October 24, 2004
Where Have You Gone, Engaged Citizenry?
A writer mulls our focus on the trivial
Not us, of course, but some people in this election season aren’t
paying much attention to the issues. There’s that cloud of
orange alerts circling overhead, grim war news pouring in relentlessly,
and no flu vaccine, but we are busy obsessing about the curse that
Ruth built or, at our most engaged, which candidate we’d rather
kick back and relax with.
“I can think about Bush’s tax policy, about which I
can do nothing, or I can think about his cocaine use,” says
Jay Cantor, author of Great Neck, Krazy Kat,
and The Death of Che Guevara, novels whose characters
are passionately involved in their times. He and I are hunched over
our coffee in the People’s Republic, talking about why, in
this time when so much is critically important, we are eager, instead,
to be entertained. It’s the Scott Peterson trial, the Dan
Rather apology that draw our attention away from questions about
social security privatization, adequate military funding, alternative
fuel development. What reaches out and grabs us is the constant
parade of advertising and entertainment images and gossip passing
for news, what Cantor refers to as “the spectacle.”
His argument is that it happens precisely because things are so
important, and so seemingly out of our hands.
“If I can have no substantive effect on what is happening,”
he says, “what’s more entertaining is what I’ll
turn to. The spectacle is overwhelming and interesting, and it is
so omnipresent and the techniques are so good.”
The election spectacle, on the other hand, now lasts as long as
the term of office and has been known to cause serious campaign
fatigue, especially here in a state that already has its assigned
color. Some citizens of the Athens of America continue to follow
every detail, to be sure. But it gets harder to concentrate all
the time, especially since the television networks declared themselves
officially irrelevant last summer with their truncated convention
coverage. And when some of the most cogent commentary is on the
Comedy Channel. But even if we remain engaged as war deaths mount
and America edges farther from the international community, we seem
to doubt that we can have any influence.
“We feel helpless,” says Cantor. “And when I feel
helpless, I watch soap operas. During a divorce, what are most of
us doing? We’re home under a blanket watching soap operas.
Now politics becomes the soap opera. I may feel I have a rooting
interest, but it doesn’t affect the outcome. And if I don’t
think I’m going to have any effect, soap opera is more interesting.”
Politically, Cantor and I both carry a ‘60s sensibility. I
find it impossible to understand disengagement, indecisiveness.
Cantor, who is a MacArthur Prize Fellow and a professor at Tufts,
points out that, in the ‘60s people knew political involvement
was important and felt they could make a difference. And they felt
the difference was literally one of life or death.
“During the Vietnam War if you were worried that you might
die or you felt guilty about those who had died, it focused your
attention. The sheer violence, the possibility of mass atomic death--people
felt not only could the world change, it had better change. The
successes of the civil rights movement gave people the sense that
the world could be entirely different. Drugs played a role, too.
It made people feel that their community, their work could be erotic,
pleasurable, that nothing was fixed about the world.”
In the 2000 election, by contrast, Cantor says, the feeling was
that history was, in some real way, over, that whatever the outcome,
the difference would be imperceptible. Although one sunny September
morning and two subsequent wars ended that illusion, it somehow
did not dislodge our sense of being powerless in the process. This
election is poised to teach us either that we can have an impact
or that we’d better.
reading now: As he thinks about his next book, Jay Cantor is reading
about the English revolution. On his reading list are The Experience
of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries and The
World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, both by Christopher Hill. I’m reading Starting
in Our Own Backyards , a look at family, work, and community,
by Ann Bookman, who is the director of the MIT Workplace Center.
What are you reading? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Past columns are at ellensteinbaum.com.