The Unbearable Noisiness of Politics


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After I lived in New York for several political cycles, it became clear that the din and extent of news was an unbearable chronic affliction. Some decisive limitation was necessary.


The most useful rule I followed was: Never read or watch or even talk about anything that will be decided on a definite date.


Think of it. This crisply eliminated the need to pay attention to a surprising and welcome array of matters, ranging from the Super Bowl to the Millennium to Charles and Diana's wedding, and of course most important, to all elections.


But now the electoral process has become ubiquitous, unavoidable, virtually endless, and to a dire extent the most obvious social factor there is. The freedom to chose our leaders, which is wonderful, has become a form of enslavement to a process that lurches between what often seems the disgusting and the unnecessary. Even though only about 15 percent of people voted in the most recent election, virtually 100 percent of people had to be subjected to a nonstop avalanche of advertisements, polls, pundits, sound bites, sight bites and the endless reiteration of arias of self-righteous, sanctimonious egotist ambition sung to the lulling tune of "I'm doing it all for you."


Where is Kafka when we need him? Who else could do justice to the fact that the government grants entrepreneurs licenses to operate radio and television facilities, who then sell exceptionally costly time on these very same facilities to people who want to become members of the government? Who else could with the right amount of disbelieving wonder observe the cavalcade of funds delivered to candidates and parties to buy this publicly provided electronic facility and to sustain electoral campaigns that run nonstop, inconveniently punctuated only by the elections themselves?


Who else could do justice to the craven process by which candidates subject themselves to the hectoring of clattery political consultants, whose principal triumph is to coerce their candidate-victims enough so that they no longer possess self-sufficient individual competence and moral and intellectual autonomy? Now they must rely on their hired hands to tell them what to think and what color to wear and where to smile and when to frown and how to leap a platform and what to say about China and bad people and perform burrito bites and bbq bites and bagel bites.


Aides define how to rosy-talk about the future we eagerly await, which will be finer than our past now that our disreputable opponents have utterly trashed the present. Now candidates have to pay attention to so many real and fanciful constituencies and so many journalists and so many regions and skin colors and God-theorists and property-owners and gunners and moral perfectionists that it seems impossible to be anything other than everything.


The fact is that a system created to serve a relatively tiny if relatively complex country, spread out over miles and connected mainly by word of mouth and, at its fastest, the speed of the U.S. Postal Service, now operates instantly and ubiquitously with a volume of events and communication about them that has moved the dial of action from "calm reflection" to "immediate response." Spin doctors indeed become vital practitioners, because everybody and everything is in endless spin. The result is a Niagara of words, images, polls and meetings. The public assembly with all its ambiguity and sense of limits is distilled into the essence of modern politics, which is fiercely skilled advertisements knifing into everyone's living room on television.


Candidates who have to endure endless talk and endless travel are in severe danger of becoming the trained monkeys of their own organ-grinder consultants. Endless begging for limitless money discourages potential candidates?especially women?who retain a nostalgic sense of human civility from turning their lives of political ambition into charitable causes as if they were a dread disease or a fund for flood relief.


Perhaps a federal judge in Maine has upheld its Clean Election law so that candidates can agree to accept modest limits of public money instead of private contributions. Pardon me. Wait. Use public money to support the vital central public process of choosing the government? What? And already groups from chambers of commerce to the ACLU to the Libertarian Party to PACs to wealthy contributors have attacked the possibility of encouraging modest politics in the name of everything from freedom of expression to the fairness of everyone having the right to support with equal tenderness the candidate of their choice?everyone from Uncle Ebenezer to Philip Morris to Microsoft to Cousin Sallie to Exxon to International Chinese Most-Favored Trading Company.


As the Bard announced, it's all become an "expense of spirit in a waste of shame." Politics is the vast and unbearable national sitcom that carries on in the new obligatory style: 24/7. And for years on end. From the day after one election to the day after the next. It is an insufferably banal and unnecessary public burden. It absorbs too much national oxygen and produces too many sociotoxic emissions. Tens of thousands of people earn a living doing nothing else but producing words and grunts and laughter about the cast of political characters and they do so very loudly and almost everywhere you turn. The political system has managed finally to achieve the unavoidable penetration of private life by public officials of which the Politburo and Chicoms could only dream.


Here parliamentary system, such as the Canadian, provides an immense advantage to the central nervous systems of the electorate, because election campaigns may take two to three months and that's that. The prime minister decides he or she has a good shot at winning and calls an election and it is over before the school term. It gives an advantage to the party in power, but that has backfired often enough so that the population retains a fresh opportunity to listen, think, act. There are fewer steps to the process, so there is less cost, and there is more public access to the public airwaves, so begged money is less decisive. If nothing else, it would seem, in contrast to the nonstop circus here, a blow on behalf of public mental health.


Of course there remains in America the central glory of the fact of election, and the fact that leaders can sometimes lead and occasionally inspire and at best imprint the public with a mark of honest decency joined to acts of willful competence and lustrous meaning. Sometimes the quasi-monarchical esthetic of the presidency provides politics as effective and gratifying as it gets. But an anthropologist observing what we take for granted would have to conclude we love the clamor and abrasiveness of politics more than what it is supposed to provide, which is agreeable and equitable productive society. The question arises, why don't the tribesmen give themselves a break between elections, say for 45 months?


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