Politics offend me. What is it about government that causes such horrendous emotional amplification? Whenever someone posits a political opinion at the beer-talk table, others hurry to kill or die for their disagreements. This rash Friday-night idiocy once disgusted me, but the contempt I’ve felt for such reactionary exchanges has frankly become condescension. My knee-jerk reaction to deeply concerned, utterly serious political conversations is to make sarcastic, snide remarks against the childish manner in which these discussions are generally conducted. For “In a Real World. . .” though, this would be too easy, and would say too little.
Rather, let’s have a look at modern society’s treatment of world politics and see what remains to talk about afterward; though I must say I find talking about politics. . . Really fucking embarrassing. So, this doesn’t leave the room — OK?
I. Hooray! Disinformation Is a Way of Life
It is irrational, pompous, and presumptuous to think one holds enough dependable information to come to veracious political conclusions. For this reason, I’ve always fantasized a president’s first day happening something like this:
“Would you like some water, Mr. President?”
“Oh, no. . . I mean — no, I’ll drink it straight.”
“Don’t feel bad. Clinton passed out when he learned George Washington still secretly headed the executive branch from his empty crypt behind the White House. It gets everybody, the first time.”
“It — it wasn’t the Washington zombie, so much. I had anticipated that. I just hadn’t expected his bionic life-support to look so much like, like — like Angelina Jolie.”
“Yes, well, President Washington picked up cross-dressing in the 1940s. Who d’you think got J. Edgar Hoover into it?”
OK, so I may be exaggerating. The basic idea is about right, though. If there’s anything I feel secure in, it’s government secrecy. I doubt they give Obama the code to program the White House’s TiVo. Governments cover up everything, and that really shouldn’t be news to anyone.
Since a government’s first priority is to cover its own ass, it may be expected to take measures to cover said ass. As these measures protect the government best when they’re also least conspicuous, governments hide, obfuscate, and divert attention from these measures. I will call this activity by its classified codename, Operation Chickenshit.
Civilians interested in Operation Chickenshit must contend with its wily evasive maneuvers. Working daily to suppress the news are hundreds of wildly clever, obscenely educated, anonymous Chickenshit agents with indescribable power at their disposal. These suits work long, well-paid hours to shut up all so-called “sensitive” information except that which has been manufactured to obscure or omit the truth. News sources can always be expected to omit more than they include.
As any half-blind, half-deaf White House attendant can tell you, politics happen in limousines and restrooms, not on the floor of the chamber of the House of Representatives.
So, intrepidly armed with watered-down news influenced heavily (and occasionally outright controlled) by Operation Chickenshit, we form entire political belief systems to wear as fashion accessories, then impose upon one another what we consider informed opinions. We’re like arrogant little gourmands judging the dishes of a feast by reading the conflicting reviews of food critics, without ourselves having the slightest ability to taste any of the food.
For some reason, though, people take it for granted that politics may be wholly grasped and engaged in by any flag-waving prick on the street. Often, poli-sci hobbyists sneer at religious fanatics who argue over the nature of God (big G) because it seems ridiculous that so inconsequential a being as a human might measure gods. These same detractors, although reasonable in their scorn, consider it well-within their own reach to discern the clandestine movements of governments, governments with the power to order the invention, construction, and execution of nuclear submarines, stealth bombers, and surveillance satellites orbiting planet earth. These same self-important armchair philosophers (yes, I realize I have named myself) pontificate at length about exactly why American troops invaded Iraq. I contend that, beyond the existence of troops there, very precious-fucking little can be known from a civilian perspective.
The purpose of their (or any military’s) mission will never be understood by any one civilian, agent, or president. This is because the matter has causes too large, too plentiful, too varied, too far away, too long ago, and too inexplicable for any single person to know at once. George Herbert Walker Bush may know what Reagan was doing in Nicaragua, but he can’t know which multinational corporations were pulling strings in drug cartels, nor what was motivating the contras to clean and oil their assault rifles, kiss their loved ones goodnight, and go dutifully to work. That sort of information can’t be garnered through wiretapping any more than the quality of a novel can be ascertained through the study of sales statistics.
Our great-grandchildren will have it fed to them by Operation Chickenshit in high school, though, all tied-up in one neat, tidy little paragraph between what transpired in New York one fateful autumn day, and the election of America’s first Afro-American president. And that, my friends, provokes me to laughter.
To understand the height of conceit one must obtain to insist that one comprehends politics, one has only to consider the possibility that momentous events have secretly occurred. Have people simply disappeared in large numbers? Of course. Have foreign governments been hijacked by the surgical placement of agents within? Of course. Have technologies been developed, the use of which would horrify the contemporary mind? Of course. Have the people of the world been permanently convinced of a lie so egregious in its enormity that dissolving it would result in nationwide rioting? Of course.
It’s conspiracy theory, one would say — to which I rhetorically remind: have conspiracies transpired in every government since the dawn of civilization? Of course.
