Surviving Elections

Ignore pundits. Including me. Ignore anyone who presumes to predict the future with confidence. 
 
Avoid 24 hour news outlets: In order of influence: FOX News, CNN, MSNBC. Their model is the same. The News as Sports. Civic Culture as Civil War. What all of these venues have done is incorporate the methods of advertising and entertainment in order to make the news something other than information to be gathered and more like merchandise to be sold. All of these personalities throwing opinions at you are being paid to advocate certain positions. The length of an average cut is rarely more than 3-5 seconds. We are delivered lot’s of information and tons of interpretation, but are never given a moment to think. 
 
When you are watching FOX, CNN, MSNBC you are watching unrelenting trance inducing marketing strategy. In terms of news, studies have shown that the accuracy of a person’s predictions vis a vis politics is in inverse proportion to the amount of time that person spends appearing on the media. 
 
Watching MSNBC the other night I was hugely entertained, and appalled. An amazing demonstration of the principle of Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism: “The Medium Is The Message.” 
 
Everything important in political advertising can be conveyed with the sound turned off. You are presented with iconic representations of all of the things you already feel. A drama. A story. ED, of the ED Show on MSNBC is Uncle Ed the union guy who had to struggle to get by when he was young and emerged a fight and organizer of the common people. He speaks almost exclusively a litany of slogans and talking points. He has this in common with Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. In “ED’s” case the style is less like sportscaster and more like Glenn Beck, evangelistic. He’s the Christ like figure crying out in the wilderness for a modicum of reason. Whatever the political slant the essential message is some variation of, “Fire” “Flood” “Fight!” None of these so-called ‘news’ shows are primarily about information, at least not really useful information. Their message is primarily emotional and anxiety inducing. Whether ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ the intended effects are pretty much the same.
 
You may ask yourself, does watching either FOX News or MSNBC (whatever your flavor) make you feel more confident, more positive about the future? Does it convey to you a sense that you are part of a community dealing positively with common problems or is it the feeling that we are divided into armed camps? Does it make your perceived problems and dilemmas appear more resolvable, or does it give you the sense that we are collectively sinking into an ocean of chaos?
 
A media experience that narrows rather than widens a person’s perspective is not really news, it’s propaganda. My recommendation to everyone is to limit your exposure to television news as much as possible. If you watch the news, stick to shows that feature extended interviews and a variety of viewpoints rather than the daily propaganda feeds of the cable news networks. By merely not watching the parade of hype and salesmanship you will be less misinformed, will appear smarter, and it will relieve much stress.    
 
Television is a drug to which many are addicted. This partially explains the collective absorption with unreality that haunts generations who grew up in worlds defined primarily by television. To a later generation, growing up in what can almost be called the ‘post-television’ era, the variety of available media channels is almost staggering. Young people are used to swimming in a saturated stew of media input that they use individually to create a ‘mixed and matched’ portrait of themselves and of the world around them. They are more aware of the fact that our image of the world is largely made of fictions that each of us cobbles together to make sense of it all.   
 
The demographic of those for whom cable news is their primary source of world information is mostly over 50. As a group they comprise those who are perhaps most distrustful of the present and most apprehensive about the future. They’ve been mostly raised in a world dominated by images of advertising dedicated to the message that we are lacking in something, and if we can only reach over here…we will be happier. Perhaps then our lives will more resemble those whose pretend lives we watch on television. 
 
Meanwhile, the interactive worlds of computer and cell phones are less responsive to conventional modes of social manipulation via media. They are constantly being re-appropriated by those who use it as a tool for organizing ‘outside’ of conventional systems of commerce and government. A younger generation that’s thoroughly saturated in layers of electronic media may be more able to maintain a skeptical distance from the never ending parade of images and sales pitches thrown around by centralized nodes like television and radio. They may be less susceptible to modes of deliberate conditioning that an older, less media literate generation falls more easily prey to.  
 
