Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, January 20, 2005

True blue

by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine (January 2005)

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere. -- Thomas Jefferson

The London Daily Mirror published the result of last year's American presidential election under the headline "How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?" which was the same question that on the morning of November 3 confounded every late- or early-rising Democrat in Manhattan. If by noon I'd heard it asked in all the tones of voice meant to express shock, disgust,
bewilderment, and shame, neither had I come across anybody equipped with an intelligible or ready answer. Among the company at lunch in a downtown restaurant catering to the literary trade what passed for conversation consisted of little else except the exchange of stunned silences. All present had been so certain that the election would go the other way. How could it not? The American people might be dumb, but were they also deaf and blind? Who but a lunatic or a columnist for the New York Post could fail to see President George W Bush as a dishonest and self-glorifying braggart lost in the fog of a quack religion. Surely the facts spoke for themselves. Under a pretext demonstrably false, the man had embarked the country on a disastrous and unnecessary war, mortgaged its economic future to foreign banks, assigned the care of the natural environment to the machinery certain to strip the land, poison the water, and pollute the air. What else did a voter need to know? Didn't people read the papers, look at the news broadcasts from Baghdad, wonder what had happened to their pension or their job?

So unforeseen was the calamity at the polls - the Republicans enlarging their majorities in both the Senate and the House as well as President George W Bush winning a decisive plurality of the popular vote - that it was thought deserving of a higher order of politically scientific interpretation than ordinarily was to be found in a college civics class. Something heavy was afoot, something mystical or maybe criminal, and such is the speed of our modern system of communications and the fast-drying character of its instant wisdoms that within a single twenty-four-hour news cycle the tale of the Democratic Defeat was packaged in both an authorized and an unauthorized version. The mainstream print and broadcast media reported an election decided on "the moral issues"; the Internet blogosphere brought word of an election stolen by God-fearing thieves.

As was to be expected of the newspaper of record, the New York Times preferred the more hygienic text, and its op-ed page on November 4 offered no fewer than three commentaries on the separation of the country's spiritual and intellectual powers. The historian Garry Wills explained that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had come to grief in the Pentecostal wilderness south of Chattanooga, that "many more Americans believe in the Virgin Birth than in Darwin's theory of evolution". Maureen Dowd deplored the politics of fear and intolerance with which President Georgw W Bush had recruited "a devoted flock of evangelicals" to the banners of holy crusade; Thomas Friedman discovered himself in a country undreamed of in the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, where what has been lost is the distinction between church and state, where religion trumps science. The authors took no joy in their observations - possibly because their message was not much different from the propaganda delivered by Rush Limbaugh and the Reverend Jerry Falwell to the right-wing gospel crowd - but they testified to the existence of two Americas, one of them occupied by the virtuous souls in the great Midwestern heartland ("values voters", churchgoing and culturally conservative), the other inhabited by cynical apostates (nihilist at birth, often homosexual) trading foreign currencies and languages in the secular cities on the nation's seacoasts. Like it or not, the partition was encoded in the colors of the electoral map and therefore one to which we must pay heed.

Writing for the same op-ed page on November 6, Nicholas Kristof developed the evidence into a sermon. The time had come, he said, for the Democratic Party to find its way back to God. "I wish that winning were just a matter of presentation", he said, "but it's not. It involves compromising on principles". For the wayward politicians among his readers who might have lost their Bible in a Taiwanese bordello or the belly of a whale, he suggested a few first steps on the road to redemption - "Don't be afraid of religion"; argue theology with Republicans; "Hold your nose and work with President Bush as much as you can because it's lethal to be portrayed as obstructionist"; Democrats must learn to defer to local sensibilities.

Similar instructions soon appeared on all the blackboards of the national news media - many fine words about the "healing" process binding up the wounds of partisan bitterness and strife - and on November 16 the chastened and recently reduced minority of Democrats still present in the Senate deferred to the sensibility of the nearest clergymen and named as their leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Non-obstructionist and much admired for his never having to hold his nose, Reid fit the description of a Democrat saved by Jesus - a teetotaling Mormon, a former Capitol Hill police officer, opposed to abortion, co-sponsor of the constitutional amendment deeming it a crime to burn the flag, careful to say nothing that anybody might remember, described by his colleagues as "strong as a new rope when he needs to be", as amiable as Mr Rogers, the kind of guy who'll "make the trains run on time".

