July 27, 2004
As I Would Not Be A Slave, So I Would Not Be A Master
I have rarely paid
much attention to the party conventions, but this year is different in every
respect. Ive been finding the gosh-wow stupidity of the television journalists
about the presence of bloggers unintentionally hilariouslistening to Jeff
Greenfield on CNN explain the exotic idea of a link as if he were
trying to explain superstring theory, followed by some reporter minion of his
practically wetting himself over the intricacies of some strange new-fangled
thing called the Web , was especially rich.
The more interesting
thing to me was something that came out in Gores mercifully brief speech
and reverberated occasionally throughout the night, what I saw of it. Even before
9/11, one of the things that really bothered me about Bush and his administration
was their sick arrogance, their lack of respect for the thinness of their electoral
margin and what that should have told them about their mandate or lack thereof.
It bothered me before I even knew that it did, or why it did. It bothered me
early and angers me now because that arrogance has dragged American society
to a very seriously dangerous juncture in its history.
Im not talking
about my usual opinion on Iraq and the response to 9/11. If you read this blog,
youve heard that all before. Thats reason enough to vote against
something deeper and wilder here, a fire that will more than burn the hands
of kids playing with matchesand theres been a lot of playing with
matches since November 2000.
The New York
Times has lately been assuring us that ordinary Americans are not bitterly
divided on partisan grounds, and in one sense, I believe it. Yes, I know that
there are a great many issues on which there exists some degree of consensus,
and probably many issues beyond that where there might be disagreement between
Americans, but of a mild and unexciting sort. In another sense, I think the
Times polls are full of crap. Among the Americans who actually
vote, who are attuned to political issues, theres a high-strung sense
of tension and anxiety that Ive never experienced in my lifetime. Maybe
1968 would compare: I was more concerned with my tricycle at that point, so
I cant say in a meaningfully experiential way.
I used to say,
around October 2000 or so, Ok, so what if Bush wins? It wont be
that bad. Hell do some things I dont like, but hell be fairly
constrained both by the size of his victory [which we could all see would be
small if it came to pass] and by a prudential need to appease the political
center. I was seeing Bush as his fathers son, and his presidency
as the mirror image of Bush the Seniors presidency.
This was staggeringly
wrong. The second Bush presidency has been unprecedented in its ideological
extremism and arrogance. I think that reflects very badly on Bush and his associates.
If we want to talk about Bushs lies, lets start with his promise
to govern with all Americans in mind, as a uniter and not a divider. Thats
his biggest lie of all, one that cant be qualified as an accidental error
based on faulty intelligence or a modest distortion. Theres no way to
argue that Bush has governed with the intent to unite, to overcome partisan
division. Al Gore called Bush on this lie last night, and rightfully so.
This is about more
than Bush. One of the reasons I chide people on the left for not seeking dialogue
and consensus, one of the reasons I am constantly looking for the presence of
reason and the possibility of connection across the political spectrum, is that
if we get ourselves into a situation where 51% of the voting population or a
narrow majority of electoral votes is imposing a total and coordinated social
and political agenda on the almost-as-large minority who has a radically different
and equally coordinated social and political vision, were staring at the
threshold of a very scary future, regardless of whom the 51% is or what they
In this respect,
we have to see past George Bush and his poor leadership for a moment, and see
the people who strongly stand behind him. It is they who really matter, their
choice which will shape the next four years. It to them that I make my most
desperate, plaintive appeals, my eleventh-hour plea not to pull the trigger.
To choose Bush is to choose to impose the starkest, most extreme formulation
of the agenda that Bush has come to exemplify on a population of Americans to
whom that agenda is repellant. To choose Bush is to choose Tocquevilles
tyranny of the majority (or even, judging from the popular vote in 2000, tyranny
of the almost-majority). To choose Bush nownot in 2000, when he plausibly
could have been many things--is to aspire to tyranny, to ruling your neighbors
and countrymen. That some on the left have had or even achieved similar aspirations
from time to time doesnt change things: its wrong whenever it is
the driving vision of political engagement, for whomever holds it.
I know that there
are socially and culturally conservative Americans, many of them Christians,
who already feel that they live in a Babylonian captivity, that they are already
at the mercy of a secular culture. But the vigor of evangelical Christian culture
in the past decadethe profusion of Christian books, movies, television
shows, and so ondemonstrates to me that a secular, consumerist America
is one where even nonsecular or dissenting Americans are free to make their
own way, form their own communities, choose their own culture. A culturally
conservative crusade led from the White House is not the same thing, not a mere
flipping of the coin, a karmic reversal. An evangelical Christian can refuse
to consume pornography, but if pornography is outlawed, then anyone who wishes
to view it is a criminal. Feeling the need to avert ones eyes and being
subject to criminal penalty are very different things. Its the difference
between freedom and unfreedom, between the Bill of Rights and a series of wrongs.
If Kerry is elected, and imposes a kind of extremist political vision root and branch upon the Americans who oppose him that is comparable to what Bush has done (I dont see how he could, given that Congress is likely to be Republican in any event), then well know that there is no possible consensus for us all, that a kind of final struggle has been joined in which every American will end as either tyrant or slave. I choose to believe and hope and trust that were not there yet. I choose to believe that we can have leaders who will not push us to that brink, and that we can have voters who also forbear to do so. If Bush is chosen, it may signal that there's no way out. I yet believe we can find the place where ordinary American decencies live, where most of us can go along to get along, where dont tread on me and the City on the Hill belong in the same neighborhood, are part of the same love of country, are equally part of the American Dream.