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The Fat Lady Sings

December 1, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

This is going to be my last column for a while. I'm taking a break for a lot of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the election. But there's another reason which I may as well be honest about, because I've always figured honesty is one of the few things I bring to the table that most of the other pundits don't have. I need a break because since the election, every week when I sit down to do this, I feel like I have nothing to say.

Well, not nothing. Writing is kind of a disease with me, and the only thing that will ever really cure it is death. What I really mean is nothing that matters. There are two reasons for that, as far as I can figure it out. One is that the election results seem to indicate that there was something wrong with the way I look at the world, and before I can do anything useful I have to figure out what that is. The other problem is probably the more difficult one to solve. I've often described the political writing I do as preaching to the choir, and I do believe that during Bush's first term it served an important purpose. But the 2004 results show that even when you get the whole choir united behind a single candidate and a single purpose, there are just not enough of us. We need to get out of the church and start working with the heathens. And it's going to take me a long time to learn how to do that.

To take the first problem first: I was expecting Kerry to win. I was hoping that Bush was cruising for, as my partner always put it, "a SPANKING!" But I figured even if there was no landslide, there was no way that Bush could have gained ground since 2000. The almost-half of the population that voted to put him in office in 2000 was buying a pig in a poke; out of the poke, that pig sure is mean and ugly, and I was hoping that a fair number of Bush 2000 voters would want to sell him back at any price. Alas.

When I looked back over my old columns to figure out where I went wrong, I discovered something discouraging. My columns basically come in two modes, dark and bright. The dark ones are written out of despair and the bright ones are written out of hope. I like writing the bright columns. Other people like them too. The only drawback to them - and it is a pity - is that a lot of the bright columns were wrong. Whereas the dark ones, unfortunately, usually turned out to be right.

The things I were most wrong about generally had to do with my hopes about how my fellow-Americans were responding to the same history I was living through. I fell into what is a fairly common trap, which is assuming that once you get past the superficial differences created by ideology and identity politics, at the bottom all people are pretty much like you.

I was worried about the effect that the same-sex marriage issue would have on the election, but I tried to believe that most of the country would have gone through the same process that I've seen my own family and neighbors and co-workers go through, and that they would have learned from experience that they don't have to be so afraid of gay people. I was right to worry.

I spent a lot of time despairing about how the Iraq war was deadening our sense of compassion and degrading our ethical and moral standards, and I hoped that eventually enough Americans would realize that and resist. I was right to despair.

I wrote a number of columns prophesying that Rove's ability to manipulate perception was reaching the end of its usefulness, and that the 2004 election would spell the demise of the politics of despicability. I believed that the American people were starting to see through him, and that in the end they would vote to remain part of "the reality-based community." Probably the brightest column I ever wrote was "October Surprise," in which I imagined that instead of us being surprised by a last-minute Rovian trick, Rove would be surprised by the months of work that thousands of us ordinary Americans had put into defeating him. Then Osama Bin Laden popped out of his box just in time for Halloween. And then, as we all remember, November came along and kicked "October Surprise's" ass.

There were other things I was wrong about, of course. I hoped that the problems with the 2000 election process would have been resolved, or that Kerry's support would be so overwhelming that they wouldn't matter. I hoped that corporate control over the media wouldn't make it utterly impossible to cut into Bush's support.

But the real mistake I made was in hoping for people to be different from what they really are. It was unrealistic to expect people to make decisions about their own government based on the suffering of people on the other side of the world who are now described to them only as terrorists, insurgents, or collateral damage. I knew that, but I hoped that things had got bad enough that this one time, there might be an exception.

Last December in a column called "Safety First" I wound up making the argument that security is always an illusion and that vulnerability is the price of all the things that matter to me - freedom, love, compassion, sympathy, humanity. I hoped that enough Americans would eventually get tired of living in their fortress, and walk out of it in order to reclaim all the things they were being deprived of. And once again, I was wrong.

Then again, to be fair, I also did my best to believe that Kerry was better than he really was. Looking back at the post-primary columns it strikes me that apart from the ones about the Swift Boat smear campaign, which were more about the smearers and about war in general, whenever I wrote about Kerry it was always tinged with fantasy. The most obvious example is "After the Ball," which acknowledges that the sense of euphoria we felt after the Democratic national convention was a storybook illusion, but still hopes that maybe it might end up changing reality. Again, I was wrong.

Then there's "The Immoderator," the fantasy presidential debate, in which I went out of my way to make Kerry the best candidate I could make him working within the limits established by his campaign. It was not easy, either, because when you come right down to it Kerry was not particularly strong on most of the issues I cared about.

I am grateful to him for refusing to sell his gay supporters down the river, as Clinton is reported to have advised him to do. But he never implied that he was intending to end the Iraq war any time soon. I was never really convinced that he was actually going to be able to turn the economy around unless he had plans that he just was not bringing out into the open for fear of being accused of being yet even more liberal than the liberalest Masschusettsiest liberal there ever was.