I don't doubt that the country is as rich in moral values as it is in apple trees, but I'm never sure that I know what the phrase means, or how it has come to be associated with the Republican Party, the Santa Fe Trail, or the war in Iraq. How is it moral for the President of the United States to ask a young American soldier to do him the service of dying in Fallujah in order that he might secure for himself a second term in the White House? Why is it moral to deny medical care to forty million people who can't pay the loan-shark prices demanded by the insurance companies but to allow twelve million American families to go hungry in the winter? What is moral about an administration that never goes before a microphone to which it doesn't tell a lie?

Nor do I believe the sales pitch for the fruitful plains of Christian goodness lying to the west of the Mississippi River. When I read the advertisements distributed by the Heritage Foundation and the brewers of Colorado beer, I think of Tom DeLay (the House majority leader currently under threat of felony indictment, always quick to quote from scripture but quicker still to give or take a bribe), of Kenneth Lay (former chairman of the Enron Corporation, which relieved its investors of $60 billion and bilked the state of California of $2 billion), the young and entrepreneurial George W Bush, who made his fortune by extorting it from the citizens of Arlington, Texas.

So also with the story about the conservative culture said to defend the faithful in small country towns against the wickedness of modern art and the sin of neon light, or the one about the sturdy forms of economic self-reliance that preserve the homespun country folk in Kansas, Nebraska, and Tennessee. Both stories are as false as the image of New York City as a sink of iniquity, or of the Republican Party as the friend of the common man. The red states live on the charity of the blue states, more abjectly dependent on government subsidy than a Harlem welfare mother or the owner of a California football team, and if network television and the supermarket press can be taken as a measure of the culture that sustains the heartland dream of heaven, it is a product of the pagan, not the Christian, imagination - Las Vegas the Garden of Eden, the miracle of the loaves and fishes outpointed by a winning number in the lottery, the 72,000 nymphs and fauns dancing to the tune of the pornographic websites nearer to hand than the 72 black-eyed virgins promised by Allah to the martyrs of Islamic jihad.

Like the romance of the American West, the virtue of the American heartland is a proposition floated by speculators on the literary and financial markets located in the nation's godless seaports. The nineteenth-century settlement of the trans-Mississippi west was promoted by New York railroaod operators who promised the pioneers a land of milk and honey and sent their wagons forth into bankruptcy and a desert; the Hollywood entertainment industry performs a similar service for an audience wishing to imagine itself cast in a Frank Capra movie, guarded by comic book heroes, the happiest people on earth at play in the fields of the Lord, free to drink from the foun-tain of youth sold under the counter in an Ecstasy pill, over the counter as a prescription for Viagra.

I can understand why columnist Kristof might wish that President Bush's return to the White House was not "just a matter of presentation", but if I don't know how else to account for the result except as a matter of the cinematography and the sound effects, neither do I think it astonishing or deplorable. An American presidential election is a movie, usually a very bad movie, but the American public likes bad movies, and President Bush was more convincing in the role of Batman than was Senator John Kerry in the role of Flash Gordon. The production values are the moral values.

The movie playing in the mainstream media during the first week after the election conformed to the specifications of a major studio release along the lines of Titanic or Lord of the Rings; the one that opened in the blogosphere multiplex resembled a film noir independently produced by Quentin Tarantino. Rising from the depths of the cyberspatial void like flotsam from a sunken ship, the tumult of postings and emails brought forth long lists of numbers, ten-page attachments, rumors of Republican election officials as corrupt as Huey Long, and it was hard to know who or what was telling the truth, which websites could be trusted, and which ones were being operated by paranoid conspiracy theorists or Captain Nemo. Much of the testimony was anecdotal or so circumstantial as to be open to an inference precisely opposite to the one intended, but a good deal of it bore the stamp of reliable witness and incontrovertible fact. The fragments of a possible narrative could be found in what was known to have occurred in Florida - statistical anomalies, election laws configured to prevent any chance of a recount, the malfunction of easily abused voting machines, many voters denied access to the polls, large numbers of ballots spoiled or lost - and although the scraps of evidence didn't make the weight of an indictment on charges of either grand or petty larceny, they at least provided clues worthy of further investigation:

<> A precinct in Franklin County, Ohio, possessed of only 638 voters awarded 4,258 votes to Bush.

