Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Primary: Part 1

Some philosophers--Aristotle and Mill come to mind--seemed to view politics, in its proper form, as a fitting and ennobling activity for a civilized man. Others--Sartre and Machiavelli being examples--regarded it, with some positivity, as a blood sport in which the ideologically or strategically superior combatants would be exalted and the inferior degraded. Still others, such as Hobbes, generally shared this view, only with the difference that all of the combatants, indeed the whole of the civic population, emerged degraded from the process. I increasingly find myself in sympathy with this last view; certainly whatever the mass of the American citizenry feels about the courses its government has taken in the last few years under its nominal authority, however stridently individual members of it may have reveled in the machinations of the authorities, or doggedly protested or resisted the same, I think that deep down the sentient part of it cannot but feel some sense of personal humiliation and collective shame at the extent to which it has lost control, especially intellectually, over so many aspects of its fate. Perceptive people now regard the American electorate in the same light as formerly they were wont to regard that of politically hopeless countries such as Belarus or Libya; as so fundamentally ignorant, childlike, and overmastered that they can no longer really be held entirely accountable for their rulers. It is not infrequent to hear people around the world claim that while they hate the American government, they do not hate the people; the people should not interpret this as a compliment however.

Having said this, it happens that I live in the state where the first presidential primary is held, and I thought I ought to write something about it.

Often when I go somewhere out of New England and encounter residents of other states who inquire where I live, these will upon finding out launch into a mini tirade about the Primary. All the objections they raise about it are from any standpoint of pure reason probably indefensible, and I do not attempt to defend them. I am not a native of the state nor a local journalist or party activist who has acquired a status disproportionate to my actual position due to my proximity to the action, and as such do not have any emotional attachment to the Primary. It is unfair, as well as nonsensical, that if we are to have this kind of system, that New Hampshire should always go first; that it supposedly does a better job of scrutinizing the candidates than another state would do, or be able to do, is not a legitimate argument. To go on, any geographical entity that has a population that is 98% white in this day and age is offensive almost by virtue of existing, and exponentially so when it is entrusted with deciding matters of the utmost importance to nonwhite people who are excluded from the process (though I suspect a major reason most efforts by the major parties to diminish the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire in the nominating process are so tepid is that the Controlling Powers Behind the Scenes really don't want blacks and Hispanics with multitudes of complaints being able to influence national elections to the extent one can in a small state primary). In a sense the absurd continuation of this anachronism has become the great beauty of it. One lady from the Mid-Atlantic region who had once covered the primary as a journalist told me, in a tone that insinuated that in her eyes I carried some of the stench of the whole process myself, that the way we elected presidents in this country was disgusting. What could I do but agree? What can I now? Unfortunately she didn't elaborate on what was so disgusting to her, or what she would have preferred. I would have liked to have known, as she was a very feisty lady. She also asked if the town where I live was still "the city in a coma." I had to reply that it was, and indeed it is. As I didn't grow up there or have any real friends other than Mrs Surrender this line of questioning did not hurt my feelings so much, though I think it is rather rude to ask someone where they live and then launch into an attack on it; after all, the town's being hopelessly dull still reflects on my inability to bring any life to it, as I could presume she contiunally did for whatever town it was she lived in.

Acknowledging all this, I will not be celebrating when the day comes--and surely it must be coming--when the Primary is no more. It is the closest thing to real excitement that ever makes its way up here. Most of our towns are either sober, prosperous burgs full of professionals and retirees who never loiter during the day or leave their houses after dark, or depressed former mill towns full of people who like to operate loud machines. There are few young people, no music, no arts 'scene'--though a lot of established artists and writers live here, they came because they wanted to be left alone, not to hold court at the local coffehouse--only a couple of college towns. The lakes and beaches are increasingly dividing into refuges for the extrmely wealthy or gathering spots for a fairly crass and uncharming proletarian contigent. The offices and refrigerators of many modestly succesful people--teachers, bank managers, family restaurant owners--are plastered with photos of themselves locked in embraces with the likes of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George Bush I and II, Pat Buchanan and other political luminaries, and certainly there would be a collective minor depression during the first couple of missed primary cycles which, especially as it would come in the winter, would be scarcely endurable. And of course it is amusing to see the International Herald-Tribune or CNN reporting on General Wesley Clark's slicing meat at Sully's market or Al Gore's trying to determine whether he would come across more as a man of the people by having lunch at the Puritan Backroom or at Veano's Italian Kitchen. It is also a relief in a sense to have all of these deathly important and influential people, including the media, where one can see them at close range, and be reminded that they are actually just human beings, often (though not always) extremely disciplined ones, but in most cases not really that palpably superior to various excellent people of one's own past or present acquaintance. When I used to live near Washington D.C. and was around that environment of high-I.Q./think tank/lawyer/government/top secret-knowing people they seemed to me at least much less imposing than they are when one merely reads about them from afar and can only imagine them as inhabiting an intellectual and social plane that no longer has any common ground with one's own.

I hate to break this up into 2 posts but I am going to. I still have at least as much to write as I have already, and that is without the inevitable unforeseen digressions I always go off on.

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