This afternoon, as the Kerry motorcade headed for Faneuil Hall, those of you still watching might have noticed the CNN ticker mentioning that the last votes in the state of Ohio were cast at 4 o’clock this morning at Kenyon College. That’s the school I graduated from in June of 2000, a few months before the last time we felt this way, and so did some of you. The ticker described it as “near Columbus,” which it isn’t—it’s an hour and change northeast, on a hill, surrounded by forests and not very far from a chest-high river called the Kokosing, and living there for four years feels how you imagine it would. Aside from the fact that Bill Clinton was president, I knew nothing about politics at that time. I never opened a newspaper, used the internet only for, shall we say, “amusement,” and never turned on a television for any reason other than “The Simpsons” and, occasionally, “The Daily Show”—in the Craig Kilborn years, when all it had to do was make fun of hicks and celebrities. “Politics” to me meant the politics of the English seminar—rather than debating gay marriage with conservatives, I debated whether or not Hamlet was gay, with other liberals, who seemed like my enemies at the time.
On election night of 2000 I was living in Iowa, and still didn’t care that much. I was upset that Bush “won,” but for predominantly superficial reasons—he was poorly-spoken, and too religious, plus he reminded me of the smug rich kids I went to high school with. The idea that he’d ever actually do anything that bad seemed like an overdramatization. I still never read the papers or watched TV and, since basically every single person I had reason to talk to in the course of a typical day was in the most liberal one-thousandth-of-a-percent of the country, was still having no arguments aside from some about literature, which were now more esoteric than ever.
Those of you who led similar lives may imagine that these things changed for me much in the same ways they did for you. I was disturbed by the alacrity with which conservative extremists took the second Bush’s administration as a mandate to up the ante. I was exasperated by how the mainstream media gave increasing credence to viewpoints that would once have seemed like punchlines, so much so that there soon no longer were mainstream media. I was disgusted by the phony patriots who stood at attention as soon as they found out that “brown folks” were behind 9/11, when only that morning I’d heard them laughing because something terrible had happened to New York. I could barely stand it when the administration had the gall to imply—and the people had the slack-jawed credulity to believe—that protecting America from further disaster somehow necessitated compiling lists of college students who’d had abortions and imprisoning an elderly Tommy Chong.
In short, I was where you all were at every step of this year—sending imploring e-mails to friends and all my spare cash to the DNC; sitting down at the computer with breakfast and clicking from one enraging link to another until noticing that, somehow, the sun had set; unable to restrain myself from overstepping the bounds of professionalism in the classroom—and I am where you are now: slowly regaining my appetite; weathering the sudden, periodic aftershocks of shaken breath and clouded vision; finally accepting that there will be no suddenly-at-the-last-second in which Gollum will lose his balance and tumble, causing the ground to yawn, the black clouds to part and dissolve.
I have also, like you, been scrolling through the list of consolations in my head, trying to find one that feels right: that this sets up Hillary in ‘08, or Obama in ‘12; that Bush will now screw things up so badly everyone will finally see we were right . . . Here is what I’ve settled on.
Firstly, that we were spoiled by coming of age under Bill Clinton. It made the idea of the President’s being a sharp, likeable human being who does the job well seem normal; ask anyone our parents’ ages, and they will tell you that a worthless joke of a president is the rule, not the exception. It makes sense for us to be disappointed, but not to be shocked: continuously expecting the President to not suck is like getting really excited whenever a rock critic calls someone “the new Beatles”—it wastes energy you don’t have, and it’s not going to happen. It is entirely likely, however, that no president will be quite as bad as Bush again anytime soon. High School lasted for four years too, but here we all are anyway. The next Republican president, whenever this happens, is going to be either Giuliani or McCain, and neither will be anywhere near as bad as Bush; neither will be in the pocket of those who pervert religion in a manner far more heinous than any of the supposed “perversions” they traduce; neither will make any use of messrs. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Ridge, Wolfowitz, or Ms. Rice. We will never see any of these people again after the next four years are over.
