Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Repression of the Serious

Via Arts & Letters Daily: "Bring on the Mud" by Christopher Hitchens. Here Hitch examines the American voters' joint claims that the two political parties are too similar and that partisan politics is too divisive, finding them less contradictory than somewhat lacking and confused.

"There are large and important topics that the electoral “process” is almost designed to muffle or muzzle," Hitchens writes, citing the war on drugs, the death penalty, and the pledge of allegiance as three examples. But Hitchens doesn't plumb why these three issues have turned into sacred cows, other than to suggest a gap between politicians and the electorate.

I might identify these three as one of our many topics of national confusion. On each issue, there's a section of the populace that's bitterly pro, a section that's bitterly contra, and a muddled, muffled mass in the middle. Most of us know there are problems with the death penalty and the war on drugs but don't really know, understand, or would be willing to support an alternative, just as most of us know that there are constitutional problems with (and a touch of totalitarian creepiness in) the pledge of allegiance yet remain oddly attatched to it, or at least some of the devotions of patriotism.

What's more, we don't trust -- at least as our politicians -- those with dreadful clarity on these issues. I'd wager that to the majority of Americans, even those who support the use of the death penalty, George W. Bush and his ilk appear to like handing it out just a little too much. At the same time, a national candidate who ran on the abolition of the death penalty would likely meet resistance from those same moderates who want to preserve it as an option in the most extreme instances. Only a thin slice of the electorate would be happy with total abolition. The only other route to go is reform -- which virtually everyone would support in principle, but which is difficult to spell out in any detail. It's not immediately clear to me how one could legislate reform of the death penalty at the national level at all -- maybe some kind of federal oversight body or something.

So we don't want our candidates to be too certain, but we don't want them to be uncertain, either. We want them to be leaders: which apparently means that we want them to be something like ourselves, only better-looking, better-connected, and more resolute (whatever that means). A clarification of and avatar for ourselves, with all our flaws either absent or in firm denial. No wonder a politician's supporters always simultaneously idealize and personalize him, as Hitchens notes: going any deeper into their tics, foibles, and shortcomings might require some serious self-examination as well -- and that's not the kind of drama our political theater is playing.

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