Kerry And Electoral Illusions

by John Steppling

July 5, 2004   


(Swans - July 5, 2004)  I sympathize with the "anyone but Bush" sentiment, I really do. To imagine another four years of Ashcroft press conferences or Rumsfeld (who increasingly appears as a bipolar Hannibal Lector) briefings is almost enough to make me push that Diebold screen where the name John Kerry appears. Almost. I will not dispute the absolute absence of integrity this administration exhibits, nor its embarrassing stupidity, nor its open criminality; such observations are pretty obvious. However, to use a simple if reductive analogy, if a train is speeding toward a cliff and you had a choice of applying badly designed brakes that will slow it down a few miles per hour, or applying no brakes whatsoever...does it matter which choice you make? The train will go off the cliff anyway. Is John Kerry preferable to George Bush? My liberal friends insist, of course he is. They point to all kinds of issues that usually include abortion rights, Health and Human Services appointments, Supreme Court nominees and the environment. Perhaps he is better on some small level...perhaps. However, the entire discussion now obscures and mystifies deeper issues about electoral politics in general. John Kerry wants to end the Castro "regime," wants to get rid of Chávez, and wants more troops in Iraq. He supports Israel's right wing government and has indicated little interest in reforming the hegemony of the IFIs. He is part of the Imperialist ruling class and is, like 90% of American national office holders, a millionaire. However, whatever I think, the truth is that John Kerry matters very little, and George Bush matters very little; they are simply the branding for this fall's political discourse collection. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund will continue to loanshark their way through the developing world (more accurately, the not-developing world) and structural readjustment will keep small and desperately poor nations under the thumb of the big rich ones. The WTO will continue to force the small and impoverished to bow to their wishes, and the corporate West will continue to squash anyone who wishes to in any way modify those earnings curves. The charade of democracy is in serious need of examination and a strategic vote for John Kerry is starting to seem, to me at least, a way of avoiding this examination. The hyper-militarization of the U.S. is what keeps its waste economy afloat. Over a billion dollars a day for the defense budget is a figure one ought to contemplate for a while. All the wringing of hands about the starvation in the Sudan or the various genocides (a popular word with liberals) around the planet seems to neglect just how easy it would be to fix such catastrophes....not to mention prevent them...and that to use a week's worth of defense spending on clean water and food for the planet's poor would yield dramatic improvements. It's of course not possible to convert such money, since money doesn't work that way...but the scale of military spending is the point here. The somnambulant populace, however, prefers to focus on bromides or jingoism, (and that Calvinist/Puritan attachment to punishment continues to keep prison construction the only other growth industry. Four times the number of inmates in the US are serving life sentences than in 1984. The U.S. executes children, the poor, and the mentally challenged, as well as, judging from Illinois, the innocent, at an accelerating pace) and to accept colonial occupations and support for dictators like Karamov in Uzbekistan and monarchies like the House of Saud. How much of this would change under John Kerry? The answer is exactly none of it.

I will grant you that losing the Christian right would be nice... Fewer faith-based rehab programs would be good, and Kerry's at least nominal opposition to the death penalty (and nominal is the operative word) is a positive. Yet, if one steps back and looks at the big picture, I would submit that such improvements are pretty thin gruel and that the aforementioned train will continue to hurtle toward oblivion. That only half the population bothers to vote is less about apathy than it is about an inability to face the utter powerlessness and futility of one's life if one really must work for a living. Better to take handfuls of anti-depressants, drink oneself numb, and watch American Idol, than to have to soberly face the madness of a marketed unreality that serves only to intensify the delirious compulsions of consumption. Those who must support families are usually so exhausted by the underpaid and unprotected work they have to endure, that to accuse them of apathy is actually rather insulting. There is a question that surrounds this issue regarding low voter turnout. Does a 35% turnout help the far right, or does it begin a slow and gradual coalescing of the majority? I can't say, but I do know that until people stop getting their "news" from network and cable TV, the stultifying ignorance Americans demonstrate about the wider world will continue, genuine informed analysis will be rare, and political consciousness will remain in a kind of coma. The corporate media, owned by the same people (Viacom, Disney, etc.) who own John Kerry and who own the DNC and RNC and who market the spectacle of American politics, are so morally compromised that one should, rationally, consider them the enemy of truth. When one considers the questions that might and should be asked of ghouls like Rumsfeld and Richard Meyers by the mainstream press corps, and what actually is asked, then one can readily see the total ethical bankruptcy of this quisling press. The liberal belief in farcical institutions like the UN is another example of popular delusion. That anybody can take the UN seriously at this point is proof of either senility, crack habituation, or just a willful refusal to see the obvious. Just go look up the US record for using its veto at the UN and then tell me the UN has any importance. John Kerry wants the UN involved in Iraq, and he says he can do Iraq better than Shrub. He also said nothing about John Negroponte's nomination as Colonial administrator of Iraq, and actually most democrats praised Negroponte as a dedicated civil servant. Such hypocrisy hardly needs comment, but in the toxic afterglow of the Reagan eulogies one might point out just how many hundreds of thousands died in central America at the hands of US trained death squads while Negroponte was "our" man in the region. Kerry also praised Ronald Reagan (speaking of Central America and massacres), issuing an obit so nauseating in its obsequiousness that one shouldn't read it on an empty stomach.

