Confessions of a Political Fraud

More and more, I’m finding myself to be a political fraud. Here I am, ostensibly progressive, and yet silently buffeting a nation in which the invasion of civil liberties and waterboarding as a legitimate interrogation technique are accepted as if they were no more injurious than an insect crawling up one’s forearm. Here I am, reading about Darfur and feeling somewhat complicit in remaining relatively silent about the homicidal fracas and in not writing a letter to a representative who is allegedly supposed to represent me, but who will likely do nothing. What power do I really have? If I attend a protest against the war, what good will this really do?*

It’s clear that the arrogant tyrants in power are quite content to keep fingers in their ears and sing, “La la la, I can’t hear you” for the next two years while Rome burns. It’s clear that the Democrats, who have now had almost a year to stand up to these tyrants, are no less self-serving in their failure to act than the supposed party of corruption. It’s also clear that the American public is more content to feel smug and somehow better than these apparent buffoons in power by watching some “satirical” news report delivered by Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. But when the chief news outlet that questions authority is framed within a comic context, does this not, on some level, treat the issue as pedantic? Should we not be outraged by people dying or falsely imprisoned brown-skinned people being tortured or our conversations being recorded without our permission rather than remain emotionally detached, staring down these developments with nothing more than the false comfort of irony? And how is watching television doing one’s part as a citizen? Is the American liberal’s default setting merely to take in disturbing information over a nice breakfast, furrow his brow, and then go about the business of paying his bills?

Understand that I don’t recuse myself at all. I am that guy. And I stand here guilty and defenseless for failing to do my part. Please lay into me. And while you’re at it, lay into yourself. I’m very much that American liberal who does nothing. Or to be a bit more generous, close to nothing. Sure, I’ll send emails and letters to people every now and then. Sometimes, they’ll write back. Sometimes, particularly on the local level, they’ll be a small victory. Sure, I have voted in every election since I came of voting age. Sure, I’ll think about politics, but I often keep these thoughts to myself. Because I have no wish to be a chowderhead contributing to that sweltering and insufferable Babel tower of predictable platitudes and ill-informed rhetoric. Is this wise or is this evading political responsibility? I have no desire to be part of a mechanism in which one must remain firmly locked in one’s views, in which one cannot question the very principles that one is supporting, and in which one cannot change one’s mind. I have developed a rather odd temperament in recent years of remaining somewhat opinionated, yet quite capable of dramatically shifting my views when someone has presented me with additional information. My peers and pals, who are getting married and having babies and abandoning politics with a nonchalance even more celeritous than mine, wish to settle for domestic lives. There is little room for a more global gravity. And that’s fine, I suppose. These are their choices. But surely someone can step in who doesn’t sound like a mahcine reading boilerplate from a monitor.

I’ve pondered running for political office — on some local level. Friends, aware of my persuasive panache, have suggested that I go to law school. But I would rather use my powers for good. Having seen so many idealisitic politicians give into the inevitabilities of this corrupt system, I don’t want to be that latter day politician who pretends that there is no ideological trajectory. So what’s left? Writing about this? Confessing one’s political inadequacies on a blog? Voting in the elections and persuading other people to vote? Given the great monster ensconced in DC, is this really adequate enough? Am I some new version of what Goldhagen called an “willing executioner?”

The question I ask is whether we are now in an unprecedented period of American history, where the problems we now face us are far more significant than anything we’ve experienced in quite a long time, where the very fabric of this country has been damn near permanently stained, and where being cheery, as I often am, or latching onto entertainment, as I often do, is really the right thing to do when we may very well be perched on the point of no return.

* — I used to be an active protestor. But I developed an antipathy to protesting when I attended an antiwar protest five years ago. I followed a splinter group through San Francisco, and watched as two ruffians, apparently there to protest against violence, beat down a homeless man who would not join their march. I felt sickened because I did not help this homeless man, who was terrified and cowering from further flails, and because I did not go after the two thugs who beat this man down. Does this incident speak for all protests? No. But it did leave a despicable taste in my mouth — both in regard to the nature of protesting and my own surprising stance. I wondered if my own failure to act, to check up on this homeless man, and to get him help if necessary, was part of the same blind herd mentality that had riled up this throng and caused two to go over the edge. I had not submitted to casual violence. But I did certainly submit to apathy. In joining a protest, one must subscribe to some common goal. But does one become overly accepting, perhaps too accepting, of aberrations? Are certain distasteful qualities revealed in the act of the protest? I think so, and I plead guilty. I should have acted and didn’t. And I have regretted that unfortunate evening countless times, and will likely continue to regret it.