<> In forty-seven of the sixty-seven counties in Florida, Bush received more votes than there were registered Republicans.

<> Of the 120,200,000 votes cast on Election Day roughly a third were processed by electronic voting machines supplied not by government but by private corporations, at least one of them (Diebold) controlled by a zealous partisan of the Republican Party who made no secret of his wish to bring victory home for the holidays. The software programs enjoyed the protection grant ed to commercial trade secrets.

<> In three states that relied extensively on paper ballots (Illinois, Maine, Wisconsin) the exit polls corresponded to the final tally. In six states that relied extensively on electronic touchscreens (North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio) the discrepancy between the exit polls and the final tally invariably favored Bush.

<> In ten of the eleven swing states the final result differed from the predicted result, and in each instance the shift added votes for Bush.

<> Voters in six states, most particularly those in three Florida counties (Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach) reported touching the screen for Kerry and seeing their ballots marked for Bush.

<> The electronic machines in Broward County began counting absentee ballots backward once they had recorded 32,000 votes; as more people voted, the official vote count went down.

<> Exit polls in states equipped with verifiable paper receipts corresponded to the final tally; in states employing electronic touch screens the margin of difference between exit polls and the final tallies was as high as five, seven, and nine percent.

The credibility of the story adrift in cyberspace had less to do with the certainty of the numbers than with the character of the Bush Administration. If we know nothing else about the government now returning to office in Washington, we know that it doesn't hesitate to cheat and steal and lie. Its family values are those of the Corleone and Soprano families, and thus in line not only with the heartland values of the nineteenth-century American frontier but also with the predatory modus operandi of our twenty-first-century business corporations; an administration capable of perpetrating the murderous fraud of Operation Iraqi Freedom almost certainly would count it as a loss of face if it couldn't further serve God's will by fixing a presidential election.

The other supposition lending credence to the tale told on the Internet followed from the indignant reaction to it on the part of the mainstream media. Under the front-page headline "Vote fraud theories spread by blogs are quickly buried", the New York Times on November 12 published a report that compensated for its lack of journalistic enterprise with a tone of mockery and disdain- "Weblog hysteria", "Experts soon able to debunk". The unnamed experts (professors at Harvard, Cornell, and Stanford) addressed only those suspicions that were most easily allayed; the more troubling questions they left unburied. Similar admonitions appeared in the Washington Post ("Ultimately, none of the most popular theories holds up to close scrutiny"), in the Boston Globe ("Much of the traffic is little more than Internet-fueled conspiracy theories"). The motions to dismiss were seconded by various spokesmen for the Kerry campaign, among them David Wade, quoted in the Times as saying that "I'd give my right arm for Internet rumors of a stolen election to be true, but blogging it doesn't make it so. We can change the future; we can't re-write the past."

We do nothing else except rewrite the past - in every morning's newspaper, every novel, poem, history book, interoffice memo, message posted on a refrigerator or the Internet. We inhabit the landscapes of our stories, and of the two best-selling fictions explaining the Democratic Defeat, I found myself more at home in the one about the robbery. Although not without its flaws, at least it was consistent with what I know of the country in which I was born and proudly count myself a citizen, the story vouched for in the writings of Henry Adams and Mark Twain, in line with the taking of the land from the Mexicans and the Indians, with the heroic scale of the government fraud embedded in the building of the transcontinental railroad, with the Teapot Dome swindle, the stock-market collapse of 1929, the Internet bubble of fond and recent memory. An American story, true blue and fire-engine red. If the Democrats don't spoil it with a Bible and a flag, maybe they can regain the courage, traditional and culturally conservative, to steal the next election.

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Bill Totten


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