Secondly, and most importantly, I’d like to remind you all that we haven’t actually lost. We never lose. There has not been a single showdown in human history between a liberal idea and a conservative idea in which the liberal idea has not eventually won—and not only won, but become so ingrained into the culture’s consciousness that it is thereafter referred to as “common sense.” Gandhi said something that very closely resembles this, but I can’t find it. The bottom line is, my conservative students who are laughing right now will still have to live with themselves in fifty years when their grandchildren look up at them and ask “Can you believe there actually used to be people who thought it was bad to be gay?” Today, when those documentaries about desegregation come on, where the courageous black students are fighting their ways through an angry crowd of racists, you never see an old white guy with a crewcut jump up and go “That’s me! The one with the broken bottle!”
These people also never write books or make movies. We do those things. Karl Rove, for all his dastardly genius, can never in a million years assemble a Swift Boat Veterans for Comedy, or for Poetry, or for any medium by which the truth is burnished for the future—he cannot do this because genuine creative talent of the enduring brand is inherently polarized from conservatism. Remember how, before you were old enough to know anything at all about politics, you still knew that you were supposed to dislike some guy named “Nixon,” because you’d heard him made fun of on so many sitcoms, lampooned in so many cartoons? Well, Nixon was elected twice too—the second time in a landslide. And whenever I, and millions of others my age, hear his name, we think of counterculture comedians like George Carlin doing him vindictive justice; songs by the likes of John Lennon, Neil Young, and David Bowie doing the same; and the fact that, just a short while before his death, he was still an accessible enough go-to object of ridicule to be depicted delivering a floppy-joweled “Yes, Master” to Satan on the Simpsons Hallowe’en Special. People who were not even born yet when Nixon boarded that helicopter are still making fun of him on a regular basis. And when a Nixon joke gets cracked on a TV show, the whole audience laughs—not just half of it.
And Nixon even did a few good things. Bush is a thousand times worse, and a full half of the country hates him already. The fact is that nothing and no-one can stop George W. Bush from going down in history as an object of fun. Those of you who don’t live in liberal parts of the country might have to put up with whatever bumper sticker becomes this year’s version of “Sore Loserman” for a little while, and we’ll all have to put up with what will surely be four more years of unparalleled incompetence, but just keep reminding yourself that it’s actually the future, we’ve already won, and you just happen to be stuck in a time warp. Certain politicians have ways of bringing about their own destruction—the result of the first half of the second Bush’s presidency is that infinitely more people are paying attention to politics. I myself, perhaps like many of you, have found a drive to effect change that I didn’t know I had—one that will far outlast this administration. I feel a sense of purpose with my work as well, that can often be more frustrating, but is ultimately more satisfying, than “art for art’s sake.” And I feel kinship with a far wider range of people than I ever have before; I see that I have no true adversaries but the hateful and willfully ignorant, and see in the faces of many of my students the distinction Rev. Sharpton made between the “Christian Right” and the “Right Christians.” The intolerance of the neocons has made me more tolerant than I ever would have otherwise been, and I would like to remind you all here that the vast, vast majority of those who voted for Bush would need only a few conversations with one of us—or with any for whom the delta of beauty and despair has washed away all distinction between the love of learning and the light of what has been many times called the human soul—to let rise in themselves that humanity so integral to the continuance of the term itself, and too commonly girded with the weighted belt of fear. The grace with which we will one day accept their apologies must outweigh even the pain with which we have thus far accepted their abuse. All in all, conservatism of their stripe is merely traffic; it only makes it take longer to get where we’re going. Far more children of conservatives become liberal than children of liberals ever become conservative. The lingering effects of Good are good, and the lingering effects of Evil are, eventually, also good. We will all see this not so many years from now, when some children’s cartoon show establishes that some twitchy, sail-eared furball character is an arrogant nincompoop by having him lean forward on one elbow, smirk, and mispronounce something, and a child asks who “George W. Bushbaby” is supposed to be. America will see a day when everyone gives that child the right answer.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/cook.html]
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