Edwards talked about poverty in very compelling emotive terms, but I was never clear on what they planned to actually do about it. But so what; the primaries had spoken and I was stuck with him. I was not going to make the same mistake I had made in 2000 by supporting Nader. And one thing that was obvious, and which I tried to pin all my hopes on, was that no matter what his positions were, Kerry himself was obviously a thousand times saner, smarter, better, and more effective as a leader at home and abroad than George W. Bush was ever going to be. Plus, he wasn't part of a corrupt cabal working to loot the treasury, gorge the rich, screw the poor, undermine democracy, and install permanent one-party rule, so he had that going for him.

In "The Immoderator" I tried to voice some of the concerns I had about Kerry's candidacy. But at the same time, I tried to save him from real mistakes he had made during the course of the campaign, like the "I would have voted for the Iraq war even knowing there were no WMDs" answer - which just never made any fucking sense to me, either ethically or strategically - and I gave him the best closing statement I could come up with:

I will not start, as Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove evidently started, from the assumption that the American people are so venal, selfish, unintelligent, and depraved, that they deserve nothing better than war, greed, lies, and an endless sound and light show that ultimately signifies nothing. I will govern out of my belief that the ideals on which this country was founded still live in the hearts of its citizens. My job is to create policies that will encourage and enable people like you to act on the good that is in them. In the meantime, all I can do is try to show by example that we can be safe, we can be strong, and we can be smart without being cruel. When my tenure is over, I hope to leave behind a country where real patriotism - real love, of the country and of its people and of the world that we are part of - has taken the place of hatred.

It would have been nice. But the reality is that Kerry would never have made a closing statement like that, under any circumstances. And as for the better angels of our natures, they disappeared without a trace sometime between September 11 and March 2003. I expect one day to open a cellar door and find them all heaped together on the floor, wings broken, feathers stained with blood, each of them shot in the head at close range.

As I said once after Thomas L. Friedman suddenly came to the realization that his support for the Iraq war was based on an insanely naive assessment of George W. Bush's motives, being the Plaid Adder means never having to say you're sorry. I'm not sorry for having fought for Kerry despite my misgivings about him; I'm not sorry for hoping; I'm not sorry that I tried to believe the best of my candidate and my fellow Americans.

I need to believe that people can be better than they are. I think it's important that someone believes that, and I have always wanted to tell stories that gave us something to live up to, instead of telling us to just accept our evils. At any rate it's the way I'm made and no amount of brutalization at the hands of reality is going to change that. But this is an article of faith with me, not something founded on reality. If I want to change the actual world I have to find a better way to deal with things as they are. And one of the things I have to accept is that preaching to the choir is not enough.

I don't at all mean to diss the choir. I love the choir, and I do believe that in the post-911 insanity it was vitally important for someone to keep dissent alive, even if it was only a multicolored snake posting demented ravings in a dark corner of the Internet. Now that more space for dissent has been opened up, that function is not as important any more, and we must start the business of trying to connect with people who would never, and will never, visit a site called DemocraticUnderground.

To be perfectly honest, right now I don't know how to do that and I'm not sanguine about my chances. I've been writing all my life in all kinds of different genres - fiction, nonfiction, commentary, criticism, parody, personal essay, poetry, even drama - and throughout there's always been one common theme: what I write appeals very strongly to a very limited audience.

I have never been part of the majority. I don't really know how you go about building one. I did suggest, back in my second column, that the way the Democratic Party would have to do it would be to get serious about addressing economic injustice. Strip off all the flags and glitter and for me politics comes back to one thing: suffering and how to prevent it. This is where I may as well start from; and I need to do more than just write about it.

Driving back through the cornfields from the city we had to travel to in order to start drafting our wills and the other various legal instruments we need to force the rest of society to treat us like a couple, I asked my partner, "What do you think rural America needs?" Neither one of us knew. I figure we should. Most of the time politics is framed to be about what people want. It may be that much of rural America wants me and my partner stuffed and mounted on the mantlepiece; but I can't imagine that's what they really need.

One way to build a majority would be to find out what the 'red' people actually need and to see how much of that the party would be able to give. But one thing I have learned over the years is that you can't assume you know what someone else needs. You make that assumption, and eventually our armies are crashing through other cities trying to sell them another McDemocracy. The only way to find out what someone else needs is to ask. And then of course once they start answering, you have to listen.

So this is my plan for the new year. Find out more about what the people who aren't yet my people need, and where it is consistent with what I believe matters, try to work for it. Because one thing I believe that I am right about is that this election was not a victory for 51% of the people of this country. It was a victory for George W. Bush and all his parasites, Svengalis, sycophants and fellow-travelers.

It was a loss for everyone else. Most of the people who voted for him are screwed too. They may think I'm their enemy, but that's because they don't know me; and if I think they're my enemies, maybe it's because I don't know them. This time next year I want to be able to say that I am helping the red and the blue come together against the bastard on the throne. And whenever I come across something that I think will help us do that, I will be sure to come back and let you know.

For now, all I can do is hope that the holiday season and the new year brings you the best, and that this time next year I can write another bright column without feeling like I'm pulling the tinsel over everyone's eyes.

The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.


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