The cultural division of America is no longer primarily North and South or East and West. On the surface there appears to be cultural conflicts between city and suburb, white and non-white, rich and poor. Underneath all of these is a sharp division between generations in terms of media literacy. The present political drama features a battle royal between a television/cable marketing generation and an Internet/Satellite/Cell Phone generation who have very different ways of processing the information they receive. This explains why each successive election of the past 40 years has been so weirdly and increasingly split down the middle, with almost exactly half of the electorate polarized toward either side. 
 
This time around the Republican campaign is headed by a media guy whose experience is in communications and media spin. He tends to function on the level of television and the movies – heavy advertising and media with enough money to poor into any set of images or counter-images you have a mind to. The Democrat campaign has focused on a more traditional ‘ground game’ that relies on personal contact, by phone or in the flesh. With the help of unions and a well organized network they’ve built three times as many local campaign offices across the country. Republicans are hoping, one way or another, that an election, like everything else in a capitalist country, can be bought with sufficiently clever advertising. It may work. Whatever works, this election will reflect an important decision, collectively made at a critical time, over what sorts of information we value and how we prefer to have it conveyed. 
 
Nobody knows how this is going to come out. The best thing we can do for ourselves and others is to get beyond our fears of the outcome. Whichever way the pendulum swings it will eventually turn and swing the other way, so it benefits us to look forward and not back. Humanity is now largely part of an almost totally integrated system of global energy transfer that enfolds the worlds of government and commerce. We are slowly recognizing who we are as a global collective, and observing that we are all in this together. Whichever direction we choose, forward or back, there will be many struggles ahead. Still, amid the struggle and resistance and denial, we are forced to discover our faith in the future as the inevitable change happens all around.
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As far as seeing into the future, the best we can do is try to see clearly the present, if possible, unadorned with hype and fantasy. It’s election season and for those paying attention there’s a real tension in the air between all of us. Somebody will win and somebody will lose. The questions then are about how we move on. Personally I hope we decide to embrace the possibilities of the future with courage and persistence, and not choose to return to some vanished fantasies of the past. I’d hate to have to go back to the world as told to us by Reagan/Bush et al. and have to play out this whole circle-the-wagons thing again.
 
A Star Trek interpretation of the race occurred to me today. Embodied in caricatures of Businessman versus Lawyer we’ve got a situation of Doctor McCoy (the Emergency Doctor!) running against Mister Spock (the Cool Science Officer). Now which one would you rather? 
 
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Third Debate Roundup

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Romney / Presentation / Somewhat Flat / Agitated / Defensive / Almost Plaintive

 
Obama / Presentation / Rhythm Pause Rhythm Pause Rhythm Pause
 
Romney / Demeanor / Frozen Smile / Defensive / Abstract
 
Obama Demeanor / Steady / The tilt of the head which suggests both authority and compassion.
 
Romney through sound and image: Politician
 
Obama through sound and image: President 
 

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Intruder

I have a cat.
Pretty neurotic.
Just like my other cats.
Just like me.

Frisky and guarded.
Wary.
Not knowing entirely what is to come.
Not being entirely ok with that.
Craves affection.
Pushes away.

Ambiguous about people.
This tiny little place his jungle.
Entirely.
And you intrude.
He wants to be attended.
He wants to be alone.

Go figure.

Updates

“You have always taught us that liberty is the same thing as capitalism, as if life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot be crushed by greed. Your American Dream is financial, not ethical. Thank you. You have taught us well.” 

 
– the Chinese Ambassador to C. J. Craig in the 7th season of The West Wing
 
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In the wake of President Obama’s dismal performance at the first debate in Denver, Colorado, I read the following article in a recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly that, in my mind, begins to make sense of the whole thing. It maps out a case for the near impossibility for a black person to express public anger (even when justified) in our so-called “post-racial” culture without triggering a sense of primal fear in a good portion of the American public. Not that this is an excuse for Obama’s “bad night” (which could conceivably cost the election) but it puts into context the image of Obama staring down at his notes looking rather weary while a white guy looking like he stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting proceeds to dress him down. Perhaps if we could come up with an acceptable form of the phrase “You Lie!” (voiced openly by a white congressman in the middle of one of Obama’s State of the Union addresses) – something like Joe Biden’s “Malarkey” – then a black man could navigate the shoals of national politics without the forced pretense of polite respect.  
 
