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The Distractions of Politics

It probably isn’t astounding, but media critic Mark Crispin Miller now has a blog. Miller taught at JHU in my graduate writing program. I didn’t have class with him (although I sat through the showings of Hitchcock films in his movie class), and bumped into him at cocktail parties occasionally. I think I also taught some of his essays from his classic work of media studies, Boxed In.

Lately I’ve noticed that Miller has spent a lot of time talking politics. He wrote a book about Republican shenanigans in the 2004 Presidential elections and apparently entered the tussle for Kennedy’s Rolling Stones article about Ohio elections.  (Miller also wrote a good account of Ohio voting irregularity in 2005). That is regrettable, but understandable given the climate we currently live in. That’s one of the overlooked harms of electing a dufus for a leader: scholars can no longer turn away from the “real world” and instead have to focus on consciousness-raising. Can you really be expected to write treatises on Shakespeare if your government–acting on your behalf–is crucifying people, suppressing science, rigging elections , violating international treaties, running up massive deficits, depriving us of civil liberties, becoming allies with major human rights violators, outspending the rest of the world on defense, befriending convicted criminals, underfunding education and ignoring a crumbling infrastructure?

Truthfully, I hate writing about all this–if only because I know that the kind of people who read my blog already know most of the things I link to. When I taught at a university in Albania, I remember the distaste my colleagues (and even students) had towards anything political. Albania had been traumatized by a dictator, and classrooms were politicized to the point where everything had to be interpreted in some political way. It was oppressive. Yet, I can’t help feeling that at American universities students are feeling the same onus of political focus.

Here’s my guess what is happening on campuses these days. Almost all professors are liberal and incensed at current leaders, while students on the whole are left-leaning. Maybe only 30% are not only left-leaning, but feel passionately about politics (writing the occasional editorial for the school newspaper or participating in the occasional protest). 20% or so of them were raised Republican or came from religious backgrounds; This 20% is usually indifferent to politics (although they certainly are aware of what their peers are saying and could conceivably be swayed one way or another). Maybe 10% are ardent partisan Republicans (to the point of making it a part of their identity and going to meetings). About 5% are libertarians or independents (not particularly Republican, but sympathetic to the low taxes/limited government rhetoric). The remaining 35% avoid any discussion of politics altogether, focusing on a career or athletics or parties or getting good grades. And yet, because of academic discontent, I suspect classes are dominated by talk about politics, much to the dismay of most students. (Something similar happened when I was attending school under Reagan’s reign. Reagan was certainly polarizing and aroused a lot of anger, yet Reagan’s actions never tore at our democratic institutions or constitutional protections in the way we see now). What we are witnesing  is a total devolution of our democracy.

This didn’t really have to happen. Both Democratic presidential candidates would have done an adequate (if not exemplary) job running the country. And divided government doesn’t seem to fail too miserably; Americans even seem to prefer divided government (feeling perhaps that the tension between both viewpoints is healthy). My problem is not with the Republican Party as a set of political values. Put Newt Gingrich or Colin Powell or Jack Kemp on the ticket, and I could conceivably vote for them (if I didn’t like the Democratic candidate). I may have different values, but at least I can respect these divergent values (and sometimes even prefer them). Instead, I object to style of Republican politicking, the cynical way they manipulate political opinion and try to distract people’s attention from more important issues. Political control to the current leaders is more of a matter of hiding things from John Q. Public and preventing open access to information. Voters tend to be blind to the fault of their own political party. But I have lots of trouble locating equivalent kinds of outrageous behavior on my side. Republicans are fond of caricaturing the opinions of visible liberals. Michael Moore is seen as a crazy buffoon, for example. Teddy Kennedy is viewed as a lush; Kerry is viewed as a person who can’t make up his mind. Caricaturing is an intrinsic part of politics, so I guess I can’t grow too angry. But look at these three caricatures: Moore’s partisan satire (leaving aside the histrionics and occasional overstatement for humor) is extremely careful to be factually accurate. Kennedy (despite early scandals and sometimes predictable opinions) is a man of deep integrity and an effective legislator. Kerry (despite a deliberative approach to issues) uses carefully nuanced language and yet was still able to deliver what I feel to an impassioned denunciation of a misguided foreign policy (I think his Vietnam may stand as one of the most important political speeches made during my lifetime). All three are men of substance and accomplishment. Yet mention these names to any Republican, and they’ll smirk and make some disparaging remark about them. Think of how easy it is to make a list of Republican partisan dingbats (Limbaugh, Oreilly, Coulter, Hannity, Delay) and how hard it is (by comparison) to come up with their liberal equivalents. Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert…are they liberal dingbats? No, they are comedians.

The problem with giving political issues all this attention is that when the pendulum swings back, the intellectual wonders whether the time he spent fussing over politics was really worthwhile. One surefire way to prevent your literary creations from attaining immortality is to focus on topical political concerns and underhanded advocacy. (I don’t have a problem with political art per se; see my essay: Good Art Can Have and Should have Political Values) When the political system breaks down, it prevents intellectuals from focusing on anything else.

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