  1. Thanks for the honesty in this post; you articulate a lot of the frustration and pain people (me!) are feeling in a time of astonishing abuses of justice, within our own borders and beyond.

    While i recognize the very important role of public resistance, marches, and civil disobedience–and I keep that part of my life–I’m most motivated by creative activism, as opposed to resistant activism. It goes back to Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see” dictum. I’m interested in building new models for ways of being. I’m intersted in co-operatives, intentional communities, places like the Red Sun Press in Jamaica Plain, MA, that are worker-owned, consensus-based, environmentally sustainable with their use of inks and papers that serve a client base of mostly nonprofits. And they’ve been successful in their work for more than thirty years. Or the Haley House Bakery Cafe in Boston, where food comes from local, sustainable farms and it serves as a job-training/mentoring program for people with precarious employment
    prospects (just out of prison or rehab, immigrants, etc.). And in the last 10 years, it’s also grown to be an important support for local artists and performers.

    Once models like this exist–in part because we, you and I, create them and/or support them–it’s hard to justify doing business any other way. Models like this prove that you don’t have to be satisfied with warmongering corporations that loathe your civil liberties as representing the traditional business model.

    As well, we literary types acknowledge the extraordinary power of words, and I believe it’s our responsibility to be truthtellers–to publicize, in a variety of mediums and styles, what real-life people (not statistics, not the ‘other’) are going through.

    You have a public voice on this website, on your podcast, in your journalism; what you say does matter.

  2. I think that one of the defining aspects of life these days is a frustrating, almost desperate sense that we ordinary people have absolutely no say in the things our government does to us. And in our own name, too. It feels as though every method for bringing about change has been tried and has failed. We sent letters, we staged protests, we voted for Democrats, and nothing has produced the kind of change we need.

    These strategies all kind of depend on politicians who pay attention to letters, protests, and electoral politics. There is little provision in the Constitution for dealing with a government that resolutely refuses to listen to its people. (Except surreptitiously via wiretaps, that is.) And that’s the most frustrating part: in a world of rigid talking points and continual abuses of the public’s trust, nobody is listening. They don’t care.

    Mass corporate media has certainly had a hand in this. Not only do they rarely cover substantive issues, or call bullshit on that which is bullshit, but they’ve let celebrity media coverage influence their political coverage. Scandals sell; the wholesale abrogation of citizen’s rights does not, apparently. Even when they do cover important topics, it’s so boring and painful, and mush-headed, and useless that it’s no wonder most turn away.

    I don’t know what to do about any of this stuff, either.

  3. I think it’s pointless to feel guilty about being cheerful or seeking entertainment in time of world crisis (though maybe you should feel slightly guilty about not helping that homeless guy in SF). You are a human being, and human beings need a certain amount of cheer and entertainment to keep them going every day. Starving yourself of happiness would be no more helpful a response than starving yourself of food.

    As for your question — “are we in an unprecedented period of American history” — well, I’d take the long view and say the entire world has been dealing with an unprecedented level of technological and cultural change for the past hundred years — vastly improved powers of communication along with vastly improved means of violence. The crisis we’re going through now has to be seen in that context. It does seem, though, that our country is dealing with several unprecedented particulars right now, though. I do think we have an unprecedented level of incompetence in our current leadership, and the moral questions this realization raises are, I think, a new phenomenon to most Americans.

    Ed, what I think you should do is write more about politics here. You have an audience — use it. I think this will give you the chance to test your ideas and build your confidence as a political thinker. I’d love to see the incidence of politically insightful postings here on increase, and I have no fear that you’d sink into banality or reveal yourself to be ignorant. Just call the shots on what you read in the news the same way you call the shots on the books you read and the writers you meet, and see what happens.

  4. Article 10 from the state constituion of New Hampshire seems to nail it:

    “Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”

  5. Yes, we all live in Nazi Germany, and you are all part of the big, brave resistance.

    If Ed starts trying to force-feed us politics, I’m our of here.

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