Another article I liked, written by Bill Clinton, appeared in a recent issue of Time Magazine. It’s an upbeat presentation of a longer view and broader vision which is the key to successful politics and the reason Bill Clinton is one of the most successful politicians of the past half century.  
 
 

A Case for the Longer View

A Case for the Longer View
 
I’ve found that the best antidote to being overwhelmed by political trivia and the day-by-day struggles of the electorate and their representatives is to step back and allow one’s perspective to embrace a wider angle view of history including past, present and future. Lately I’ve been returning to science fiction, which by its nature embraces the longer view. I’ve been reading Hunters of Dune and listening to an audio version of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation Trilogy. Both epics challenge us to think in terms of thousands of years of cause and effect. If nothing else, they provide a useful exercise for stretching our perspective outside of our immediate impulses. 
 
Certainly, in the context of human history the current political struggles are more clearly apprehended as part of a continuing discourse that stretches across boundaries of time, war, religion and empire. Every election and every personal choice at every point in time in fact contains the entirety of our relationship to every other moment. In Buddhism this is known as the principle of interdependent co-arising. Given the principle that everything we do and think is inextricably linked with the ongoing flow of time and with the totality of collective experience, we are either driven toward a helplessly deterministic frame of mind or we fully take on the responsibility of our actions and their consequences in relation to the whole. In this context my frequent but fleeting surrender to the emotions of fear or anger appears somewhat irresponsible at best and extremely counterproductive. 
 
Yes, every election is “the most important election of our time.” Given the almost infinite vectors of historical and personal history colliding at the point where we pull the lever or drop our ballot in the box (or don’t) the potential consequences of the choices we make may appear either overwhelming or meaningless. Here the advice inscribed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy appears most relevant: 
 
“Don’t Panic.”
 
Over the years, at least since the overthrow of Jimmy Carter, every election season evokes in me feelings ranging from short lived elation to rage and disappointment. It appears that every time America is on the verge of actually grappling seriously with real world situations we collectively surrender to some dream of manufactured reality. While the rest of the world begins to face the consequences of some of humanity’s unfortunate choices (We’ve been thinking and talking about climate change since the late seventies) America pretends that the consequences of our actions (other than financial gain and loss) are mostly irrelevant.
 
However, when I step back and take a few breaths I can see that there is change and even progress over the years and decades. While our politics cycle through periods of vision and retreat our collective awareness of a world beyond our expectations gradually and steadily expands. Awakening proceeds much more slowly than I generally appreciate, given the nature of one short human lifetime. We try and fail and try again and slowly the boulder moves on up the hill. 
 
It appears that the best we can do is to help each other stay awake while urging one another not to surrender to cynicism and complacency. There’s so much to be explored and so many choices ahead of us. We all need help to prioritize and to hold things in proper perspective, as various waves of panic and despair and misplaced enthusiasm roil over the surface of civilization. We need collectively to decide from moment to moment what’s important and what’s better left behind.  
 
In the interest of our common interests I’d like to share with you an interchange between myself and my friend Jason, whose reply to my last post includes a representation of our political situation that’s both simple and clear. He quotes the part of my piece that I believe is the most provocative and open to debate:  
 

