Friday, August 17, 2012

Is This a Great Country, or What?

Near one of my writing retreats (Peet’s coffee shop, Menlo Park) a young woman and a young man had set up a sidewalk table stacked with pamphlets and decorated with a poster calling for the impeachment of President Obama, who was pictured sporting a Hitler mustache. The man had on a safari-ish hat and the woman was wearing gray cargo pants. I went over to see whether the Tea Party, or maybe the KKK, had invaded Nancy Pelosiville.

“Why do we want to impeach president Obama?” I asked the woman. She didn’t look scary; she had lovely light cocoa skin and lustrous brown hair. She said that if Obama goes ahead with his plans to bomb Iran and invade Syria, we are going to end up in another war in the Middle East. Oh. Not where I thought this was coming from.

She had a booklet in her hand that she opened to a page calling for the revival of the Glass-Steagall Act. Even Sandy Weill wants it back, she noted. So do I, I said.  We desperately need great infrastructure projects like we used to undertake, she said. These produce jobs. We could bring water from Alaska to the parched lower forty eight. John Kennedy had the vision to put a man on the moon, she said. We did just land Curiosity on Mars, I said. She handed me a flyer saying Obama is anti-science.

I asked with whom we should replace Obama. Mitt Romney? No, not him, she said. He and Obama are both captives of Wall Street and the war machine. We don’t want to replace Obama with a man (or a woman, presumably), she said, but with ideals. She quoted Franklin Roosevelt: “I want to speak not of parties but of universal principles.”

About that time a wiry white-headed guy came up and sized the situation up much faster than I had. He asked her if she was a “LaRouchie.” She said she admired Lyndon LaRouche. He asked if old Lyndon was still in jail (for mail fraud). He was feisty and amusing, a hard-headed pragmatist poking at an idealist. I left them to it.

We aren’t going to elect a universal principle anytime soon, but the encounter was entertaining and, in a whimsical way, heartening. This woman still believes in the power of the people to rise up and shake the system to its foundations.

Or maybe her radical idealism isn’t inspiring at all. Maybe it’s depressing. Think of all those Naderites who took down Al Gore. Think of Rick Perry going out for a run (for president) and shooting the GOP. The thing about zealots, on either end of the political spectrum, is that, to paraphrase the old song, the thinking is over and the preaching has begun.

At that sidewalk table in Menlo Park it was unsettling to see such cultishness and paranoia, such misinformation, living side by side with so many political positions I agree with. It made me wonder how I sound to others. Am I a fanatic too? I don’t think I’m a conspiracy theorist, although now that I think of it the NRA does seem to have more influence than is understandable in the absence of it having J. Edgar Hoover-like files on most members of Congress.

I hardly know what I’m trying to say here, but I think it’s something like: Come on, people, think! We need to be practical. We’re not going to have a revolution, from the right or the left. We are what other countries hope to become with their revolutions. We aren’t children struggling to break free of our parents, we are on our own now. All we have at this point is each other.

This political season we are (again) having what feels like a bloodless civil war. We aren’t shooting at each other, but the ideological lines are drawn and we are flocking to the cultural and economic barricades. Like all civil wars, ours is hurting us. Instead of rebuilding our economy, we are calling each other names. We’re behaving only slightly better than the tribes and sects currently duking it out in the Middle East.

Civil wars always end. People get tired of fighting and pick up the pieces and go on together. But they do a lot of damage while they rage. We know that from watching what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq; we know it from our own Civil War. Nothing unites a divided people like a common enemy, they say. I hate to think we need a real Hitler, not just President Obama made up to look like one, to shock us to our senses, to get us working together again.


  1. Excellent Mac. But zealotry isn't always easy to spot. Sometimes it has a smooth delivery and mild mannered least in its first term.

  2. I find it curious that you blame, as many do, Ralph Nader for Al Gore's "loss" to George Bush. In fact, every third party candidate on the Florida ballot polled more than the 537 vote margin of the Bush "victory." So why not blame these third party candidates? Indeed, why not blame Al Gore for running a bad campaign? After all, he could not even win his home state. If he had done so, he would have won the election regardless of the outcome in Florida. To blame Ralph Nader is at best an incomplete analysis of the Florida election.

  3. I agree, Mark. Old Al lost all on his own. And Nader was not really all that extreme. Bad example on my part.

  4. I also agree with Mark, although I think blaming Gore for loosing Tennessee underappreciates how far right the state has gone.

  5. This blog post excites me because two people with (partially) opposing viewpoints talked.

    I might add if Obama is irritating both the extreme right and the extreme left (same coin), he is probably doing something right.