So if voting makes one feel better, and if one thinks the neo-cons are out to start a nuclear war, with, I don't know, Iran, then sure, vote for Kerry. As I say, I sympathize and my refusal to vote for this toadying and servile front man for big business and the merchants of death may well come back to haunt me. I doubt, however, that it will, if only because the neo-con fanatics and Christian right are bad for business. And business, even the business of death, matters a lot more than Karl Rove's election strategies, and his currying of favor with the Christian fundamentalists (and let's not forget that the Pope is every bit as fucking nuts as Jerry Falwell). The selling of war and of patriotism has been going on for a quite a while, and from Woodrow Wilson to John Kennedy and Dick Nixon, the empire has continued to make the world a better place for profits. The poor and those without visibility continue to die; small dirt-floored structures continue to get bombed, and children are incinerated or blinded. Communities are poisoned by depleted uranium (check the carcinoma clusters appearing in the former Yugoslavia.... left behind by that "humanitarian" mission of NATO and the U.S. under democrat Bill Clinton) and families displaced and starved. Such collateral damage is just a by-product, and an acceptable one, given the spreadsheet reasoning of folks like Bush and Kerry, for the business of business.

The truth is that I might vote for Kerry if he showed just ONE small moment of honesty or took a position of integrity on just a single issue...but he doesn't and hasn't. Is he better than Bush? I increasingly feel the question meaningless. Electoral politics is suffocating beneath a corrupt top-heavy bureaucracy designed to work in the interests of those with great wealth; and when both parties are bought by the same transnational corporations, then it seems silly to argue over small distinctions. Some will say the differences are not small, and that this is the only choice we have, so better to vote for someone who will destroy things at a slower pace and with less arrogance. If that is indeed the choice, then I am going to be too busy fighting off my own psychic meltdown to go to the polls. The reality though, again, is that it doesn't really matter.

The US Empire lurches forward blindly and with ever less coherence, and Kerry may want to implement a few token reforms, but token is all they will be. The cosmetic quality of American political life has reached a cartoon-like character, an infantility of discourse that is equally evident in popular culture as a whole. The ruling class defines the parameters of discourse and helps with the degrading of language and the pollution of image. The values, as Marx pointed out, of a given society are the values of those at the top. The "lesser of two evils" mindset seems a symptom of a greater psychological unease; and that is a forgetting of compassion and a forgetting of humility. Such interior aspects of consciousness are not good for a consumer society, and not good for a system that needs to keep the populace brainwashed. The assumptions behind politicians like Kerry are really no different from those behind George Bush, Teddy Roosevelt, or even Lord Kitchner, and that is that we are special and our ability to make money (or create surplus value at any rate) is an indicator of our specialness. This has come to be called, in these days of the US Empire, American Exceptionalism, and it's really the same engine that drove European colonialism for a couple hundred years. Kerry's plan for Iraq is just the 21st Century version of the white man's burden, and in this role Kerry emerges as a nicer plantation owner than Bush -- but a plantation owner all the same. The other pole of the lesser of two evils argument leads to the sanctioning of these assumptions. A friend asked me if I thought Gore (and by extension Kerry) would have led us into Iraq. I said probably not, but he no doubt would have dropped those DU tipped bombs somewhere (the economy depends on such things). He then said "but you can't tell me it would have been as bad." I admitted it wouldn't have been as bad...or at least as extreme as Iraq. So I take from this line of reasoning that if Kerry bombs, say, Venezuela or Zimbabwe, for oh, a week tops, the liberals will say, well, see, it certainly isn't as bad as four more years of Bush. This becomes an acceptance, then, of smaller atrocities, of more caring colonialism. The media would no doubt help assuage any residual guilt by trotting out some poor suffering victims of Chávez's "reign of terror," or Mugabe's, and a dozen different NGO's would be videoed for the evening news to help explain how a "humanitarian crisis" had been averted...by killing a few thousand civilians. The tried and true sales pitch for what Ed Herman has labeled the Cruise Missile Left is to show orphaned children or refugees in tents...never mind how they actually got there or why. The goal is to show western superiority and to justify that billion a day defense budget.

Gandhi was once asked by a reporter why, when he traveled by train across India, he traveled third class. Gandhi replied, because there is no fourth class. Bush and Kerry don't travel third class. They've never even been in third class. Our culture needs to examine how it is that the menu has shrunk so far that our choices can be reduced to a visibly cretinous and, probably, neurologically damaged son of a political and banking dynasty, and an only marginally more intelligent corporate errand boy who had the stunted wisdom to marry well. The real sacrifice of men like Mandela or Martin Luther King are only materials for marketing, and Kerry might well not get my vote just for his use of a Langston Hughes poem in his promotional ad copy. Kerry and Bush and all the rest of the insiders who cash those big checks (CEOs now make around 475 times what the average worker in their company makes) have no clue what it's like to get up early and take the bus to work after not sleeping because of worry about how to pay for your child's medicine, or what it's like to be so desperate to pay the rent that one starts to consider some dire choices, including suicide, to stop the anguish. They have little grasp of the humiliation one feels when having to accept charity or the pain of watching a brother or sister go off to prison because they halted their own suffering through illegal self-medication. A vote for Kerry means another vote for tolerating this diseased and draconian system of inequality and abuse. The symbolism of the all-powerful father, the President, is just that -- symbolism. Such political theatre only obscures more important and more complex issues. A discussion of those is probably long overdue, but American liberals and progressives seem addicted to this particular spectacle -- for reasons I don't completely understand -- but if we accept a man like Kerry and expect real change, then we have already lost.

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John Steppling is a LA playwright (Rockefeller fellow, NEA recipient, and PEN-West winner) and screenwriter (most recent was Animal Factory directed by Steve Buscemi). He is currently living in Poland where he teaches at the National Film School in Lodz.

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Published July 5, 2004
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