“To those who are lost in the kind of cynicism caused by over-exposure to the mind numbing critiques of the left, particularly over issues of foreign policy, I can only say that I don’t believe for a minute “both parties are the same.” The difference, even in foreign policy, is clearly put forth in the rhetoric of the presidential candidates. Mitt Romney forthrightly represents the old colonial assumptions of white supremacy and the just rule of financial elites. Barack Obama’s foreign policy, which has been criticized for being too reactive (rather than pro-active) consistently emphasizes themes of cultural diversity and cooperation and are never mired in the rhetoric of religious and racial bigotry. It’s true, I will concede, that both candidates and both parties support the continued strength and overwhelming superiority of the American military. Both will do what it takes to keep the lights on. Both will use drones (or whatever means necessary) in wars against foreign enemies (with consequential collateral damage to civilians). I do believe, however, that the switch from a rhetoric of domination to the rhetoric of cooperation and defense is more than just a change in vocabulary. It indicates an important step toward new approaches in a world facing enormous changes where cooperation is the only path that can take us beyond disaster.”

Jason replies:
“I think both parties goals are the same, but they have different strategies/ideologies to reach the goal. Reminds me of being a young child in the back seat of the family car and listening to my parents bicker about how to get to a certain destination. Sometimes the gloves would come off when there was a disagreement about the current location or even which direction north was. But you know – where we were hoping to end up was never in dispute.” 
This inspired the following response:
 
Absolutely true. All of us, left, right and center are riding in the same vehicle, toward heaven or oblivion or more likely someplace in between. 

What we expect from our governments and leaders is that they maintain the infrastructure that supports our existence, and that they protect us from those who want to hurt us. ALL of us who choose to live in a particular country agree on these things. 

Some of us may see the destination more clearly and most of us disagree somewhat on the path from here to there. Some of us are extremely short sighted and selfish. Some of us are lost in our dreams.

The war that’s raging in this country and most of those raging around the world are religious wars, dealing with disagreements about the purpose and destination of the journey. In this election two very different metaphysics are represented. The parental metaphor is apt. American politics in fact, has long been characterized as a clash between the “daddy” state and the “mommy” state. 

I see it as a clash between two distinct value sets. One is based on the religious concept that our ultimate destination is another world completely (the Abrahamic religious legacy in the west and the Hindu philosophy in the east). Against this is the view that our natural destiny is one of codependency with the natural world and each other. The latter view flows most recently out of the conclusions of science, particularly as Systems Theory. It also is seen in several religions that emerged out of the so-called Axial Age that began about 2500 years ago. 

If you listen to and analyze the vocabulary used in virtually every speech at the Republican and Democrat Conventions you will see an amazingly stark representation of these opposing metaphysics.

This is a conflict that is much older than America. In a country that’s a melting pot and in some ways a microcosm of the whole world, our political process is a mirror of this ancient struggle. 

Unlike in many other countries in the world, we may be sitting in the back seat, but we ultimately decide, collectively, who will sit in the front.

 
Addendum:
 
As for my comment about “the mind-numbing critiques of the left,” a bit of clarification is in order. 
 
…which leads us to the question of Drones…
 
Oh yeah…and here’s Sarah Silverman with another public service message (uncensored). 

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Freedom is just Chaos, with better lighting.

– Alan Dean Foster

 

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Sites of interest:

http://arclist.org/

http://deskript.com/

http://www.openculture.com/

http://open.salon.com/blog/ralph_melcher/recent

http://arclist-ralphmelcher.blogspot.com/

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“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

The Vote

I haven’t spent much time bloviating about the election this year, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested. Early every morning, just after sitting and reading a few Buddhist texts, the next thing I do is look up the polls and the best political analysis I can find (usually on the Washington Post app or RealClearPolitics. I check them repeatedly during the day whenever I can get away to my local hotspot at work. There’s so much information and opinion out there that it hardly seems worth the time to add more to the mix. I suppose you can say that I’m a bit more emotionally detached, but this is a natural function of paying such close attention for so long. Over the past year I’ve been getting together about once a week to watch old episodes of The West Wing. It’s almost amazing how little the basic issues have changed in the decade since these shows were produced. (We are currently on the seventh and last season, just before the debates, so our timing has been perfect.) 
 
