Photo by Anthony JohnO judgment! Thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.
Is there any mob in all of literature so contemptible as Shakespeare's citizens at Caesar's funeral, so easily pushed this way and that like a lollipop upon the tongues of Brutus and Antony?
It pains me to admit I have had a similarly Roman waffling of mind in these recent weeks. I watched the first presidential debate and decided to vote for Ralph Nader, who, in being excluded from that series of braying playground taunts, came off as by far the best man.
Then I talked with Will Swaim, the man behind the curtain at the Weekly, who in turn had been talking with several employees in a working-class beauty salon who had argued with him that maybe he was well-enough off to have the luxury of throwing his vote away on Nader, but unless Gore won, they worried how they would put food on their tables.
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Then I talked with my organic-tangerine-farmer friend Jim (who with his wife, Lisa, participated in the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle) about his concerns for the environment and world justice and the Clinton administration's compromises on same, and that swayed me back to Nader.
Then I thought about just how icky a Bush Supreme Court of little Scalias could be and cast my lot again with Gore. Then I finally saw Ralph himself speak at Chapman University on Oct. 20, was again swayed, and there I'm staying, damn it.
I just saw Representative Jim McDermott (D-Washinton)—a good guy—on CNN making the Nader-equals-spoiler argument, saying that you can only in good conscience vote for Nader if you honestly believe there is no difference between Gore and Bush.
Well, I think there is a huge difference. With Bush, I believe we'd be getting the Reagan years again—and I mean the asleep-at-the-wheel-while-your-administration-is-siding-with-nun-killing-thugs, secret-dealing-with-terrorist-states, spying-on-Americans, deficit-building, and environment-hacking years —except in Bush, we'll have a post-Alzheimer's Reagan.
In Gore, we'd merely be getting someone who would be a benign steward of a wholly compromised system that doesn't address our real problems while we plummet toward madness.
At the end of the 1800s, there was a sizable religious cult in the U.S. known as the Millerites. Their prophet predicted the end of the world, and his followers gave up their possessions, moved to mountaintops and did the other dreary plan-your-vacation-around-the-apocalypse activities. When their prophet's prophecies weren't entirely fulfilled, inasmuch as the world failed to end, some followers drifted away, and he set a new date, which he continued to do when proved wrong several more times. The less the remaining members had reason to follow their leader, the more they filled that vacuum with faith.
That, essentially, is what politicians ask of us now. There's Gore pleading into the camera at debate's end to trust him with our vote, that he won't let us down. Meanwhile, I and many like me have clung to the baseless hope, as we did with Clinton, that once safely in office, the mask would come off, revealing someone capable of candor and addressing core issues.
There's Bush, who can't quite explain where a trillion dollars in his Social Security plan will come from, asking us to just trust him on those little details. Meanwhile, conservatives are counting on him to pull off his mask and stop soft-pedaling on abortion and such once he's in.
Locally, there's a guy, Rich Rodgers, running for the Costa Mesa City Council on this hard-to-dispute platform: "I have only one campaign promise to make—'To Do What Is Right.'" If electability now counts as an actual word, let's make room also for nebulosity.
As I will this Nov. 7, I worked in the primary as an election officer at a polling place. A majority of those coming in to vote were Republicans, and they didn't seem the runaway-deficit, nun-killing type. Nor do the Republicans I count as friends and acquaintances. They simply elected to pour their faith into graven-image candidates who serve slightly scarier interests than our graven-image candidates.
G.W.'s line is that he trusts us, not government, but conservative thought is no less paternalistic than liberalism; it instead posits captains of industry as those upon whom we should pin our hopes. I'm voting for Nader because I don't think we as a nation and as a race can look to Big Daddy—in the sky, in the White House or in the boardroom—to guide us to a just and better future. It's just us, folks. We do it, or it doesn't get done.
I once saw James Brown—one of our greatest American artists—at the nadir of his drug-stupor period. His mind and spirit were so absent that he allowed the merest gesture to take the place of action. I mean, while he would once drop his microphone, spin 360 degrees, dramatically fall to his knees, catch the mic an inch from hitting the stage, and scream his soul into it, this time, stupefied, he just dropped the microphone and let it clunk on the floor as if that were the same thing.
That's America now, a representative "democracy" where most people never act as citizens of a democracy, where more than half of the registered voters don't even trouble once every four years to vote (and Christ knows how many don't register); those who do vote base decisions on "likability" and smarmy commercials, and even when our increasingly jaded media reports on them, government and businesses do the most heinous things with little fear of a public outcry. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, Jack, and this nation would rather watch "reality TV."
We're so lulled that we don't even notice how people in several other nations have taken control of their destinies; how they have proportional representation where their lawmaking bodies reflect all points of view; how they have working health-care systems, environmental protection, workers' rights, mass transit and other common attributes we can't seem to manage.
At Chapman, Nader quoted Jefferson saying that we needed representative government to curb the excesses of the moneyed interests. Lacking a truly representative government today, Nader noted that while sustained economic growth "used to lift all boats, now it lifts all yachts." As the rich get richer, workers' real wages fall.
During Gore Vidal's 1960 congressional race, the author even then was remarking on what we now call corporate welfare, how in the U.S. "we have achieved socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor." That has become such an ingrained part of our culture that Nader can now cite some $67 billion spent annually just to fund the export of lethal weapons to other nations.
Nader is the only candidate talking about that issue; or the insane $330 billion we're pushing into the military maw each year, which the other two candidates only want to increase; or the war we're escalating in Colombia; or GMOs (genetically modified produce) and factory farming; or the hideous collateral damage to individuals and our freedoms caused by the failed war on drugs; or the resulting prison nation we're becoming; or the unjustly applied death penalty; or sweatshop-promoting trade agreements; or universal health care; or a host of other issues crucial to the survival and soul of our nation.
Nader isn't above employing a good soundbite, his best being, "The only difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock." Sadly, he can back this up with numerous examples of Gore and Clinton favoring moneyed interests over the environment.
He talks substance, and if style matters, his is that of an intelligent person addressing equals. That speaks volumes compared with the alternatives—as Molly Ivins recently commented, "George W. Bush sounds like English is his second language, and Al Gore sounds like he thinks it's yours."
Nader doesn't talk down to his audience. He doesn't have to say, "trust me." He doesn't just want voters; he wants citizens.
Some of you may be thinking you spotted a contradiction above—where I say change is dependent upon individuals and then support a candidate who favors a large activist government. Nope. Government and business are only so amok and ethically rudderless because most of us aren't doing our jobs as citizens —of being informed, of being involved. Given the choice between government and monolithic corporations, I suspect the former might more readily become the instrument of our will. When overseen by the "eternal vigilance" of an involved populace, that's not "Big Daddy" government.
And that will only happen by breaking the stranglehold the two parties have on the system. Sure, Ralph is going to lose, but we all lose if change doesn't start sometime—and now is the only moment we ever have.
It is only now, in the frightened 11th hour, that Gore is even acknowledging Nader's existence. He's telling Greens they should vote Gore not because their Nader is a spoiler but because he, Gore, is a better choice than Nader. Then you should have debated him, you son of a bitch.
It's a scary choice in that booth, and I might be less sanguine about my decision were I not in a state that's so solidly for Gore. He at least recognizes global warming, where Republicans choose to ignore worldwide scientific consensus because it's bad for business. But again, if change didn't start somewhere, we'd still be under the British flag.
Be sure to join me here in a couple of weeks for my next exciting column: "How to Survive the Bush Years."
Super Rally for Ralph Nader at the Long Beach Arena, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (323) 257-2532;www.votenader.org. Fri., 8 p.m.; doors open, 6 p.m. $15.
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