Birds of a Feather, by Elayne Riggs
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m already burnt out on the 2008 primary season. Okay, to tell you the truth I was burnt out sometime last autumn. The other day I was watching Tom Brokaw’s documentary about 1968 (highly recommended) and one of the political facts mentioned was that Bobby Kennedy didn’t even enter that year’s Presidential race until after the New Hampshire primary! Can you imagine such a thing today, a candidate not even declaring until after an "important" primary has already been run? This year almost all of them dropped out before yesterday’s Super-Duper Pooper-Scooper Fat Tuesday.
It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of Catholics out there are considering giving up following politics for Lent. It’s not like there’s anything in it for us any more. People joke about the campaigns turning into another version of American Idol, but if you think about it the parallels are valid. You have performances evaluated on TV by a bunch of millionaires, and you’re given the illusion of choice among a very narrowly-acceptable band of telegenic hopefuls running more on the basis of style over substance (hey, they have machines now that can "correct" even live voices so they all come out on-key and synthetically perfect). The big difference with politics, besides the sad reality that the results of this contest matters to our lives and the future and the rest of the world, is that the contestants are also millionaires. Have to be; they wouldn’t be considered "viable" candidates otherwise.
"Viable" is one of those nebulous, never-defined vagaries like "freedom" that means whatever the person using it wants the people hearing it to think it means. The less you define something, the less you can be pinned down and expected to stick to your definition. So when you assume everyone believes "freedom" means the same thing, when most of the time those who employ the term equate it with "unfettered capitalism and false consumer choice" even though others still consider it to mean "having bodily autonomy and not being homeless nor starving nor spied upon nor told how or whether to worship," they’re able to completely circumvent actual communication and not have anything they say be actionable! And "viable" is a media-created term — they don’t have to admit that their use of "viable" means "rich and part of the political machine and accepted by the corporations we’ve allowed to actually run this country" if they can get us to believe it means "intelligent and experienced enough to be taken seriously despite their income level or circle of cronies." I mean, we should have known that ship had long since sailed when the last guy got elected despite having mostly negative experience and far too little intelligence for the job.
This isn’t going to change any time soon, this choice between a narrow range of acceptable candidates. And there’s a very simple reason: the people running for office, and the people covering their campaigns for the major media, are all in the same social circle and more or less in the same income bracket. And whether they’re Democrats or Republicans or independents, right-wing pundits or liberal firebrands, these rich, mostly white, mostly male folks will always, always have more in common with each other than they do with us.
Every now and then the veneer peels back and we see this for the truth it is. One good case in point is the infamous Stephen Colbert speech at the annual White House press correspondents’ dinner in 2006. Now, think about this for a second. If your job is to cover rich and powerful people who make decisions affecting the lives of millions, who hold the welfare of an entire citizenry in their hands, and that job is supposed to include informing those citizens about the truth behind those decisions and how their welfare is going to be affected — how objectively and thoroughly are you really going to be able to perform that job if you’re going to parties and dinners with the people you’re supposed to be investigating? Well, you’re not, are you? You’re going to buddy up to them, in hopes that they’ll continue to give you access into their social circles and lives, and maybe you can climb the ladder from sycophantic correspondent to press secretary like Tony Snow did, or maybe secure a cushy lobbying job. But in any case, you don’t want to lose those privileges over something frivolous like actually asking your new friends difficult questions, or telling the American people the truth!
And that’s why Colbert pissed a lot of people off. It wasn’t his mockery of the President, but of the press. Of course, the joke is still on we, the people. Stephen Colbert is a millionaire too. So are Jon Stewart, and George Carlin, and Bill Maher, and all the famous court jesters. And remember, once again — no matter what they say, how astute their observations, these millionaires all have more in common with each other than they do with us.
There’s a wonderful exchange that occurs in the middle of the number "Cool, Considerate Men" from the musical 1776. Let’s watch, shall we?
Did you catch that? "Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor." That’s why people constantly vote against their own best interests. That’s why they admire famous politicians and pundits who rarely accomplish anything admirable or worthwhile beyond being rich. Because we all want to be there, among those birds of a feather, those strutting peacocks who have our lives in their hands and don’t even know the price of a gallon of milk, because their People take care of things like that for them. "People!" we almost hear them say, "I ain’t ‘people’! I’m a — (rattling newspaper) ‘shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmaMENT!’"
Well, we, the people, aren’t stars in any firmament but terra firma. We’re the ones on the ground. We’re the ones who ought to count, we certainly outnumber the millionaires and billionaires. And until we collectively come to our sense and realize that we can’t protect the possibility of something that will likely never happen to most of us, that we should instead protect the freedoms we’re losing and our health and our jobs and the reality of being middle-class before we truly are poor — the rich pretty birds are always going to win, even as they share Cokes (after all, corporate sponsors are rich too), flock together and drop their little presents upon us.
Elayne Riggs can be found blogging about politics, comics and whatever else strikes her fancy at Pen-Elayne on the Web.