (oh yeah, and the convention too)

Spent a good deal of yesterday evening trying to bang out a blog post about political cynicism. But it turned out to be one of those topics where the more you pull, the more you unravel. Not a satisfying experience as either a writer nor as a citizen. Bad stuff in the body-politic these days.

Of course, the Republican convention opened, to no surprise, with the MSM giving front page attention to the protesters. Headline in the Star Tribune this morning: Great Divide: Bush Polarizes voters.

Plenty of lovely photos like this found within:

What are these people so angry at Bush for? Like Brando answered in the Wild One, the answer here seems to be "what have you got?" We're not witnissing some sort of popular uprising against tyranny, no matter how many hyperbolic leftist hot-heads scream about it. They like to pretend it's about the war. But I'm not buying it. There's no draft, and the casualty rate of post-war Iraq at the worst is far lower than these same protesters were insisting the sanctions were killing in Iraq previously. You see the environmental sky-is-falling crowd well represented; the anti-globalists; the Vietnam War nostalgists. But there's really not much of a through line in there. They just all channel their fury - whatever they've got - against Bush.

Somewhere in there I assume there are also a few folks who support John Kerry for president because they prefer his policy positions. If so, they're rather dwarfed by the rest. And to me it's not a real mystery why.

John Kerry, in the kindest light, offers no more than European style socialism. The expansion of the welfare state is about the only theme in his candidacy. And you can build a respectable political base in agreement about that in this country. Just not enough to win a national election.

There are two problems with the Euro-socialist appeal to the American electorate. The first is that, no matter how appealing it looks on paper, it clashes with the preferred American lifestyle. Independence and opportunity traditionally drive Americans more strongly than safety and equality. Euro-socialism squelches the former in favor of the latter.

The second problem is generational. Even in Europe, the younger generation is losing faith in their system of government. The Baby-boom generation may have marked the high water mark in the popularity of the welfare state. Which is not to say it's going away anytime soon. Just that it is now building resentment rather than trust or hope.

Now none of this is to suggest that everyone will by default come over the the less European / less Socialist model the Republicans are selling. In fact, a great deal of the fury exhibited by the protestors is no doubt caused by the fact that they hate that vision even more than the Euro-socialist model., even if they can't articulate why in anything but memorized leftist slogans.

And that was sort of what lead to my ponderings about cynicism last night. I'll try to summarize them here.

We live in an age of profound political cynicism. We have now reached the point where we not only think our politicians are all liars - we think those who report to us about them are lying as well.

Cynicism comes down to us as a legacy of a fellow named Diogenes, who famously carried around a lamp and lived in a tub. Turns out that's not some fable incidentally. The guy really did carry a lamp and lived in a tub, if only for a short time and to make his opinion noticed. Not coincidentally, the wild costumes and attention getting behavior of the modern protestor takes this same approach: do something outlandish to get attention for your message.

But Diogenes' Cynicism is not really what I'm here to talk about. The original Cynics were all about the pursuit of virtue. Modern cynics not only don't pursue virtue, if anything they pursue the Nihilistic void. Their only similarity to the ancient cynics is their opposition to the status quo, and scorn of conventional wisdom. The modern cynic can prattle endlessly about what he's against, but can't form a coherent sentence about what he's for.

And that seems to be the crux of political discourse in huge segments of the body politic. Like the ancient cynics, they mock, belittle, and defame opposing political views. Unlike the ancients, the only things the offer in place are just as easily mocked, belittled, and defamed by others.

So much energy is being poured into the destruction of the views, parties, and politicians we despise, that we've almost lost the ability to find the views, parties, and politicians we can respect.

There is one exception. And it's not a comforting one. A general consensus seems to be building around celebrity. If you're a movie star, or rock star, or the like, you can toss your hat in the ring and immediately find yourself leading the polls for political office. If you're not already a celebrity, a great deal of your election strategy will involve making you become one.

The worrying part of this is that it reflects a desire for a powerful, popular leader to take care of all of our problems for us. It's the bedrock for a strongman to seize power in a crisis. The American system of government used to have plenty of checks to prevent that sort of thing. But they all assumed a healthy and common civic ethic. And when you see pictures like this representing a huge proportion of the voting public, you're hardly comforted about the state of political or civic thought these days.

Cynicism is replacing citizenship, and while more colorful at times, it's a sorry tradeoff.


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