I must say that this election is the most interesting I can remember. Two candidates are running who aren’t idiots and who are able to clearly articulate their positions. Both presidential candidates and both parties have become clear expressions of two polarized views of the world. The ferment among the population has been a long time coming. This election could mark a decisive defeat for forces of right wing bigotry and religious intolerance that have tried over the past 30 years to turn the country into a racist colonialist theocracy. Or not. I look forward to this inevitable defeat, which will mark the passing of an aging population of baby boomers who are caught in the passing remnants of idealistic illusions that have clashed since the advent of television and the long slow decline of the American Empire. In the midst of all this dreaming the Republican Party made a deal with forces that promoted the extreme dreamworld of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning In America.” This gave rise to a frightened community who see their rights of racial privilege threatened at every turn and would deny the validity of virtually every progressive change that’s emerged since the end of the Civil War and the ‘Guilded Age’. 
 
The elements that represent the worst of America flocked to the Republican party when the Democrats embraced civil rights in the sixties. What were once solid “Blue” states in the south turned bright red and have remained so ever since. Racism and evangelicalism accompanied by assumptions of white superiority aided by voter suppression became the backbone and the curse of the new “conservatism.” The migration between parties won them several decades worth of electoral power over Democrats who were trying to redefine themselves as the party of diversity rather than the party exclusively of labor in the north and segregation in the south. 
 
For Republicans the cost of their bargain has come due. Through the globalization of electronic communication and the consequent liberalization of culture the base of their party has become narrowly white and is aging. As populations have become more concentrated in urban centers a cultural war is being waged between rural and urban America. Superimposed on this are the contradictions of a heavily subsidized (and mostly white) rural sector that hates government against a concentrated and diverse urban population that in many ways is compelled to find more creative ways to enter the future. 
 
Two very different sets of values have taken over each party and in every successive presidential election this split has become more pronounced. The configuration of both parties has now become all but set in stone. Although many will disagree, I believe that the old colonial values that we inherited from England have come to dominate the south and are backed up, particularly among the poorest and least educated class of whites, by Christian fear mongering. What sometimes appears to be a war of religious values is really a war about race and class that has been raging since our beginnings as a nation. Religion is used as the self-justification for the worst kinds of behavior. On the other hand, An increasingly secular and increasingly diverse and progressive (and young) population has become the base of the Democratic party. 
 
The victory of Obama in 2008, by breaking through the previously impenetrable barrier of race allowed the true underlying issues of class and culture to emerge as the driving themes of today’s politics. For me this election has been extremely encouraging. We are making progress in articulating our vision of the future after years of sliding back into denial of the present.
 
To those who are lost in the kind of cynicism caused by over-exposure to the mind numbing critiques of the left, particularly over issues of foreign policy, I can only say that I don’t believe for a minute “both parties are the same.” The difference, even in foreign policy, is clearly put forth in the rhetoric of the presidential candidates. Mitt Romney forthrightly represents the old colonial assumptions of white supremacy and the just rule of financial elites. Barack Obama’s foreign policy, which has been criticized for being too reactive (rather than pro-active) consistently emphasizes themes of cultural diversity and cooperation and are never mired in the rhetoric of religious and racial bigotry. It’s true, I will concede, that both candidates and both parties support the continued strength and overwhelming superiority of the American military. Both will do what it takes to keep the lights on. Both will use drones (or whatever means necessary) in wars against foreign enemies (with consequential collateral damage to civilians). I do believe, however, that the switch from a rhetoric of domination to the rhetoric of cooperation and defense is more than just a change in vocabulary. It indicates an important step toward new approaches in a world that faces enormous changes where cooperation is the only path that can take us beyond disaster. 
 
 

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   

Sites of interest:

http://arclist.org/

http://deskript.com/

http://www.openculture.com/

http://open.salon.com/blog/ralph_melcher/recent

http://arclist-ralphmelcher.blogspot.com/

To subscribe to the Arclist send a message to melcher@nets.com

“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan