Civics

I was driving home from The Pennsylvania State University, hashtag Altoona campus last week. Rolling hills. Amber waves of grain.

Gleeman and the Geek came to an end. I’d already listened to the other podcasts in my library. The drive between State College and Altoona provides ample time to stay caught up on Comedy Bang Bang, ReKnew, or endless chatter about who the Twins’ 5th starter will be. I sprinkle in some albums on Spotify. These days Miles Davis, Conor Oberst, and David Berman keep me company. Phoebe Bridgers, too. Oh, and I listened to some Sufjan Stevens last week.

Look at all those links! This blog is a veritable advertisement. Reaching millions of molecules. And a handful of people. With all sorts of different podcast and album options. What can I say? I’m an eclectic little man.

Speaking of little men.

Gleeman and the Geek came to an end, and I decided to check in on the outside world. Beyond those rolling hills. Far from those amber waves of grain. I braced myself, and turned the dial to NPR. Take my impeachment, please. NPR is, so far as I can tell, one of the few radio station that provides anything that resembles information these days. The rest strikes me as spin. Entertainment. The kids call it clickbait.

The little bit of the impeachment trial I listened to was everything I’d have expected. Eloquent comments about the rule of law overcome by loud, partisan nonsense. Neither side listening to the other. Both claiming all sorts of moral or legal imperative. Yes, I have an opinion as to which of the polarized sides seems less terrifying to the future of democracy, but I’ll avoid tumbling down that rabbit hole. There’s enough hot takes out there. Hot takes that side with one thing or another. As though there are two options as how to think and feel about what’s happening in these United States. Social Media has made damned sure that everybody who is anybody can shout loudly into the digital vacuum. Offer their side of the story by choosing one of two sides of the same story which, in fact, are two very different stories that might not come close to telling the story of what’s actually happening around here.

Yikes.

***

My 9th grade Civics teacher was a small, chubby man. Thick glasses. White shirts and ties. Armpit stains. I can’t remember his name. I do remember this:

One day, we were talking about the internet. It was 1993, and I’d run out of batteries in my Discman. So, instead of continuing to decimate my eardrums with And Justice For All…, I was paying attention to class. This was a rare thing for me to do in high school, especially during 9th grade. I ended up with a 2.0 GPA, and barely got my diploma. I decided to follow my then-girlfriend to college, and it took straight A’s during my junior year to graduate. Read about that epoch here. Anyway, I was listening to my Civics teacher muse prophetically about how computers might change our democracy.

“One day,” he said, “all of us could weigh in on issues with our computers. Instead of voting for representative, anybody with a computer could cast a vote on specific issues from their own homes. Immigration, the economy, whatever. We could all vote on bills and laws. That would be radical democracy.”

It’s remarkable that this teacher’s comments stayed with me. But they did. I remember, at the time, being so worried that people without access to computers would be disenfranchised in the coming years. Indeed, teachers in other classes were talking about how, soon, it would be impossible to function without computers. And it would be a year before my dad brought home our first computer and I’d spend hours playing Microsoft Flight Simulator or Wasteland on MS-DOS. I was worried about being left behind.

What a silly fear. Seems like anybody who has a pulse can weigh in now, however meaninglessly.

I don’t think many folks could have predicted, way back in 1993, what the internet would be, let alone how it might influence politics in the United States. A radical democracy where citizens around the country are empowered to weigh in directly on policy and governance? How about a tool for the dissemination of propaganda that allows truly powerful people to monopolize ideologies in order to accumulate power and wealth at the expense of the rest of us. I’ll write it again. Yikes.

I was reminded of the naive hope of my 9th grade Civics teacher as I listened to senators spit out internet memes during the impeachment trial last week. And, for whatever reason, it made me sad.

***

I turn to Kurt Vonnegut’s Man Without a Country when I get sad about the United States. Go read it if you haven’t already. It’s better than the drivel you’re reading here.

Vonnegut’s short little memoir, the last thing he wrote before his body bodily-busted, is a beautiful requiem for America. He laments that the democracy he fought for during World War II was, by the end of his life, long gone. Replaced by an oligarchy where people without consciences – psychopaths, he called them – wrestle for power. By the end he felt like he was, as the title suggests, a man without a country. There’s some great quotes about politics in the U.S. in the book. I’ll share a few here. Forgive me, I don’t have the page numbers. But I don’t think anybody’s checking my APA citation. Or my MLA. And if you are? Well, that’s pretty weird, ya weirdo. Anyway, here’s a quote:

“But I have to say this in defense of humankind: In no matter what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got here. And, except for the Garden of Eden, there were already all these games going on that could make you act crazy, even if you weren’t crazy to begin with. Some of the crazymaking games going on today are love and hate, liberalism and conservatism, automobiles and credit cards, golf, and girls’ basketball.

Poetry. I don’t have much to add. This quote about crazymaking games stays with me. Liberalism and conservatism? Go check your Twitter feed or your Facebook and tell me that those two things aren’t making all of us a little crazy. Listen back to the impeachment hearing. It’s enough to make you act crazy even if you weren’t crazy before. These games were going on before you and I got here. And they’ll be going on after we’re gone. Yuck. Still, it’s nice to have somebody articulate that madness, right? Vonnegut was good at that sort of thing.

See:

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. 

Poetry again! Can’t understand what is happening in White House, the Senate, or the Congress? Nothing reasonable and nothing humane. Only human beings crazy drunk on power. Seeking out more and more power for fewer and fewer people. There’s nothing new in this. Nothing democratic, either. Anybody with a History minor, and I certainly have a History minor, could point at millions of examples of people doing terrible things to other people to get a hit of that sweet, sweet feeling of power. I’ll write it a third time. Yikes.

I don’t have anything profound to say at the end of this blog. Some political take that I hope you’ll post or tweet or like or share. Or even respond to. I’m not interested in conversations where one person says what they’re supposed to say, the other says what they’re supposed to say, and then both people feel safe in the superiority of the stories they tell themselves about what is happening.

I’ll only say this. What I see happening in the United States is frightening to me and, more than anything else, it makes me sad.

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