FLOTSAM & JETSAM: The next six months at Dysfunction Junction

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The next six months at Dysfunction Junction

Sam Smith

Over the next six months we will be inundated by political rhetoric and media analysis that is atrocious, abapical, ambiguous, abominable, abrasive, acidic, annoying  and arrogant.  And that’s just the letter A.

The two major candidates, indentured servants of their biggest campaign contributors, will spend considerable effort in deceiving us, while the media will excuse, misinterpret, nitpick or avoid the point entirely.  Issues such as the economy, Afghanistan, environment, or civil liberties will constantly be shoved aside for detailed and repetitive analysis of the meaning of some ancillary awkward comment by a candidate or one of their aides. The candidates, meanwhile, will pretend to be much further apart than they really are, concealing a common attribute that Gertrude Stein once found in California – namely that there was no there there. Romney and Obama have, throughout their lives, been driven by one cause – themselves - adopting whatever philosophy and policies might best further ambitions at any particular moment. And it’s not going to change.

In the end, it won’t really be much about politics at all, but rather about our culture.  A few months ago I suggested that, more and more, America is like living in  a badly dysfunctional family with the Republicans a collective version of the alcoholic, abusive husband and father while the Democrats are the battered but completely submissive spouse. And the rest of us are the mistreated, powerless and ignored kids.

Since then, the metaphor hasn’t gone away. It may be because, having been raised in a large and somewhat dysfunctional family, the situation is not strange to me. I have increasingly sensed that my status as the third child of six in such a family prepared me in strange ways for the America I find today.

It also helps to explain why some see me as an unpredictable, erratic maverick. We live in a time of conflicting certitudes. In a dysfunctional family one finds a similar struggle. But as one of the younger kids you may notice that such certitude doesn’t get anyone – parent or child – very far. Besides, typically none of the certitudes are as appealing or as sensible as other things that nobody seems to want to talk about. . 

And so quite unconsciously you start  to adopt the strategies of Saul Alinsky rather than those of a Newt Gingrich. You build alliances issue by issue, you work around problems, you find different allies on different days.

Like other members of the family, you think you know the truth, but painful experience has taught you the practical limits of righteousness and its pronouncement. Do you want to get something done or just fight with someone?

For example, if virtue were my only guide I would easily vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, who  unlike Romney or Obama – wants to provide direct job creation by the federal government, break up “too big to fail” banks and create public ones, support Medicare for all, shield existing Social Security and Medicare from cuts, end free trade agreements that outsource jobs, forgive student loan debt, cut military spending, put a moratorium on foreclosures, stop the privatization of public schools, repeal the Patriot Act, legalize marijuana, support same sex marriages, end corporate personhood, support instant runoff voting and proportional representation, and bring the troops home.

Stein’s program is not only infinitely wiser than that of either Romney or Obama, you are not left  wondering whether she would actually do any of it?

But unprotected virtue does not survive well amidst madness. Although I was one of the founders of both the national Green Party and the DC Statehood Party (which held elected office for a quarter of a century), I have never been much of a fan of third party presidential races.

The problem is that while being right is great, taking your stand in the middle of a freeway at rush hour is not usually the best way to express it. I would rather the Greens formed more grassroots alliances with other interests including labor and ethnic coalitions. And I know from the history of American third parties that their real effectiveness lies in mass local organizing, which hasn't happened yet with the Greens.

In the past century only five third party presidential candidates have even made it into double digits, and each were personalities with a large national base, people like Theodore Roosevelt, Ross Perot, LaFolette, George Wallace and Eugene Debs.

It’s not the third party candidates’ fault; it’s just that the system is rigged badly against them.

And so I look at the problem not unlike the way I did when I was a kid when the system also seemed rigged against me. And over time, you learn that healthy pragmatism often trumps noisy virtue.

For example, seldom mentioned at this point is the fact that the Republicans are within four votes of winning the Senate. What if the GOP not only takes the White House, but both houses of Congress as well? And don’t forget the Supreme Court. We would then be run not just by Romney but by the most reactionary party in American history, one that for the first time has effectively argued for the repeal of 80 years of human progress

Thus, even though I consider Obama – like his predecessors, the Clintons -  an unreliable con artist who has badly damaged the progressive cause and liberal programs of the past, the prospect of a total GOP sweep in Washington tells this kid I better get myself an airplane barf bag and take it down to the polls as I vote for the lesser fraud despite it all. After all, I’m reallyj trying to choose a battlefield and not a leader.

Having suggested such an approach before, I fully expect to hear from readers who consider me a grievously disloyal betrayer of my own values or, worse, theirs.  But one of the advantages growing up at Dysfunction Junction is that you get used to people yelling at you. And one of the realities is that whatever you do will piss somebody off.  

There are other things you learn, such as creating your own space. It will be sad but probable that, as happened in 2008, liberals will just fold camp until after the ballots are counted, and then barely raise their voices for another four years in Obama wins. And where are the progressive churches taking on the Christian heretics of the right? Whatever happened to the environmental and anti-war movements? Where are the protests against Obama’s unconstitutional civil liberties policies and attacks on the Internet? Why do a majority of liberals support Gitmo and drones? Do we have to put the entire burden on the Occupiers? Do we really have to choose between a favored president and a favored cause?

When I was growing up, I lived in a back room on the third floor. That was my world. I had my model railroad trains, my books about seafaring, and a record player with which I could practice being a disc jockey. That space was mine and I became myself in it.

In America today, we have too few such spaces. No broad counter culture. No sense of free places like the coffee houses of the 1950s. It may seem a trivial matter to many but as Albert Camus put it, “the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” We must create alternative democratic realities in gatherings, neighborhoods, cities and states.

We could, for example, come together the day after the election and declare a new state of the union. The past four years have seen too much liberal political Alzheimer’s mixed with apathy and acquiescence. We can’t waste another four.

One other thing I learned as a kid was the practical value of humor and music. They got me out of more trouble and through more situations than almost anything else. It’s the same way now if we would only give them a chance.

Some years ago, Philip H. Farber interviewed the godfather of the alternative press, Paul Krassner, who is not only a humorist but who was, as a six year old violinist, the youngest person ever to play at Carneigie Hall: 

PHF: I once asked George Carlin how he gets away with some of the shit he says... he responded by saying that when someone is laughing, it's easier to sneak a new idea in. 

Paul Krassner: When people laugh, their defenses are down--as opposed to being lectured at--so it's possible for them to hear a truth in the guise of humor without the usual resistance. Hearty laughter produces endorphins, so it gets you high without drugs…Henry Hazlitt said that humans are the only species that laugh because we're the only ones who see the difference between the way things are and the way they should be. . . .

Every great movement with which I have been involved has had music and humor. We’ll know when we’re turning things around when they return.

As a kid, thanks to humor, music, learning how to find the best in someone even if you didn’t like the rest, not worrying every day about how virtuous you are or others think you are, and creating new free spaces, growing up in Dysfunction Junction was often actually fun.

It could also be for us as long as we don’t let the bullies, the self-righteous and the absolutely certain take up too much of our time. We need separate ourselves from the madness and the perverted priorities and  turn instead towards making our own America, from local bar to our town and state,  - one that offers clear and free alternatives to the disaster foisted upon us by an elite that no longer cares for freedom, our constitution or our land.