Friday, September 7, 2012

Convention Highlights


Nietzsche famously said that “in individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule". 

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I watched this year’s party conventions from the same place as in 2008—the Great Hall of Berkeley’s International House, and the experiences couldn’t have been more different.  In 2008, the area around the television was packed for every night of both conventions, and for Obama’s nomination speech the entire hall was filled, as was the case for the debates.  Democrats, as in California at large, outnumbered Republicans, and although there were probably three or four Obama supporters for every McCain supporter (not counting the international students from six continents who were struggling to wrap their minds around the idea that the Republican Party was not, in the most literal sense of the word, a joke), but people were still anxious to hear what the Republican and his running-mate had to say. 

This week, the televisions weren’t even turned on except for the final nights of each convention.  There were probably no more than half a dozen of us watching Romney’s speech, and fewer than 20 for Obama’s, a far cry from 2008.  Part of this could probably be put down to the cynicism that’s set in.  Students in particular might very well feel increasingly alienated from a Republican Party whose minions work assiduously to portray them as selfish, entitled, lazy people, investment in whom is a waste of time—go into any of Berkeley’s dozens of libraries at any time between 8 a.m. and 2 a.m. (those that remain open, at any rate) to see otherwise.  Another part of the story might be the growing tendency of people to seek pre-processed information; that is, to tune into their favourite commentator to get a mangled version of the speech, shaped to fit their preconceived notions, rather than watching, listening to, or reading the thing itself.

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In 2008, the refrain at the Democratic National Convention was, “I love John McCain, but...”  In 2012, there’s no love for Mitt Romney.  The President himself barely acknowledged the man himself in his speech, treating him with the kind of contempt which, on the basis of the Republican candidate’s ideas, he certainly merits.  This is, after all, the man who says that deficit reduction is the priority and then turns around and orders a round of tax breaks for the wealthy.  He’s the man who talks about American exceptionalism as though those are the only two words of the English language he understands, but thinks that we’re a nation incapable of providing support for our fellow citizens.  He’s the man who has said, with a straight face, that “corporations are people”. 

Other Democrats were more attentive to Romney and his Darwinist running-mate, Paul Ryan, than was the President.  It was with more sorrow than anger that most Democrats sunk their figurative meat-cleavers and knives into Romney (from former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, now at Berkeley, “[Romney] loves our cars so much, they even have their own elevator...the cars get the elevator, and the workers get the shaft”).  Vice-President Biden spoke bemusedly about Romney’s world view, which allows him to be so sanguine about the effects of trickle-down economics.  The exception was John Kerry who light-heartedly gave Romney advice from one flip-flopper to another before laying into the Republican’s embrace of Cold War rhetoric, his opposition to reducing global nuclear stockpiles (how can a reasonable human being be opposed to disarmament?), and his almost comical inability to meet a foreigner without offending it (“For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas”). 

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The Vice President and Chris Christie come from the same school of politics, being full of hot air.  But where Biden is cheerful, Christie gives the impression of wanting to punch someone in the face for looking at him funny.  When Christie came thundering out onto the stage, I momentarily thought that Hurricane Isaac had changed course.  I was constantly expecting an aide to run out and whisper in the Governor’s ear that he actually had a mic and didn’t need to scream the whole time.

Biden is better at modulating his tone.  He’d whisper softly, “I know who this man really is...” of the President, or words to that effect, and I could picture Republicans, all around the country, leaning breathlessly closer to their television sets, expectantly.  The Donald Trumps of the world were expecting a revelation about Obama’s Kenyan anti-colonial ancestry.  The Newts of America eagerly awaited the exposure of the President as a secular Islamofascist.  Low-grade birthers hoped to hear their fears that the President was trained in an Indonesian terrorist camp validated.  But alas, they were disappointed.  Instead we heard, with Biden’s voice rising to a thundering crescendo, that the President was a good family man, had saved General Motors, and had ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden.

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We all know that nutty Benjamin Netantayu likes Romney best, and is counting on Republican support for the war he seems ever closer to launching against Iran.  Both parties are assiduous in funding and arming Israel’s imperial foreign policy, which amounts to little more than an assisted suicide programme in the long-term.  But the Obama administration has at least worked to restrain the Israeli government’s rush to war, whereas Romney, in a shocking display of bloodthirsty irresponsibility (a sign of the neocons’ influence over him) has fanned the flames of violence.  However, we’ve now learned in the New York Times that Putin thinks Obama is the most likely prospect for arms reduction and a constructive dialogue.  I wonder if Putin knew when he said this that the Republican Party will likely run away with his quote as proof that Obama is a fascist dictator?  After all, a world with less arms proliferation and fewer nuclear weapons would clearly be a dangerous place...so says the GOP.

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At one point, the DNC organisers began handing out tinted glasses to the audience, and I thought that we were about to be shown a 3-D film of some sort (I had my first 3-D cinema experience in Zambia recently, and wasn’t all that impressed—the glasses pinched my nose).  But instead, former Florida governor Charlie Christ, of the preternatural tan, wandered out on stage.  However much Republicans might try to discredit Christ by calling him a publicity hound or a sore loser (both charges are probably accurate), that doesn’t change the truth of his basic points.  He didn’t leave the Republican Party so much as the Party drifted off on a shrinking raft, in search of some Corporate Utopia. 

My late grandmother was born years before women had the right to vote, began voting in the late ‘30s, and cast her last Presidential ballot in 2008.  She was a lifelong Republican, wife of a Lieutenant Colonel, but she voted for John Kerry in 2004 because she hated the idea of war for its own sake.  In 2008 she voted for Barack Obama (very likely her first vote for a non-white politician) because she couldn’t understand the idea of citizens sitting back and letting their neighbours and countrymen and –women take it on the chin without reaching out a hand and pitching in.

The Republicans had props for some of their speakers as well.  I rightly guessed that the House Speaker was coming on when delegates donned plastic raincoats and broke out the umbrellas. 

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The most popular word in politics these days?  “Fundamental”.  I think The Newt Who Would Be King might be responsible for this, both in the sense that he loves to toss the word around, and in that he pioneered the idea of spewing impressive sounding words whether or not they fit in the sentence in question.  Grammar and cognitive consistency have no greater foes that the Republican Party.  Joe Biden and Bill Clinton abuse the word and the concept, but Republicans are unparalleled masters at defying contextual gravity.  What politicians don’t realise is that if they overuse a word, it will lose its significance.  If everything is fundamental, it ceases to be a rallying cry...

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American exceptionalism was alive and well at both conventions.  I’m sure that buried in both parties’ platforms is some proposal to re-print world maps across schools in the United States to position our country in the middle of the world, and possibly to inflate its size. 

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I’m always somewhat amazed at how little climate change features in these debates.  The Republicans actually mocked the President and Democrats—repeatedly—not just for the rhetoric of the former, but for even aspiring to address the threat.  The world is constructing a time-bomb under our feet.  We don’t know when it will go off, exactly what the destruction it wreaks will look like, or precisely how it will affect our lives, but denial isn’t healthy.  There’s a petition circulating that I think is very worthwhile—it asks debate moderators to put the topic of climate change on the table at the Presidential debates, hardly too much to ask.

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The election is less than two months off.  It’s important.  Fundamentally so.  Register to vote.

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