Governments, in fact, are mere conspiracies in full bloom.
II. All the President’s Men
A conversation criticizing political conversation can’t be without mention of political leaders. An inordinately large portion of such talk orbits the actions of presidents, congressmen, representatives, and governors. Little talk is made of mayors, though, unless one’s current mayor has become embroiled in a fiasco of some kind or other. We do not seem as interested in the non-scandalous activities of our mayors as we are in the minute-to-minute business of our president, and that’s strange, because the mayor is a person we can shake hands with if we don’t mind hanging around city hall long enough, someone whom we can speak directly to at council meetings and press releases. The President is someone whose very existence can only be verified by very few people, as few people can get close enough to him to collect a priori evidence. Most people see a president on television and automatically “know” that he exists, presides, and impacts lives as surely as a sledgehammer affects furniture, even though the vast majority of people see no more of him than the constituents of Oceania saw Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984.
I do not mean to place the President in the same box as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, because that would be way too much fun would sound counter-intuitive; however a rational, realistic reassessment of his function seems necessary. Before we begin, however, let us take stock of some other positions in U.S. government.
Of the government of the United States of America, there are: 9 Justices of the Supreme Court, with a total of 37 clerks; 100 people in the Senate; 435 people in the House of Representatives, not to mention 4 delegates and 1 resident hotshot; 18 current cabinet members, not including the Vice-President and the Speaker of the House. Also unofficially affecting our government are: 12,553 registered lobbyists in Washington, and an innumerable amount of pressures from Wall St. To be perfectly textbook about it, there is also a Constitution governing all of this, having 7 articles and 27 amendments which are ostensibly inviolable.
There is exactly 1 President of the United States.
While it would be naïve to say that the Chief has no real power (as there are over 1.6 million veterans of the Middle East conflict who assure us he does) it would be equally silly to consider him anything but a single part of an enormous, plunging political machine with enough gathered inertia to operate without outside instigation for centuries. The American government is also the result of centuries of social and economic structuring that occurred in Europe and elsewhere. Small dominoes, then big dominoes, then gigantic dominoes fall in a neigh-endless march through our past, present, and future, and of these most American presidents represent a shockingly small fraction (there have been 43, by the way; considering our nation is only 2.35 centuries old, that’s a notable diffusion of responsibility).
What this means to me — and sometimes I feel the pariah for it — is that the President is no more than an eddy in an immeasurable whirlpool, a momentary breeze on the outskirts of a tornado, a glowing rivulet crawling slowly away from the fiery flow of a massive volcano. This doesn’t change his relative importance, though. Recognizing him as such merely places him in perspective, but this perspective is necessary to keep one’s balance when discussing politics, and especially when speaking with one of the countless political zealots who love to talk about presidents the way music fans love to discuss the individual members of a band. Which of these incessant chatterers sounds more pretentious is anyone’s guess.
The emphasis many place on the relative success or failure of a certain president cannot be fathomed. Changing a president amidst all the above influences and excitedly expecting significant change does not show the scope of reason befitting a literate adult.
Swapping out presidents is not like rebuilding the engine of your car — it’s like changing the oil.
The main function of the executive branch is the same as the king’s function in chess, which is to distract attention from the rest of the board. All the actual action is really taking place among the knights, bishops, rooks, and pawns, but the largest portion of any country’s populace is mostly uneducated and entirely uninitiated, and therefore lacks the tools to correctly appraise its leaders (largely why countries need government in the first place) so the president and his cabinet provide a sort of sitcom for all the uncreative types to cheer for or bicker about, vote for or demonstrate against, and generally spend all their mental energy spinning their wheels on. Meanwhile, the brains of the constituency watch and laugh, watch and cry, or place a thoughtful finger to their chins and say, “Shit, even I can do that,” and throw their hat in the ring with the other candidates.
III. Election Day Apathy: “Ooooh, Goodie!”
So what’s an American to do in November, roll over? Oh, hardly. Some things can be researched to a point of relative certainty on the local level and are worth acting upon, and other things on the global level are almost certainly so, such as the existence of troops in Iraq at the moment. If it suits us to vote on this basis, then we can feel fairly certain that someone will tally our ayes and nays. And there are the civilly disobedient routes of expression, also, lest we forget.
There are ways to understand governments, too, if one rejects the impulse to think in terms of pundits and parties. A man would do better to examine himself to find hard evidence of what a government is, would do better to examine his neighbors, and if possible, the people in other counties and states. If one wishes to understand American government, one should begin with the American people, and end somewhere in China, Africa, or the Middle East.
In other words, a worm may understand the tree through a thorough study of the apple. Should the worm develop an avid interest, the apple’s seed should afford all the wonder and mystery inherent in this universe, more than enough to internalize the complexities of the tree, and, who knows? Perhaps even a thing or two about what it’s like to be a worm.
And there ain’t nothin’ Operation Chickenshit can do about that.
With Frank Incense and Mirth,