My friend the indefatigable Anny Ballardini has begun assembling an online collection of poems written in response to the recent US election. There is a call for further submissions, as well. (Anny does a lovely job, by the way, of presenting poetry online.) The New York Times did something similar last week, with poems from five American poets — Ashbery‘s was the only one that moved me — but in any case the collection developing at Fiera Lingue is much more capacious, generous, & daring than the stuff in the Times.
Note: I began this post several days ago, but I haven’t felt much like writing. Partly this is mid-semester slump, partly that I have been busy with other things, about which I’ll have something to say anon.
It does feel different, doesn’t it, the country having elected Barack Obama president? For one thing, it appears to have driven the far right completely around the bend & that cannot be a bad thing. And though I am no kind oc constitutional literalist, it feels good to have a former Con Law prof as president-elect; after eight years of an extra-constitutional unitary executive, I was particularly happy to see this orgganization chart. And listening the the president-elect’s first news conference, I was struck by the tone of thoughtful intelligence and, yes, the use of complete sentences that followed sensibly from one to the next. The use of language marks a political divide in the modern US, as it probably always has, of course. High tone versus low down.
In fact, I heard the NY Times reporter David Kirkpatrick make an argument about the current state of the Republican party the other day on NPR that made the distinction between the “high” Republicanism of David Brooks and George Will and the “low” Republicanism of Sarah Palin & Rush Limbaugh. It is a division revealed by language and may be more important at the moment, according to Kirkpatrick, than the more usual divisons between fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and imperialist neoconservative foreign policy hawks. Less remarked upon is a similar division on the left, between inside-the-beltway establishment liberals and the progressive grassroots, which has been newly energized by Barack Obama’s campaign. The blogger Digby at Hullabaloo, refers to these two camps as Villagers (the establishment) and DFHs (dirty fucking hippies). And one of the main things that marks these different groups is their use of language, which in turn reflects their different attitudes toward the intellect.
It does seem if Republicans are retreating toward their most radical core beliefs & adopting the attitudes of “low” conservatism & the rhetoric of small town bigotry, but that sort of politics seems to be losing its purchase in many places. Levittown voted for Obama. Michael Sokolove, author of the previously linked article, writes:
My article in The New York Times Magazine reported that his [Obama’s] words were coming across as lofty and abstract to people more attuned to concrete concerns like the hourly wage and the monthly car payment. The article was published on the morning before Mr. Obama made his one big gaffe of the campaign, telling attendees at a San Francisco fund-raiser that some blue-collar voters have been so beaten down that “it’s not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion….”
Sokolove concludes that a combination of race & “his manner of speaking” made it difficult for the blue coller workers of Levittown, initially, to trust Obama’s message; ultimately, they voted for him, along with similar workers in suburban Detroit and other places. On the other hand, his race & manner of speaking cut no ice with the voters of the rural south and Appalachia, where race continues to dominate. In Macomb County Michigan & Levittown, on the other hand, the fading of racism allowed Obama’s message, ultimately, to cut through the class markers embedded in language.
Those linguistic class markers interest me as a poet. It appears that particular uses of language, at least on the political right, distinguish “high” from “low” modalities. (This may also be true on the left but the cases are not parallel.) Sarah Palin’s soccer mom dialect delighted her fans partly because they heard their own voices in it, while the mandarins of conservatism found her repulsive. We on the left laughed at her because we associate mangled syntax with stupidity. Palin’s truly pyrotechnic dismantling of syntax seems to me to be a desperate & only partly conscious effort to mask her ignorance — what high school & college students knowingly call bullshitting (as a term of art) when they write papers on books they haven’t read. All of this gets amped up & fed back by audiences celebrating their own ignorance & taking comfort from the spectacle of Palin celebrating hers. So the demotic is in bad repute at the moment, having been turned to destructive purposes. What seems so horribly wrong about Palin’s speech is that it borrows the strngth of demotic English, not to express thought forcefully — as ordinary, even “ungrammatical” English can do — but to cover for dishonesty and moral aridity.
Demotic language — comedy, pop music, even advertising — can, used honestly, drive toward the truth; they can of course also be used to to deceive, cajole, flatter, & pander. My sense of president-elect Obama is that he understands this, though he strikes me as being a little uncomfortable with the demotic. But I feel a real sense of satisfaction that I now have a president who speaks, not in Bushian bursts of static or Palinesque knots of blather, but in recognizable sentences that link togehter into coherent thoughts. In order to lie to the public, Bush & Palin had to lie first to themselves. I don’t think the president-elect is lying to himself & consequently I don’t think he will lie to me.
Carole & I voted this morning before 8:00 at our rural Community Center. I think there are fewer than 300 voters in our voting district and I was number 64. I think turnout is going to be huge, especially among Democrats. People were in a very good mood this morning at the polling place & I think most of them were Obama voters. I think a lot of nominal Republicans are just going to stay home today.
Anyway, I was just fantasizing the beginning of a John McCain concession speech: “My friends, we ran a sleazy campaign of lies and character assassination and it blew up in our faces. . .” Right, that’s likely.
Update: Here is a link to photos Carole took of our polling place.
I voted against Nixon; I voted against Reagan; I voted against both Bushes — this time, while I’m voting against McCain, I am also voting for Barack Obama. That’s a good feeling.
Update: Josh Corey’s eloquent call to vote for Barack Obama.
Well, it looks as if Obama is going to win & that makes me proud to be an American. Still, there is a little voice in my head saying that the right is not going to relinquish power without a fight. I’m hoping for an electoral vote blow-out because it will limit the Republicans’ ability to cheat around the margins. I am glad that I have been able to contribute money & make a few phone calls in support of the Obama campaign.
What I have found most impressive about that campaign is that it has not been about Barack Obama’s personal ambition, but about ideas and policies. Despite the fact that the McCain campaign has routinely characterized as “negative advertising” any criticism of their proposals, Obama’s campaign has pretty much left personal attacks out of its message.
The McCain campaign, though, has been vile. I never personally thought McCain had any “honor,” but that was his reputation; now, even that fiction is in tatters. The spoiled Navy brat who advanced, like Bush Jr., through his father’s influence, finishes his career encouraging the worst racist & nativist fears among the most ignorant & ill-educated portion of the American populace. (The country is not well-served by this kind of pablum, spooned out by USA Today in an attempt to be “objective.”)
That is why you can expect to continue hearing howls about “socialism” from people who have no idea what the word means, or to actual historical examples; just as these same people, inspired by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, have for years hurled “liberal” as an epithet at those who disagree with them, “socialist” will become the new hate word on the know-nothing right. Josh Marshall has an insightful discussion of the inner workings of this particular bit of verbal garbage.
In following this election more closely than I have followed any other, I conclude that there is roughly a third of the population of my country who would support a white-supremacist, authoritarian, militarist, imperialist state. Those people must be driven to the margins of our political discourse, not brought to the center as McCain & Palin have done.
I’ve been reading the comment threads at a couple of news sites & so can predict that in addition to the “socialist” nonsense, we can expect to hear that:
- Barack Obama is not an American citizen — because, like, he went to Hawaii to seal up his birth records not see his sick grandmother. Oh, and he’s a Muslim.
- There is something in his billing records as a Chicago lawyer that will prove he has defended sleazy criminals. Question: Did he ever even practice law directly, in the sense of representing clients? And if he did practice criminal law, wouldn’t it be his job to defend criminals?
- He helped his distant aunt violate immigration laws to stay in the US.
- Obama will take away people’s hunting rifles. In fact, Obama is more supportive of the “individualist” interpretation of the Second Amendment than most Democrats.
- He has accepted “millions” of suspicious small donations from “foreigners” who are not allowed to contribute to political campaigns. The real motive here is transparent — the Republican party is completely dumbfounded & enraged that millions of ordinary Americans funded a political campaign because they supported Obama’s vision for the future rather than theirs, which they had assumed they had tied up.
- He will force through a “reparations” measure that will pay African Americans for slavery. This, along with other paranoid fantasies are particularly revealing because they demonstrate the way the nativist right thinks about government — always in dictatorial terms. It’s harder than that, of course, which you would know if you paid any attention to news and current events at times other than elections & treated elections as something different from team sports. Even Bush / Cheney, for all their attempts to impose a unitary executive, were not able to institute the permanent right wing government they envisioned.
That’s what we have to look forward to as the right wing noise machine revs up. But maybe new leadership will lead to a modestly more progressive set of policies coming out of Washington. My wish list would be:
- A national health care system that covers everyone in the country.
- The end of the Iraq war.
- A massive goverment stimulus package to pull the country out of its current economic nosedive.
- A way to finance higher education that does not leave graduates with massive debts.
- A plan for regaining the initiative in Afghanistan, stabalizing the situation & getting out. This will obviously require close cooperation with allies from around the region & around the world.
This is a partial list & I should also say that I don’t agree with Barack Obama on a number of issues. I think he’s wrong about keeping the No Child Left Behind Act; I think he is too hawkish on Afghanistan (thought I think his native good sense may lead him toward a more moderate positon once he gets into office); I’m positive he was wrong to vote in support of the government’s ability to spy on American citizen; I think he is too soft on church-state separation; & so on. Well, there is a fine post by Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber, followed by one of CT’s characteristically insightful comment threads that turns over in various ways the policy possibilities for a first Obama administration. Reading it reminded me that it is possible to have a civil — in both senses of the word — discourse. But first, as Tristero (writing at Hullabaloo) argues, the radical right must be decisively defeated:
And this is why, girls and boys, all talk about a less toxic political atmosphere with the current Republican party is sheer nonsense. Oh sure, Obama – if we are lucky enough to wake up Wed and find him elected – could find a spare Hagel lying around, or a Jim Leach to nail into his Cabinet,and that’s probably a good idea in the long run. But the reality staring us straight in the face is that the leadership of the Republican party – and a huge GOP majority having influence in the party’s ideological and strategic direction -have no interest in anything remotely resembling bipartisanship.
And neither does anyone I know personally who’s supporting Obama. Not with these murderous, corrupt clowns. We want the extreme right and their agenda out of our national politics, driven back to the margins of American discourse where it belongs. Maybe someone out there truly yearns for a less nasty politics, but not me, not now. Not with extremists who call me “traitor,” who have listed my friends as some of the 100 most dangerous people in America or placed them on terrorist watch lists, and who, from their seat as a US Representative pronounce a candidate for the American presidency a chicken shit.
If New York had early voting, I’d have already cast my vote for Obama, but I will wait to do so on Tuesday morning, with guarded optimism. Oh, and I can’t resist a prediction: Obama will get 364 electoral votes & win by 7% of the popular vote.
So this obviously won’t be a problem. Well, not for him — he has the best health insurance money can by. For the rest of us, he thinks we ought to be able to get by on five grand a year. Oh, and the free market will reduce costs so much that that five thousand dollars (for a family, only $2500 if you’re single) will make insurance affordable.